Umberto Eco

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophy
20th / 21st-century philosophy
Umberto Eco 01.jpg
Name: Umberto Eco
Birth: January 5 1932 (1932-01-05) (age 92)
Alessandria, Italy
Death: February 19 2016 (aged 84)
Milan, Lombardy, Italy
School/tradition: Semiotics
Main interests
Reader-response criticism
Notable ideas
the "open work" ("opera aperta")
Influences Influenced
Joyce, Borges, Peirce, Kant, Aristotle

Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 - February 19, 2016) was an Italian medievalist, semiotician, philosopher, literary critic and novelist, best known for his novel The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa, 1980), an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. In that work he sets up several parallel philosophical conflicts within the novel: absolute truth vs. individual interpretation, stylied art vs. natural beauty, predestination vs. free will, and spirituality vs. religion, bringing the traditional world of medieval Christianity into a dialogue with post-modernism in order to examine the limits of each.

His 1988 novel Foucault's Pendulum has been described as a "thinking person's Da Vinci Code,"[1] and was re-issued by Harcourt in March 2007. He has also written academic texts, children’s books and many essays.

General concepts

Biosemiotics · Code
Computational semiotics
Connotation · Decode · Denotation
Encode · Lexical · Modality
Salience · Sign · Sign relation
Sign relational complex · Semiosis
Semiosphere · Literary semiotics
Triadic relation · Umwelt · Value


Commutation test
Paradigmatic analysis
Syntagmatic analysis


Roland Barthes · Marcel Danesi
Ferdinand de Saussure
Umberto Eco · Louis Hjelmslev
Roman Jakobson · Roberta Kevelson
Charles Peirce · Thomas Sebeok
John Deely

Related topics

Aestheticization as propaganda
Aestheticization of violence
Semiotics of Ideal Beauty


Umberto Eco was born in the city of Alessandria in the region of Piedmont. His father, Giulio, was an accountant before the government called upon him to serve in three wars. During World War II, Umberto and his mother, Giovanna, moved to a small village in the Piedmontese mountainside. Eco received a Salesian education, and he has made references to the order and its founder in his works and interviews.

His father was the son of a family with 13 children, and urged Umberto to become a lawyer, but he entered the University of Turin in order to take up medieval philosophy and literature, writing his thesis on Thomas Aquinas and earning his BA in philosophy in 1954. During this time, Eco left the Roman Catholic Church after a crisis of faith.

Eco worked as a cultural editor for the state broadcasting station Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) and also lectured at the University of Turin (1956–1964). A group of avant-garde artists—painters, musicians, writers& mdash;whom he had befriended at RAI (Gruppo 63) became an important and influential component in Eco's future writing career. This was especially true after the publication of his first book in 1956, Il problema estetico di San Tommaso, which was an extension of his doctoral thesis. This also marked the beginning of his lecturing career at his alma mater.

In September 1962, he married Renate Ramge, a German art teacher with whom he had a son and a daughter. Eco divided his time between an apartment in Milan and a vacation house near Rimini. He had a 30,000 volume library in the former and a 20,000 volume library in the latter.

Eco died at his Milanese home of pancreatic cancer on the night of February 19, 2016 at the age of 84.[2] At the time of his death he was a professor emeritus at the University of Bologna, a position that he had held since 2008.


In 1959, he published his second book, Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale, which established Eco as a formidable thinker in medievalism and proved his literary worth to his father. After serving for 18 months in the Italian Army, he left RAI to become, in 1959, non-fiction senior editor of Casa Editrice Bompiani of Milan, a position he would hold until 1975.

Eco's work on medieval aesthetics stressed the distinction between theory and practice. About 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 Criticism. Later he moved into the field of Semiotics.

During these years, Eco began seriously developing his ideas on the "open" text and on semiotics, penning many essays on these subjects, and in 1962 he published Opera aperta ("Open Work").

