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OMG. I disagree with Umberto Eco!

It makes me very nervous to disagree with Umberto Eco because he is so fathomlessly smart. But I think in this case I do. Sort of.

There’s a fabulous interview with Eco in Spiegel (in English) about why he loves lists. He is characteristically pithy, provocative and wise. A crucial paragraph, from the beginning:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

I read the first sentence and was provoked, as Eco intends. Lists are the origin of culture? Please say more! But Eco doesn’t really explain, in this interview, why lists — as opposed to other forms of collections and orderings — are so important. The urge to make order, yes, but not lists themselves.

A list is one particular way of creating order. Lists are sequential and one-dimensional: Wines listed by year, or by place, or by ranking, or by the chronology of when you first encountered them. (Lists can be hierarchical, but they’re only lists if they can be resolved back down to the one-dimensional.) Lists thus are one elemental way of ordering the world. And they have a peculiar fascination, which Eco expresses beautifully. But I think it’s wrong to say that they’re the origin of culture. I think it’d be more accurate and useful to say that culture originates with collecting: Pulling things around us because of their appeal (a word I’m purposefully leaving vague).

I’m sure I’m making too much of Eco essentially drumming of interest in his exhibit at the Louvre, but the issue matters a little bit. I think (based on little to nothing) that lists emerged as a stripping down of multi-dimensional collections. Culture first happened (I imagine) when we pulled together pieces of the world that spoke to us in ways we could not articulate. We assembled them as spaces through which we could wander, or piles through which we could collectively sort (“Oooh, I particularly like that green shiny stone!”). Lists are an abstraction, and culture began (I suppose) with an unarticulated sense that some things go together — and perhaps our first conversations were about why.

Eco goes on to say many wonderful things about why we have liked lists, including proposing that listing properties of an object can liberate us from looking for the definitional essence of things. (For more on this, read his important book, Kant and the Platypus.) In fact, Eco suggests that a mother defines a tiger to her child “Probably by using a list of characteristics: The tiger is big, a cat, yellow, striped and strong.”

I have a bunch of issues with that.

First, that type of definition really just makes explicit what’s implicit in the traditional approach to definitions as essence. In the traditional Aristotelian approach, the essence is the creature’s spot in the hierarchy of beings. So, a tiger is a species of cat, and thus would be specified by its difference from other cats but also by all of the properties of the classes above it (mammal, vertebrate, animal, etc.). The essential definition and the list definition both consist of a list of properties, but the essential definition nests them so that they don’t all have to be spelled out, and so we can see which differences “count.” Eco says, “The essential definition is primitive compared with the list,” but it seems to me that a beautifully nested, hierarchical system of essential definitions is in fact more advanced — it requires abstraction and systems thinking — than a mere list.

But, I don’t want to miss Eco’s essential (so to speak) point here, which is that defining something with a list breaks us out of the notion that there is a single, knowable essence. Absolutely. There’s no eternal essence, “just” a set of properties that are relevant depending upon our circumstances. With that I wholeheartedly agree.

My second problem with this is that — as George Lakoff says in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, explicating and expanding the work of Eleanor Rosch — the mother (heck, maybe even the father) probably actually teaches the child what a tiger is by pointing at one, or at a picture of one. We learn through prototypes, not through essential definitions, and not by making lists. List-making is an abstraction and a secondary activity.

Third, the listing the parent does seem to me to not have the properties that make lists captivating to Eco. The parent isn’t trying to give a complete listing that brings a sense of mastery over the infinite and over death. She’s just pointing out some of the salient features. If it is a list, it’s not a list of the sort that Eco has charmed us about.

Fourth, while lists of properties are a useful corrective to thinking that things are exhausted by a definition of their essence, lists strip out so much that they don’t seem like much more adequate than essential definitions. A tiger isn’t a list.

This is just a fun interview in Spiegel, so I may be taking it too seriously. So, even if lists occur within culture — including the lists in literature he points to — rather than being the origin of culture, the interview does indeed help us to see why our fascination with lists is a fascination with something bigger than lists.

