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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Truth and Mirrors: Umberto Eco's Last Stand on Cognition

I took some time off from the Internet, and during that time I was able to (finally) finish Umberto Eco's "Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition." The second part of the book dealt with more than just Cognitive Types, as Eco embarked on a semiotic examination of abstractions that could perhaps only be defined by way of pragmatism. Eco details "The True Story of the Sarkiapone" which becomes more convoluted, funny and entertaining with every turn. The Sarkiapone does not exist; it's an imaginary animal that a passenger in a train pretends to have in his luggage. Another person in the same compartment of the train expresses the idea that he knows everything there is to know about the Sarkiapone (one of those know-it-all people we hate so much). At any rate, as the first passenger continues to change the story of the Sarkiapone and its characteristics (physical and behavioral), the second passenger continues to adjust his "expertise" to match the conversation. In the end, the first passenger reveals that the Sarkiapone does not exist. The second passenger quickly states that he knew it all along, and that he was playing along with the "creation" of the strange animal. Umberto Eco uses this story to illustrate how people construct meaning from definition; that is to say, the Sarkiapone did not exist, but as the first passenger "mutates" the characteristics of the animal, and the second passenger adapts to those mutations, meaning is created out of nothing. It's an interesting trick of cognition and reference of "contract."

Visual cognition as reference of contract is a bit more complicated. What do we see in a mirror? How does the reversal of the image signifies a different type? Eco explains everything from the reversal of the image and the fact that what is returned from standing in front of the mirror is not fully a representation of what stands in front. Why? A reflection is composed of light/color spectrum and the eye perception of the same. Other perception examples include the classic "Mexican riding a bike" image. Why, I wonder, after 500 pages of some of the most insightful meanderings on epistemology, semiotics, etc. did Eco finish this tour de force with this funny trick of perception? Who knows, really. I did enjoy the reading tremendously. I realize now how much I marked this book. Normally, I do a lot of underlining (no highlighters allowed), marginalia, etc., but I think I over did it with this one. I still have two more Umberto Eco volumes to go this year, but before I get to them, I have to play catch up with some others and with my writing. And summer is almost over!

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At 3:05 AM, Blogger Diana said...

I will need to get one of those boks... It seems to be really interesting. Hey, I´m back, I always read your blog (thanks to my bloglines account, and no, I don't get paid for saying it), but until a few days I still was working. So, let's say I'm having my summer vacations. I love your blog, Really love it.
"know-it-all people we hate so much", I know a few of those too.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Simona Ardelean said...

I am fine, but I haven't had time for writing or reading too much. I guess mundane things are the greatest thieves.I am so glad you wrote to me...


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