Umberto Eco

Language, Aesthetics, & Literary Criticism

I. Complete Books

The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas

(Translated by Hugh Bredin.)

Harvard University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-674-00676-3; Paperback $19.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Eco’s first book, this treatise on the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas was originally published in 1956 as Il problema estetico in San Tommaso and revised in 1970 for a second edition titled Il problema estetico in Thommaso d’Aquino, which also contained some material from Sviluppo dell’estetico medievale. It was translated into English in 1988 for Harvard UP.
Here is the introductory note from the back cover of the book:

The well-known Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco discloses in this book to English-speaking readers the unsuspected richness, breadth, complexity, and originality of the aesthetic theories advanced by the influential medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas. Inheriting his basic ideas and conceptions of art and beauty from the classical world, Aquinas transformed or modified these ideas in the light of Christian theology and the developments in metaphysics and optics during the thirteenth century. Setting the stage with an account of the vivid aesthetic and artistic sensibility that flourished in medieval times, Eco examines Aquinas’s conception of transcendental beauty, his theory of aesthetic perception or visio, and his account of the three conditions of beauty – integrity, proportion, and clarity – that, centuries later, emerged again in the writings of the young James Joyce. He examines the concrete applications of these theories in Aquinas’s reflections on God, mankind, poetry, and scripture. He discusses Aquinas’s views on art and compares his poetics with Dante’s. In a new chapter added to the second Italian edition, Eco examines how Aquinas’s aesthetics came to be absorbed and superseded in late medieval times and draws instructive parallels between Thomistic methodology and contemporary structuralism. As the only book-length treatment of Aquinas’s aesthetics available in English, this volume should interest philosophers, medievalists, historians, critics, and anyone involved in poetics, aesthetics, or the history of ideas.

The chapters of the book are as follows:

Translator’s Note

I. Aesthetics in Medieval Culture
II. Beauty as a Transcendental
III. The Function of Nature of the Aesthetic Visio
IV. The Formal Criteria of Beauty
V. Concrete Problems and Applications
VI. The Theory of Art
VII. Judgment of the Aesthetic Visio
VIII. Conclusion


You may read more about this work at the Harvard University Press Web site.

Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages

Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN: 0-300-09304-7; Paperback $12.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Originally published in 1959 as Sviluppo dell’estetico medievale and revised in 1987 as Arte e bellezza nell’estetica medievale, this work was translated into English in 1985. In 2002, Yale University Press placed it back in print. Here is the description from the publisher:

In the first English translation of this authoritative, lively book, the celebrated Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco presents a learned summary of medieval aesthetic ideas. First published twenty years ago and now translated into English for the first time, the book juxtaposes theology and science, poetry and mysticism, in order to explore the relationship that existed between the aesthetic theories and the artistic experience and practice of medieval culture.

You may read more about this work at the Yale University Press Web site.

The Aesthetics of Chaosmos: The Middle Ages of James Joyce

(Translated by Ellen Esrock.)

Harvard University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-674-00635-6; Paperback $18.95. [Browse/Purchase]

A work that has gone through many transformations. Originally titled “Le poetiche di Joyce” as the final chapter of 1962’s Opera aperta, it was revised and published in 1966 as Le poetiche di Joyce: dalla “summa” al “Finnegans Wake.” The work was again revised and translated into English by Ellen Esrock and retitled The Aesthetics of Chaosmos for a 1982 publication. The present Harvard University Press version of the book, The Aesthetics of Chaosmos: The Middle Ages of James Joyce, includes a slight revision of the Esrock translation as well as a new section called “The Medieval Model,” which includes material from a 1969 lecture at Tulsa University.
Here is the introductory note from the back of the book cover:

For Eco, Joyce’s work is the most powerful, radical, and influential embodiment of tendencies that dominate the literature and art of our time – tendencies eloquently described by Eco in The Open Work. Finnegans Wake in particular is for Eco the “open” work par excellence: it is not about a particular subject, for a wide variety of potential meanings coexist in it – none of them dominant. This modernist text presents a field of possibilities and allows the reader to decide what approach to take.

In addition to providing further illustration of the main theme of The Open Work, The Aesthetics of Chaosmos makes a clear analogy between Joyce’s artistic development, as Eco sees it, and Eco’s own personal history. What interests Eco most is Joyce’s move from a Catholic, Thomist position to the disordered, decentered, anarchic vision of life that characterizes Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and is the central characteristic of an “open” work. Yet Eco finds in Joyce’s mature work a nostalgia for the ordered world of medieval thought that is most notably expressed in the symbolic correspondence underlying the surface chaos of Ulysses; Ulysses, he suggests, is a “Thomist summa turned upside down.” Eco began his own writing career in a “spirit of adherence to the religious world of Thomas Aquinas,” a spirit he subsequently lost. Yet a similar nostalgia has expressed itself in occasional excursions into the Middle Ages, culminating in The Name of the Rose, but also apparent in his interest in semiotics.