42 Responses to “OMG. I disagree with Umberto Eco!”

  1. “a beautifully nested, hierarchical system of essential definitions” may be, as you say, “more advanced” than a simple list — but only if such a system of essential (and generally accepted) definitions already exists, as it does, say with Linnaeus’s classification of plant and animal kingdoms. It’s another story altogether when one is working without a net, so to speak, and the “essential” abstractions are inadequate, or are hotly debated. the following list enabled me to demonstrate (or at least suggest) some shared qualities that I’ve been mightily stuck trying to describe in terms of immutable, irreducible essences.

    more at…

  2. The biggest problem is to define what Eco means with lists. Eco is against the Aristotelian views (definition of primitives gives you the meaning of the element) and he follows Perice’s semantic: elements have “meaning” not because we have a list of “primitives”, but meaning is given from the relations, the links, that the subject create between the different elements. We don’t have to think lists as fixed elements, but as fluid fields. If we follow Peirce (“We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts” and “We don’t have conception of the absolutely incognizable”) we see the lists are instruments to “cut” and make comprehensible the culture: but these definitions are not absolute, they are both private and public, and always specific and local (we don’t have a global culture or a global list ).

    The other problem was about prototypes, but, first of all, is what is a prototype? A mental image that comprehends some element (a list of properties) that Eco calls “Tipo Cognitivo” (Cognitive Type). If a mother shows to her child the picture of a tiger she doesn’t gives a prototype: is the child himself that creates one. But, let’s forget about images: how we give prototypes when we don’t have images? By giving a “list” of properties, that Eco calls “Contenuto Nucleare” (Nuclear Content): these properties are shared between a community (for example everybody in Italy, if you ask to define pizza will tell you the object that have the x,y,z properties, a German will tell you that is has d,f,g properties).

    The incredible thing about lists is that they are shape-shifters and are the fundamental object that allows people to understand reality.

    Hope I didn’t spoke too much and made things more clear about Eco’s thoughts :) (I just love Eco and talk about culture and semiotics.)

  3. Wow, that’s surprising – I must read carefully Eco’s interview and make my opinion. Umberto Eco is the giant of thought. I read his novels (MFQL, Name of the Rose, and of course Foucault Pendulum – always amazed about his wisdom behind the narration. I’m now reading “The Search for the Perfect Language” – and it is so great…

  4. Typically, a mother points to an image of a tiger in the context of a children’s book… where, typically, the child sees other images – of other animals. Basically, the mother points to an item in a list.

    The list (the images of the other animals) is the context that gives the child the ability to see the differences and the similarities.

    So… how do we get what a tiger is – by looking at a tiger per se (prototype) – or by looking at a set (list) of animals… and a set of of animals vs. a set of plants vs. a set of cars… and so on…?

  5. When you see something (x) you don’t say “not y”, you say “it’s x”.
    We get the tiger prototype just by watching the tiger by itself: when you see an object you select some significative properties (significative for the person who’s looking) that allows you to recognize it.

  6. pierotaglia,

    Do you ever watch a thing by itself… before knowing anything about the thing?

    A tiger especially… by itself… where… in the jungle? Before your mother showed you the book about the jungle? Before you ever heard other people say things about tigers? Before you had pointers to where the thing “tiger” stands in the order (lists of lists) of things?

  7. I read that interview and it seems to me you are perhaps making much about what was, basically, promotion.

    But it sure is fun to watch you. Well done.

  8. emil,

    Let’s stay on the tiger. “Where” i see the tiger is meaningless: the prototype of tiger is the list of element that allows to recognize that object: for example a big orange thing with black stripes that look dangerous (it’s just an example).
    The fact that a tiger lives in a jungle, or in a zoo, that is a mammal, and related with the family of felidi is knowledge, isn’t related with the prototype and with the recognition.
    The same with other objects

  9. Howard, I agree that I’m making too much of it. I actually thought I’d mentioned in the post that the interview is really a promotion for his Louvre exhibit, but I seem not to have included those words. I guess I didn’t think them loud enough to make it onto the page :)

    I’m enjoying the discussion in the comments. Thank you. It still seems to me that Eco is here (in this promotional piece that we shouldn’t take too seriously) having it both ways. If he means by “lists” any set of characteristics, then it’s not surprising that lists are the origins of culture. But if he mean by “lists” sequentially ordered one-dimensional arrays, then it’s shocking that lists are the origins of culture. The lists that he opposes to essential definitions are not lists in the one dimensional sense. They are swirls of properties, some of which are implicit, dependent on why the thing is being defined and how it presents itself to us, in deep, n-dimensional relationships to one another. To call them simple lists is to choose to shock (and amuse) us at the expense of the richness of the phenomenon he’s describing.