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 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 idea. 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 study of language and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis (as did Reader Response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss). He has also influenced popular culture studies though he did not develop a full-scale theory in this field.

Action in anthropology

Eco co-founded Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici (known as VS in Italian academic jargon), an influential semiotic journal. VS has become an important publication platform for many scholars whose work is related to signs and signification. The journal's foundation and activities have contributed the growing influence of semiotics as an academic field in its own right, both in Italy and in the rest of Europe.

Most of the well-known European semioticians, among them Umberto Eco, A. J. Greimas, Jean-Marie Floch, Paolo Fabbri, Jacques Fontanille, Claude Zilberberg, Ugo Volli and Patrizia Violi, have published original articles in VS.

Articles by younger, less famous scholars dealing with new research perspectives in semiotics also find place in almost every issue of VS.

In 1988, at the University of Bologna, Eco created an unusual program called Anthropology of the West from the perspective of non-Westerners (African and Chinese scholars), as defined by their own criteria. Eco developed this transcultural international network based on the idea of Alain Le Pichon in West Africa. The Bologna program resulted in a first conference in Guangzhou, China, in 1991 entitled "Frontiers of Knowledge." The first event was soon followed by an Itinerant Euro-Chinese seminar on "Misunderstandings in the Quest for the Universal" along the silk trade route from Canton to Beijing. The latter culminated in a book entitled "The Unicorn and the Dragon" which discussed the question of the creation of knowledge in China and in Europe.

In 2000 a seminar in Timbuktu (Mali), was followed by another gathering in Bologna to reflect on the conditions of reciprocal knowledge between East and West. This in turn gave rise to a series of conferences in Brussels, Paris, and Goa, culminating in Beijing in 2007. The topics of the Beijing conference were "Order and Disorder," "New Concepts of War and Peace," "Human Rights" and "Social Justice and Harmony." Eco presented the opening lecture.

Eco's interest in East/West dialogue to facilitate international communication and understanding also correlates with his related interest in the international auxiliary language Esperanto.


Eco's fiction has enjoyed a wide audience around the world, with good sales and many translations. His novels often include references to arcane historical figures and texts and his dense, intricate plots tend to take dizzying turns.

The Name of the Rose

Eco employed his education as a medievalist in his novel The Name of the Rose, a historical mystery set in a fourteenth century monastery. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, aided by his assistant Adso, a Benedictine novice, investigates a series of murders at a monastery that is set to host an important religious debate. Eco is particularly good at translating medieval religious controversies and heresies into modern political and economic terms so that the reader can appreciate their substance without being a theologian.

Eco uses the process of solving the murders as an extended metaphor for a reader’s experience of interpreting a text. William’s search for the truth is a reflection of Post-modernist ideas on the relativistic nature of truth and meaning in this process. The various signs and events in The Name of the Rose only have meaning in their given contexts, and William must constantly be wary of which context is relevant when he interprets the mystery. Though William's final theories do not exactly match the actual events, they allow him to solve the abbey's mystery and thus attain a measure of truth.

Eco wrote that during the Middle Ages there was a conflict between "a geometrically rational schema of what beauty ought to be, and the unmediated life of art with its dialectic of forms and intentions." Eco uses several dialogues and events to link these ideas with the desire to resolve the seeming conflict of structured religion with the spirituality. He sets up several parallel philosophical conflicts within the novel: absolute truth vs. individual interpretation, stylized art vs. natural beauty, predestination vs. free will, spirituality vs. religion.

Eco also translates these medieval religious controversies and heresies into modern political and economic terms. This gives the reader a modern context to help them come to their own conclusions about the meaning of the novel and the views of the characters.

As a semiotician, Eco has been hailed by semiotics students who like to use his novel to explain their discipline. The techniques of telling stories within stories, partial fictionalization, and purposeful linguistic ambiguity are prominent in Eco's narrative style. The solution to the central murder mystery hinges on the contents of Aristotle's book on Comedy, of which no copy survives; Eco nevertheless plausibly describes it and has his characters react to it appropriately in their medieval setting, which, however, though realistically described, is partly based on Eco's scholarly guesses and imagination. It is virtually impossible to untangle fact / history from fiction / conjecture in the novel.

