Umberto Eco

By Huyghe, Francois-Bernard | UNESCO Courier, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Umberto Eco


Huyghe, Francois-Bernard, UNESCO Courier


The Italian semiotician Umberto Eco became known to a worldwide audience through his best-selling novel The Name of the Rose (1980), a murder mystery set in medieval times which was later adapted into a popular film. This success has tended to overshadow his thinking on questions of communication and other social issues as developed in such books as The Role of the Reader and A Theory of Semiotics. In this UNESCO Courier interview he discusses the wider significance of his work.

* You are a semiologist. You study systems of signs. What relevance does semiology have for ordinary people? Can any practical conclusions be drawn from work such as yours?

--I regard myself as a philosopher rather than a semiologist, but general semiotics could be said to have become the most important branch of philosophy. Semiologists are perhaps more needed today than ever before. We are living at the end of a period of bipolarization; things seemed simpler before, inasmuch as semiologists from either of the two ideological camps appeared intent on analysing and criticizing the other's system, whereas now so many cultures, so many languages and types of discourse are clamouring for attention, sometimes peacefully but sometimes by force of arms, that it seems to me more than ever necessary to compare and contrast the various communication systems or world-views. This is where semiology comes in. I am not so credulous as to think that semiology can bring peace to the world, or that the Republic of Philosophers could ever be established. But semiotics can play a role in education and civics; it can, for instance, inculcate a certain sense of relativity, of diversity and tolerance.

Work needs to be done among the young, from a very early age, three or four onwards, if only to teach them that there are different languages, so that they grasp the idea of diversity, to show them, for example, that in different languages there are many different names for a rabbit, and that those who call a rabbit by some other name are not necessarily barbarians. Since semiology is concerned with all cultural systems and not only languages, it could help to teach children that there are other ways of dressing, other eating habits, in other words different forms of ritual behaviour in different societies, each of which is meaningful within a given society.

That would be one way of teaching tolerance and understanding. If future generations of children could look upon different systems with the same tolerance as semiologists, we would have made extraordinary progress!

Having said that, enabling people to understand each other better is not necessarily a panacea for the ills of the world. Aspirin does not cure all ailments, but there is no harm in sending some to places where there is an epidemic of malaria.

I do not believe, either, that a shared language or culture necessarily means a brotherhood of man: some of the worst conflicts of the last 200 years have been civil wars between people speaking the same language.

* Nevertheless, the mere idea of a certain cultural relativism unfailingly stirs up controversy. Where do you stand in the debate that, rightly or wrongly, sets "cultural relativism" against "universalism"?

--Cultural relativism argues that our understanding of the world takes various forms, from language to religion, and that they lack a common basis of comparison. Taking this argument to extremes, one would have to conclude, for example, that there was no possible way of translating a concept expressed in the language of Hopi Indians into English, or vice versa. That would be absolute cultural relativism. As Thomas Kuhn said about scientific paradigms, they may be incompatible but that does not mean they cannot be compared one with another. The Ptolemaic and Copernican systems are indeed incompatible, but it is possible to compare them, to show their complete independence of one another, but also to understand how the transition from one to the other came about. …

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