    That’s fine. He’s being colorful and provocative. I’m all in favor of that, because it gets us going. But, taken as a strict piece of thought (i.e., to take it as it should not be taken), I still think I disagree with Umberto Eco. OMG.

  10. piero… how (where from) do you know what things like “orange”, “big”, “black”, “stripes”, and “dangerous” are?

  11. I read the interview.

    My feeling is the Umberto Eco thinks of lists in a bit metaphorical way. We (people who have some fixation around web/it/computers) find lists a bit different from other forms of collections. So, initially, I found Eco fascination with lists quite strange.

    But after longer thinking about it – I found that when Eco says “list” he actually means “an order”, “an organized set” – and within such meaning, the sentence: “The list is the origin of culture.” has a bit different sense…

    BTW, there is funny fact mentioned in the interview – when it comes to his library, Umberto Eco did not create the list of books (its catalogue). And for that funny, Machiavellian statement in the interview about lists – I love Umberto Eco :-)

  12. emil my mistake to call it that way. Let’s change the example: tiger is the element that as x,y,z properties; those properties comes from your personal experience. Hope I made things more clear :)

  13. I don t understand all this fuss about Eco

    he called himself out of the present 2 years ago when he declared the internet nothing more then a pile of nonsense that will eventually go away

    he declared himself for encyclopedic culture, for order, for selection by experts
    in brief he decided to walk away with the dinosaurs
    he even entered heavily on a debate for the future of newspapers, declaring the editorial process as the only real cultural selection

    my sense is that he decided to stick with the academic status quo in italy and france, 2 of the most conservative cultures in the western hemisphere

    whatever the reason, Umberto Eco has hit the internet and any definition by emergence (as opposed to selection) for so many times now
    that I have personally lost any respect in what he has to say

  14. piero… why (and how) do you make a difference between “personal experience” of “properties” and seeing the picture of a tiger in a book?

    And… how does the tiger “have” the property “dangerous”… is the tiger “dangerous” in him/herself?

    And… is the “tiger” a “property” of the jungle?

  15. David, I think your next post should be on how many angels can dance on a the head of a pin. This group intelligence thing could finally move us toward a definitive answer!

  16. Chris, could you please generate a list of the angels who can dance on a pin? Thanks.

    Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the discussion. Far more important than pin dancing.

  17. emil.. no, there is no difference: watching the picture of a tiger on a book I made an “experience” of this animal. If i read about it, I take some elements from it’s description to create a mental image of the tiger.
    I don’t think a tiger has embedded the property of being dangerous, my mistake to put this attribute in the description: it’s a knowledge. Also i don’t think tiger is a property of the jungle: i will recognize a jungle even without a tiger.

  18. piero… is the tiger “big” in his/herself… or “orange”…?

    If we make (through genetic engineering) a small black tiger (a “bonsai” tiger of a sort)… will we still have a tiger… or will we end up re-inventing the cat?

    If we cause the extinction of tigers, elephants, and snakes – will it still be the jungle we’ve known since our childhood… and our grandparents knew about from their children’s books?

  19. While this thread has focused on the taxonomic, Aristotelian problem of ordering reality as they relate to lists, it might be worth mentioning that if lists are found in early cultural artifacts, e.g. the Iliad, or in moments of exuberant cultural shift, as in Rabelais, they partake as well of the performative nature of the literary. Homer is not merely invoking the topos of the “more than can be said,” he’s demonstrating a staggering feat of memory (the mom of the Muses) – partly as poets were wont to show that what they *can” recall is already more than most humans would aspire to, which therefore becomes evidence of the poet’s status as genuinely inspired by a power above the human pay grade.

    With artists such as Rabelais and Borges, lists become hilarious instances of learning both encompassing and running amok, concatenations artfully designed to produce incongruity, to show where the unexposed kinks in our dry habitual taxonomies are hiding. In a sense, lists have served as a literary mode of assertion – of the power of the poet to summon up, and to put into arbitrary array, the world of common things.

  20. #gianluca baccanico

    I do not think Umberto Eco has hit Internet as you wrote. Where? How? Do you have any references for that claim of yours?

    Contrary, I found him speaking about Internet in such a way – that – we should pay attention to what he had said.

    Find his excellent lecture “From Internet to Gutenberg”.
    What he is warning us about is different thing.

    “Use of the Internet will require what Eco called “a new form of critical competence, an as-yet-unknown art of selection and decimation of information.”

    Don’t you think he is just right ?

