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Desert Solitaire
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Kant And The Platypus: Essays On Language And Cognition

Kant And The Platypus: Essays On Language And Cognition
Umberto Eco

Kant And The Platypus: Essays On Language And Cognition
There was a time, not all that long ago really, when I was a starry-eyed undergraduate English major, applying for graduate programs in Linguistics. I was a boy enchanted with language, mesmerized by the oscillation between signifier and signified, obsessed with Structuralism, haunted by semiotic interpretations of just about everything. However, while I was intimate with Saussure and his chums, what I didn’t have was formal background or education in linguistics, and I didn’t get into graduate school. Upon reading Kant and the Platypus, I heave an enormous sigh of relief at my good fortune.
It’s not that Kant and the Platypus is a badly written book; it isn’t (although the translator does make some egregious grammatical errors that the editor apparently didn’t catch). It’s just that — now that my days of interest in formal linguistic and semiotic study are mostly under the bridge — the subject matter strikes me as so astoundingly trivial, even banal. For example, the first 56 pages of the book constitute an essay on the infinitive verb ‘to be’. Fifty-six pages. And we aren’t talking about complicated issues of ontology or how we know we exist, or anything like that. It’s fifty-six pages on why the verb ‘to be’ is the basis of all cognition and language. And while I don’t disagree, and don’t even find the idea disinteresting, I don’t find it sufficiently complex to warrant nearly sixty pages of exposition. The remainder of the book proceeds in a similar vein — pages of exposition detailing the complexity of seemingly intuitive ideas.
For students of cognitive philosophy and semioticians, Kant and the Platypus is probably a delightful text. For pragmatists such as myself, it prompts the most basic of all questions, “Why?”, followed closely by its sidekick, “Who Cares?” The ideas presented are good ones, well thought and well articulated, and ultimately irrelevant to almost everyone outside of the aforementioned disciplines. Which, I suppose, is really more of a shortcoming in my decision to read the book, rather than in Eco’s decision to write it.