Eco revised The Aesthetics of Chaosmos for its first translation and publication in English in 1982. It stands as a lively claim for Joyce’s preeminence in modernist literature, and it also provides a key to Eco’s own literary aesthetic and intellectual development.

You may read more about this work at the Harvard University Press Web site.

The Limits of Interpretation

1. Indiana University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-253-31852-1; Hardcover $35.00. Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

2. Indiana University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-253-20869-6; Paperback $17.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Originally published in 1990 as I limiti dell’interpretazione. Here is the publisher’s description:

In this new collection of essays, Eco focuses on what he calls the limits of interpretation, or, as he once noted in another context, “the cancer of uncontrolled interpretation.” Readers of Eco’s other work will find here all the ingredients with which they have become familiar–vast learning, an agile and exciting mind, good humor and a brilliance of insight

You can read review extracts at the Indiana University Press Web site.

Interpretation and Overinterpretation

Cambridge University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-521-42554-9; Paperback $23.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Originally a series lectures delivered in English at Cambridge University (for the same program that originated the “Six Walks” lectures below), Interpretation and Overinterpretation collects these under the editorship of Stefan Collini. It contains an introduction, Eco’s lectures, three papers responding to Eco’s arguments and a final response from Eco. Here the description from the back of the book:

Umberto Eco, international best-selling novelist and leading literary theorist, her brings together these two roles in a provocative discussion of the vexed question of literary interpretation. The limits of interpretation – what a text can actually be said to mean – are of double interest to a semiotician whose own novels’ intriguing complexity has provoked his readers into intense speculation as to their meaning. Eco’s illuminating and frequently hilarious discussion ranges from Dante to The Name of the Rose, from Foucault’s Pendulum to Chomsky and Derrida, and bears all the hallmarks of his inimitable personal style.

Three of the world’s leading figures in philosophy, literary theory and criticism take up the challenge of entering into debate with Eco on the question of interpretation. Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose each offer a distinctive perspective on this contentious topic, contributing to a unique exchange of ideas between some of the foremost and most exciting theorists in the field.

The chapters of the book are as follows:

Introduction: “Interpretation Terminable and Interminable,” by Stefan Collini
1. “Interpretation and History,” by Umberto Eco
2. “Overinterpreting Texts,” by Umberto Eco
3. “Between Author and Text,” by Umberto Eco
4. “The Pragmatist’s Progress,” by Richard Rorty
5. “In Defence of Overinterpretation,” by Jonathan Culler
6. “Palimpsest History,” by Christine Brooke-Rose
7. “Reply,” by Umberto Eco
Notes on the Contributors Index

You may read more about this work at the Cambridge University Press Web site.

Six Walks in the Fictional Woods

1. Harvard University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-674-81050-3; Hardcover $19.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harvard University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-674-81051-1; Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Originally a series of six lectures delivered in English as part of Harvard’s “Charles Eliot Norton” series. Here is the description from the back of the book:

In this book, Umberto Eco shares with us his Secret Life as a reader - his love for MAD magazine, for Scarlet O’Hara, for the nineteenth-century French novelist Nerval’s Sylvie, for Little Red Riding Hood, Agatha Christie, Agent 007 and all his ladies. We see, hear, and feel Umberto Eco, the passionate reader who has gotten lost over and over again in the woods, loved it, and came back to tell the tale, The Tale of Tales. Eco tells us how fiction works, and he also tells us why we love fiction so much. This is no deconstructionist ripping the veil off the Wizard of Oz to reveal his paltry tricks but the Wizard of Art himself inviting us to join him up at his level, the Sorcerer inviting us to become his apprentice.

You may read more about this work at the Harvard University Press Web site.

The Search for the Perfect Language

Translated by James Fentress, Part of the “Making of Europe” Series.

1. Blackwell Publishers, 1995, ISBN 0-631-17465-6; Hardcover $52.95. Out of Print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

2. Blackwell Publishers, 1997, ISBN 0-631-20510-1; Paperback $26.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Part of the “Making of Europe” series edited by Jacques Le Goff. Here is the description from the book jacket:

The idea that there once existed a language which perfectly and unambiguously expressed the essence of all possible things and concepts has occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians, mystics and others for at least two millennia. This is an investigation into the history of an idea and of its profound influence on European thought, culture, and history.