  21. Thinking of Homeric lists, or the lists in the Bible, aren’t lists an early means of exemplifying what the participants think are the most important concerns of a culture or society? In that sense, they might be taken as an origin of a particular culture (an origin, givin the fact that culture in general originated among ancient hominids uncounted thousands of years ago).

  22. Mirek

    unfortunatly the worst of the example has long be taken down from the web

    it was here

    an interview he gave to one of his students in which he explained how the internet was ‘an encyclopedia without filters’

    that is like ‘describing a car as a horse without legs’, to put it with walter ong words

    further more I think that as one of the few intellectual in the old continent to address the digital culture he is bad serving the new generations, by playing mainly the role of the grumpy old man that play to scare the young and immatures

    all his public remarks recently has been on the line of ‘be careful of the internet, it s not like a book’

    “a new form of critical competence, an as-yet-unknown art of selection and decimation of information.”

    I think we need a new form of knowledge manipulation more than a filter to establish which information is also in papers and ‘reality’

    a way more difficult task for our culture, that needs to be addressed asap

  23. Here’s an interview that seems to bear out some of what Gianluca says, although Eco seems to have moderated his views somewhat:,47983.php

    It’s interesting that in this interview, he in fact contrasts lists with the Web’s wacky branching structure.

  24. I have a less august take on the role of lists on the origin of culture. Mundane invoices, billing forms and simple inventory are the canonical and oldest uses of lists. The lists that you had to come up with when the tax collector or village chief or whatever authority wanted their cut of your obligation are co-incident with the notion of culture.

    I remember a talk about the deciphering of the Linear B scripts used 5,000 years ago in Crete in the 1950s.$1496

    Those tablets from antiquity were nothing more than lists of sheep, cows and slaves!

    The cultural surplus grew out of bureaucratic concerns. Extrapolating further, the “Render onto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” pronouncement is one of the most astute cultural stratagems ever devised.

  25. koranteng
    I completely agree with you

    even the alphabet comes from signs representing cows (A) bottles (b) and other goods
    they were followed by bars indicating the quantity that were credited to someone
    sorry but these days my web presence is so short I can t browse around for references

    point is,
    are we still in the alphabet frame here ?
    what has 1010100111 has to do with counting sheeps ?

  26. Dawid, Gianluca

    I read the article David found in automated English translation. Well I still did not find that he is against the web. Of course he warns us – and his warnings are not entirely unjustified …

    And I found very funny words he wrote – see how true they are:

    “It is the difference between mild vertigo that give two glasses of whiskey and one provide two bottles of whiskey.

    Le Web, c’est le coma éthylique assuré !
    The Web is ethyl coma guaranteed!

    It’s called the Internet, and it is. Cobweb and labyrinth. A structure that is the opposite of the tree, organized into branches, sub-branches. The list is in fact the opposite order. ”

    Yes – he confirms that architecture of simple list is opposite to what we find on the Web.

    I’m not only sure if Eco finds the importance of links as the most important thing on the net. Seems he ignores their importance…

    Well, I guess I started to disagree with Eco…. OMG :-)

  27. mirek

    now that we all disgree with eco
    I am also upset with him because he do have a big voice
    and probably all these books did make him a typographic man
    that can make him drunk online, agreed
    even in a coma if you wish

    but so why should we listen to drunk people after all ?

    with much conquered soberness


  28. Art is the origin of culture. Language, mathematics, history and the lists they generate appear tens of thousands of years after the first paleolithic images. The dream precedes the thought, the visual image precedes the sentence, and the shamanic predates the philosophic. In order to have a list, you require a language. In order to have a language, you require a brain capable of rational consciousness. Pictographic languages also predate alphabetic ones and languages written on a vertical axis predate those written on a horizontal axis. Lists are referential and literal, yet the first hieroglyphic languages were anagogical and metaphorical. Culture does not begin with the evolution of Western Rational Consciousness. Culture begins with the first image.

  29. Gianluca,

    Reading your last post I think, you misunderstood mine. I wrote mine with a bit ironical disagreement.
    Seriously, I’m sure he knows the essence of the links.
    Seriously, I like the analogy of the state of mind after comprehending what today’s Internet is and being drunk to a stupor. Maybe I will elaborate on this some other day, it’s 5.30 AM here now :-)

    Raymond – your post reads nice, but I think the ability to create an order, a collection, or list – was interwoven with ability to create first image. If you contemplate something like this image you get the gist of what I mean.

