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From the Tree to the Labyrinth

From the Tree to the Labyrinth

Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation

Umberto Eco

Translated by Anthony Oldcorn

ISBN 9780674049185

Publication date: 02/24/2014

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The way we create and organize knowledge is the theme of From the Tree to the Labyrinth, a major achievement by one of the world’s foremost thinkers on language and interpretation. Umberto Eco begins by arguing that our familiar system of classification by genus and species derives from the Neo-Platonist idea of a “tree of knowledge.” He then moves to the idea of the dictionary, which—like a tree whose trunk anchors a great hierarchy of branching categories—orders knowledge into a matrix of definitions. In Eco’s view, though, the dictionary is too rigid: it turns knowledge into a closed system. A more flexible organizational scheme is the encyclopedia, which—instead of resembling a tree with finite branches—offers a labyrinth of never-ending pathways. Presenting knowledge as a network of interlinked relationships, the encyclopedia sacrifices humankind’s dream of possessing absolute knowledge, but in compensation we gain the freedom to pursue an infinity of new connections and meanings.

Moving effortlessly from analyses of Aristotle and James Joyce to the philosophical difficulties of telling dogs from cats, Eco demonstrates time and again his inimitable ability to bridge ancient, medieval, and modern modes of thought. From the Tree to the Labyrinth is a brilliant illustration of Eco’s longstanding argument that problems of interpretation can be solved only in historical context.

Praise

  • Lush, comprehensive scholarship.

    —Kirkus Reviews

Author

  • Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was an internationally acclaimed writer, philosopher, medievalist, and professor, and the author of the best-selling novels Foucault’s Pendulum, The Name of the Rose, and The Prague Cemetery, as well as children’s books. His numerous nonfiction books include Confessions of a Young Novelist, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, and The Open Work (all from Harvard). He was a recipient of the Premio Strega, Italy’s highest literary prize; the Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities; and a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from the government of France.

Book Details

  • 640 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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