From the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance it was widely believed that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was just such a language, and that all current languages were its decadent descendants from the catastrophes of the Fall and at Babel. The recovery of that language would, for theologians, express the nature of divinity, for cabbalists allow access to hidden knowledge and power, and for philosophers reveal the nature of truth. Versions of these ideas remained current in the Enlightenment, and have recently received fresh impetus in attempts to create a natural language for artificial intelligence.

The story Umberto Eco tells ranges widely, from the writings of Augustine, Dante, Descartes, and Rousseau, arcane treatises on cabbalism and magic, to the history of the study of language and its origins. He demonstrates the intimate relation between language and identity and describes, for example, how and why the Irish, English, Germans and Swedes – one of whom presented God talking in Swedish to Adam, who replied in Danish, while the Serpent tempted Eve in French – have variously claimed their languages as closest to the original. He also shows how the late eighteenth-century discovery of a proto-language (Indo-European) for the Aryan peoples was perverted to support notions of racial superiority.

To this subtle exposition of a history of extraordinary complexity, Umberto Eco links the associated history of the manner in which the sounds of language and concepts have been written and symbolized. Lucidly and wittily written, the book is, in sum, a tour de force of scholarly detection and cultural interpretation, providing a series of original perspectives on two thousand years of European history.

Serendipities: Language & Lunacy

(Translated by William Weaver.)

1. Columbia University Press, 1998, ISBN 0231111347; Hardcover $23.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harvest Books, 1999, ISBN 0156007517; Paperback $12.00. [Browse/Purchase]

In the wake of The Search for the Perfect Language comes this work, a collection of six essays exploring the role of chance and coincidence in linguistics. From

The multitalented Umberto Eco – novelist, critic, and literary theorist – turns his attention to the history of linguistics. In linguistics, as in the other sciences, Eco explains, there are serendipities: “Even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious.” In the five essays in Serendipities, Eco explores some related serendipitous episodes in the history of linguistics; as always, his characteristic blend of playfulness and erudition is bound to be irresistible to any lover of language.

The first essay, “The Force of Falsity,” discusses false documents with momentous repercussions, such as the letter of Prester John, which encouraged European explorers and conquerors to seek its supposed author, the Christian ruler of a distant and fantastically wealthy land. In the second essay, Eco considers Dante’s relation to the idea of the perfect language. The third essay discusses early misinterpretations of Egyptian, Chinese, and Mexican ideograms. The Jesuit savant Athanasius Kircher, for example, devoted page upon page to mystical interpretations of a hieroglyph that later turned out to represent nothing more profound than the Greek letter lambda. The remaining two essays are devoted to single authors: “The Language of the Austral Land” concerns Gabriel de Foigny’s instructive parody of contemporary attempts to devise the perfect language, while “The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre” endeavors, with indifferent success, to make sense of the counterrevolutionary Savoyard’s musings on the nature of language.

Experiences in Translation

(Translated by Alastair McEwen.)

University of Toronto Press, 2000, ISBN: 0802035337; Hardcover $19.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Here is the description from the publisher:

Translation is not about comparing two languages, Umberto Eco argues, but about the interpretation of a text in two different languages, thus involving a shift between cultures. An author whose works have appeared in many languages, Eco is also the translator of Gérard de Nerval’s Sylvie and Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style from French into Italian. In this book he draws on his substantial practical experience to identify and discuss some central problems of translation. As he convincingly demonstrates, a translation can express an evident deep sense of a text even when violating both lexical and referential faithfulness. Depicting translation as a semiotic task, he uses a wide range of source materials as illustration: the translations of his own and other novels, translations of the dialogue of American films into Italian, and various versions of the Bible. In the second part of his study he deals with translation theories proposed by Jakobson, Steiner, Peirce, and others.

Overall, Eco identifies the different types of interpretive acts that count as translation. An enticing new typology emerges, based on his insistence on a common-sense approach and the necessity of taking a critical stance.

You may read more about this work at the University of Toronto Press Web site.

On Literature

(Translated by Martin McLaughlin.)

Harcourt, 2004, ISBN: 0-15-100812-4; Hardcover $26.00. [Browse/Purchase]

As the title suggests, this work is a collection of essays and lectures on the topic of literature. The book will be published in December 2004, after which Porta Ludovica will review the work more fully. The publisher’s description:

In this collection of essays and addresses delivered over the course of his illustrious career, Umberto Eco seeks “to understand the chemistry of [his] passion” for the word. From musings on Ptolemy and “the force of the false” to reflections on the experimental writing of Borges and Joyce, Eco’s luminous intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge are on dazzling display throughout. And when he reveals his own ambitions and superstitions, his authorial anxieties and fears, one feels like a secret sharer in the garden of literature to which he so often alludes. Remarkably accessible and unfailingly stimulating, this collection exhibits the diversity of interests and the depth of knowledge that have made Eco one of the world’s leading writers.