    I also do not agree with your statement : “to have a language, you require a brain capable of rational consciousness” – I think, and I could support it by recent research in linguistics, that language is more like an instinct rather than like rational thinking….

  30. One faces infinity, the incomprehensible, the unknowable, and the mysterious without trying to order or organize or understand it. That which is transcendent is beyond rational comprehension. We can help to make that which is unknown into the known, but we are incapable of making the unknowable into the known. Infinity is a metaphor not a determinate quantity. The intent of both religion and rationalism is synonymous: to make that which is inherently unknowable into a believable certainty. Eco is asking us to believe, as he does, that the list is the origin of culture. It is not that I disagree with Eco, but rather that I do not believe what he believes.

  31. Raymond

    That speaks to me ….

    When it comes to contemplation of infinity, of unknowable – its more about, let me say in a bit archaic way – gazement or contemplative insight without attempt to collect or count things.

    Indeed I doubt that Buddist or Benedictine monk meditation has list making component. I doubt that Chassidic eletion in prayer includes collection making :-)

    Good question is however, how important was contemplation of unknowable in making of culture?

    Interesting ….

  32. Yes that is it. We have forgotten in our rational hubris that it is exactly with the contemplation of the unknowable that culture begins. But most today see Culture as the direct result of the evolution of human reason. I do not believe that human intelligence is artificial, or that we are collections of properties, or that consciousness is the result of neurological accidents. Philosophia that begins in wonder and awe disappoints when it ends in certainty. My first experience when I look up into the night sky is not to calculate or to explain but to enjoy a deep sense of awe and reverence for the beauty and majesty of the universe. In seeking to comprehend this mystery, culture is born.

  33. Nice post, David – and lots of engaged comments, too!

    You wrote: “Lists are an abstraction, and culture began (I suppose) with an unarticulated sense that some things go together — and perhaps our first conversations were about why.”

    My sense is that what you’re describing is part of pattern recognition, which – when expressed (in language, in collections, in …lists) – is a marker of human culture. I agree with you that Eco seems to have a one-dimensional view of culture if he (with a dose of hyperbole or not) calls them the origin of culture. An expression of pattern recognition, yes. But only one facet of same. (Disclaimer: IMO ;-) )

  34. I can’t resist a follow-up…

    In the interview (p.2), Eco notes that he probably has ~50,000 books in his personal library. This library puts knowledge at his fingertips. He adds, “I have a hallway for literature that’s 70 meters long. I walk through it several times a day, and I feel good when I do. Culture isn’t knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of information on the Internet in no time. But, as I said, you never know with the Internet.”

    In the paragraphs preceding this comment, he slagged the internet, noting that “for young people, …Google is a tragedy.”

    So, in other words, “Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes” (Google), but only if you’re an old guy with a 50,000 volume library. If you’re a young, unseasoned kid, then Google is “a tragedy.”

    Hm, I think I have a list somewhere of stereotypical (and unchanging-through-the-ages) stuff that old(er) people say about youth and the culture of the day.

    This should go on it!

    Granted, there are problems with how we attend to information (and pattern recognition). But my education in the 60s and especially the 70s (pre-internet) was abysmal (it took me practically 5 years to recover from that disaster before I could embark on any sort of serious study, post-high school), so I’m very suspicious of ye goode olde days.

  35. Ok, one last comment:
    “For the longest time, we have focused on sites of information as a destination, of accessing information as a process, of producing information as a task. What happens when all of this changes?”
    That’s from danah boyd’s talk at the recent Web2.0 Expo. (see )
    Just happened to be reading the text of her talk while thinking about what you just wrote about Eco, and what Eco just wrote about lists, information (lists are information, too, aren’t they?), and culture. What is it Eco says at the end of that interview about change, and the need for change, and what you are if you can’t change? ;-)

  36. […] Umberto Eco emphasized the importance of lists in Spiegel (via David Weinberger) […]

  37. I learned a lot reading David’s post and reading these comments, and then thinking. Thanks to all of you.

    I especially liked this:

    We have forgotten in our rational hubris that it is exactly with the contemplation of the unknowable that culture begins.

    .. and it will continue to bemuse me for some time.

  38. In a sense, Eco is right. Many of the oldest writings that we have are not great literature or history but lists. Inventories of royal storehouses or a population census. A lot of the Old Testament is actually lists.

    People began writing not to record great literature – they already had thriving (& more engaging) oral cultures & practices for that – but to recall the mundane.

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