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.