The table of contents provides a good summary of the topics addressed:

On Some Functions of Literature
A Reading of the Paradiso
On the Style of The Communist Manifesto
The Mists of Valois
Wilde: Paradox and Aphorism
A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor
Between La Mancha and Babel
Borges and My Anxiety of Influence
On Camporesi: Blood, Body, Life
On Symbolism
On Style
Les Sémaphores sous la Pluie
The Flaws in the Form
Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading
The Poetics and Us
American Myth in Three Anti-American Generations
The Power of Falsehood
How I Write

II. Chapters & Collaborations

The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Pierce

Edited by Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok.

1. Indiana University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-253-32535-5; Hardcover $35.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Indiana University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-253-20487-9; Paperback $14.95. [Browse/Purchase]

A collection of essays that deal with the methodological similarites between Poe’s Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, and the philosopher Charles Pierce. Eco’s major contribution is titled “Horns, Hooves, Insteps: Some Hypothesis on Three Types of Abduction.”

Preface: Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok
“Abbreviations in the Text,” by Thomas A. Sebeok
1. “One, Two, Three Spells UBERTY,” by Thomas A. Sebeok
2. “You Know My Method: A Juxtaposition of Charles S. Pierce and Sherlock Holmes,” Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok
3. “Sherlock Holmes: Applied Social Psychologist,” by Marcello Truzzi
4. “Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,” by Carlo Ginzburg
5. “To Guess or Not To Guess?” by Massimo A. Bonfantini and Giampaolo Proni
6. “Peirce, Holmes, Popper,” by Gian Palol Carettini
7. “Sherlock Holmes Confronts Modern Logic: Toward a Theory of Information-Seeking through Questioning,” by Jaakko Hintikka and Merrill B. Hintikka
8. “Sherlock Holmes Formalized,” by Jaakko-Hintikka
9. “The Body of the Dectective Model: Charles S. Peirce and Edgar Allan Poe,” by Nancy Harrowitz
10. “Horns, Hooves, Insteps: Some Hypothesis on Three Types of Abduction,” by Umberto Eco

You may read more about this work at the Indiana University Press Web site.

Fictions Updated: Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics

Edited by Calin Andrei Mihailescu and Walid Hamarneh.
Contains an essay by Umberto Eco.

1. University of Toronto Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8020-6995-9; Paperback $24.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. University of Toronto Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8020-0576-4; Hardcover $60.00. [Browse/Purchase]

This collection of essays contains a contribution by Eco entitled “Thoughts on Aristotle’s Poetics.” The publisher’s description of the collection is as follows:

Novels, movies, and lies – these are all fictions that provoke with their as ifs and what ifs. In response to the idea that fiction has somehow become an unfashionable topic in contemporary criticism, this volume argues that the question of fiction needs to be updated in the absence of a widely accepted theory of truth. This collection, dedicated to the noted scholar and literary critic Lubomir Dolezel, covers an extensive number of theoretical and historical issues relevant to our understanding of the status of fictions – literary or not. Fiction Updated offers approaches to fiction and poetics that, in an imaginary topography of contemporary humanities, dwell at a distance from both the mimetic theory of literature and deconstruction. The contributors introduce new perspectives to the problem of fictionality, or broaden the scope of its applications, by examining the works of such authors as Homer, Casanova, Aristotle, Woolf, Vaihinger, Borges, Kundera, Coetzee, and Bakhtin.

Talking of Joyce

Umberto Eco and Liberato Santoro-Brienza.
University College Dublin Press, 1998, ISBN 1-900621-13-4; Paperback $13.95. [

This is a very small book that contains two lectures about James Joyce: Umberto Eco’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Bachelor” and Liberato Santoro-Brienza’s “Joyce’s Dialogue with Aquinas, Dante, Bruno, Vico, Svevo...”

Red Bar

Go To:

Works Main Page – Back to Works Main Page, where you will find the standard Porta Ludovica menu.

Fiction – Details and reviews of Eco’s three novels.

General Nonfiction – Collections of columns & general essays.

Semiotics – All works on semiotics, including chapters and contributions.

Children’s Books – Books for children.

Collaborations & Contributions – Non-semiotic works written in collaboration with others.

Italian Works – Works that have yet to be translated into English.

Bibliography – An expanding bibliography of Italian and English works.

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8 November 2004