Umberto Eco

From Academic Kids

Photo of Umberto Eco by Robert Birnbaum
Photo of Umberto Eco by Robert Birnbaum

Umberto Eco (born January 5, 1932) is an Italian novelist and philosopher, best known for his novels and essays.


Biography and opus

Eco was born in Alessandria, in the Italian province of Piedmont. He is an author and semiotician. He works as a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna.

Eco's work on medieval aesthetics stressed the distinction between theory and practice. In the middle ages, he wrote, there was "a geometrically rational schema of what beauty ought to be, and on the other [hand] the unmediated life of art with its dialectic of forms and intentions" -- the two cut off from one another as if by a pane of glass.

Eco's work in literary theory has changed focus over time. Initially, he was one of the pioneers of "Reader Response." In Opera Aperta, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged, fields. Those works of literature that limit potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line are the least rewarding, while those that are most open, most active between mind and society and line, are the most lively (and, although valorizing terminology is not his business, best). Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather operate in the context of utterance. So much had been said by I. A. Richards and others, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this truth. He also extended the axis of meaning from the continually deferred meanings of words in an utterance to a play between expectation and fulfillment of meaning. Eco comes to these positions through a language study and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis (as such theorists as Wolfgang Iser, on the one hand, and Hans-Robert Jauss, on the other hand, did). He has also influenced popular culture studies though without developing a full-scale theory in this field himself.

Eco employs his education as a medievalist in his novel The Name of the Rose, which was made into a movie starring Sean Connery as a monk who investigates a series of murders revolving around a monastery library. He is particularly good at translating medieval religious controversies and heresies into modern political and economic terms so that the reader can understand them without being a theologian. At the conclusion of that novel, we are left with a monk attempting to reconstruct a library based on scraps and attempting to create meaning by the combination of random pieces of information. This monk is fulfilling the role of a reader.

Although his novels often include references to arcane historical figures and texts and his dense, intricate plots tend to take dizzying turns, he has enjoyed a wide audience around the world, with good sales and many translations. Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's second novel, has also sold well. In Foucault's Pendulum, under-employed publishers decide, as a joke, to weave together the juicy bits of all the conspiratorial histories. They pretend to have uncovered the master plot, the ultimate in nefarious schemes. However, their derisive joke is believed by their readers, and they find themselves caught in a reality made by their fiction. As in The Name of the Rose, characters are obsessed with hermeneutics, and in particular the consciously concealed truth. Also, characters are again dealing with the random or the unintended. Eco's characters partially enact literary theory, as they demonstrate the way that meaning is manufactured by consciousness, and how it may be impossible for any human reading to be without meaning. As in semiotics, it is possible that there is an order antecedent to even the consciously random and that any manufactured meaning is true or false only to the degree that it is believed.

Eco's work illustrates the postmodernist literary theory concept of hypertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works and their interpretation.

Honorary doctorates



See also Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" for background to the novel.
A film of this book was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starring Sean Connery, Christian Slater, Ron Perlman, F. Murray Abraham and Michael Lonsdale.

Books on philosophy

Areas of philosophy Eco has written most about include semiotics, linguistics, aesthetics and morality.

  • "The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas" (1988, Revised) (Il problema estetico in San Tommaso, 1956)
  • "Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages" (1985) ("Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale" in "Momenti e problemi di storia dell'estetica", 1959)
  • "The Open Work" (1989) (from the 1976 edition of Opera Aperta, 1962, with other essays added).
  • "Misreadings" (1993) (Diario minimo,1963)
  • "Apocalypse Postponed" (1994) (Apocalittici e integrati, 1964; partial translation, with other texts added)
  • "The Middle Ages of James Joyce" (AKA The Aesthetics of Chaosmos) (1989) (Le poetiche di Joyce, 1965)
  • "Travels in Hyperreality" (AKA Faith in Fakes) (1986) (Il costume di casa, 1973, Dalla periferia dell'impero, 1977, Sette anni di desiderio, 1983)
  • "A Theory of Semiotics" (1976) (Original English version of Trattato di semiotica generale, 1975)
  • "The Role of the Reader : Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts" (1979) (Containing essays from Opera aperta (1962), Apocalittici e integrati (1964), Forme del contenuto (1971), Il Superuomo di massa (1976), Lector in Fabula (1979)).
  • "Postscript to The Name of the Rose" (1984) (Postille al nome della rosa 1983)
  • "Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language" (1984) (Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio, 1984)
  • "The Limits of Interpretation (Advances in Semiotics)" (1990) (I limiti dell'interpretazione, 1990)
  • "How to Travel With a Salmon & Other Essays" (1998) (Partial translation of Il secondo diario minimo, 1994)
  • "Interpretation and Overinterpretation" (1992)(with R. Rorty, J. Culler, C. Brooke-Rose; Edited by S.Collini)
  • "The Search for the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe)" (1995) (La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea, 1993) on auxiliary and philosophical languages.
  • "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods" (1994)
  • "Incontro - Encounter - Rencontre (1996) (in Italian, English, French)
  • "Belief or Nonbelief? : A Dialogue" (2000) (In cosa crede chi non crede? (with Carlo Maria Martini), 1996).
  • "Five Moral Pieces" (2001) (Cinque scritti morali, 1997)
  • "Kant and the Platypus : Essays on Language and Cognition" (1999) (Kant e l’ornitorinco, 1997)
  • "Serendipities : Language and Lunacy" (1998)
  • "Experiences in Translation" (2000)
  • "Mouse or Rat? : Translation as negotiation" (2003)
  • "History of Beauty" / "On Beauty" (2004) (Storia della bellezza, 2004; Edited by U.Eco, coauthored by Girolamo de Michele).
  • "On Literature" (2004) (Sulla letteratura, 2003)

Books for children

(art by Eugenio Carmi)

  • "The Bomb and the General" (La bomba e il generale, 1966, Rev. 1988)
  • "The Three Astronauts" (I tre cosmonauti, 1966)
  • "Gli gnomi di Gnu", 1992 (not translated yet)


Further, Umberto Eco is an expert on the subject of 007, which adds him to the worldwide group of bondologs ("Bondologists," Scandinavian expression for an expert in the field of James Bond).

James Bond related writings:

  • Il Caso Bond (aka The Bond Affair ) 1966
    by Del Buono and Umberto Eco
    A collection of essays edited by Umberto Eco.
  • Umberto Eco:
    "The Narrative Structure in Fleming" in his The Bond Affair (1966) reprinted in Bernard Waitesr, Tony Bennett and Graham Martin ed. Popular Culture: Past and Present (London: Croom Helm, 1982).

External links


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