Umberto Eco is a significant postmodernist theorist and The Name of the Rose is a postmodern novel.[3] For example he says in the novel "books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told." This refers to a postmodern ideal that all texts perpetually refer to other texts, rather than external reality.[3] In true postmodern style, the novel ends with uncertainty: "very little is discovered and the detective is defeated" (postscript). William of Baskerville solves the mystery by mistake; he thought there was a pattern but it was all in fact accidental. Thus Eco has turned the modernist quest for finality, certainty and meaning on its head leaving the overall plot simply one of accident and without meaning.[3] Even the novel's title is without meaning, Eco saying in the Postscript he chose the title "because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left."[4]

The Name of the Rose was later made into a motion picture starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham and Christian Slater. The Name of the Rose is a creative and biographical tribute to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986), represented in the novel and the film by the blind monk and librarian Jorge. Borges, like Jorge, lived a celibate life consecrated to his passion for books, and also went blind in later life.

Other Works

Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's second novel, has also sold well. In Foucault's Pendulum, three under-employed editors who work for a minor publishing house decide to amuse themselves by inventing a conspiracy theory. Their conspiracy, which they call "The Plan," is about an immense and intricate plot to take over the world by a secret order descended from the Knights Templar. As the game goes on, the three slowly become obsessed with the details of this plan. The game turns dangerous when outsiders learn of The Plan, and believe that the men have really discovered the secret to regaining the lost treasure of the Templars.

The Island of the Day Before was Eco's third novel. The book is set in the Renaissance. A man is marooned on a ship within sight of an island which he believes is on the other side of the international date-line. The main character is trapped by his inability to swim and instead spends the bulk of the book reminiscing on his life and the adventures that brought him to be marooned.

Baudolino, a fourth novel by Eco, was published in 2000. Baudolino is a peasant lad endowed with a vivid imagination and a most unusual capacity for learning the many languages which flourished in the twelfth century. When he is bought by the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa, his world expands: he is trained as a scholar and called upon to create authentic documents by diverse authors.

Eco's work illustrates the concept of intertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works. His novels are full of subtle, often multilingual, references to literature and history. For instance, the character William of Baskerville is a logically-minded Englishman who is a monk and a detective, and his name evokes both William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes (by way of The Hound of the Baskervilles). Eco cites James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges as the two modern authors who have influenced his work the most.[5]


Eco is known primarily to the general public as a novelist, but within academia, he is best known for his important contributions as a semiotician. He made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics and his novel, The Name of the Rose, which includes applied semiotic operations. His most important contributions to the field bear on interpretation, encyclopedia, and model reader.

Honorary doctorates

Umberto Eco was awarded over 30 Honorary doctorates from various academic institutions worldwide, including the following:


1985 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.
1986 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Odense University, Denmark.
1987 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Loyola University, Chicago.
1987 - Doctor Honoris Causa, State University of New York.
1987 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Royal College of Arts, London.
1988 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Brown University.
1989 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Université de Paris, Sorbonne Nouvelle.
1989 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Université de Liège.
1990 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Sofia University, Sofia, Bulgaria.
1990 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Glasgow.
1990 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Unversidad Complutense de Madrid.
1992 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Kent at Canterbury.
1993 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Indiana University.
1994 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Tel Aviv.
1994 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Buenos Aires.
1995 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Athens.
1995 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Laurentian University at Sudbury, Ontario.
1996 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw.
1996 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Tartu, Estonia.
1997 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Institut d'études politiques de Grenoble.
1997 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha.
1998 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Lomonosov University of Moscow.
1998 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Freie Universität, Berlin
2000 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Université du Québec à Montréal, Quebec.
2002 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
2002 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Siena, Siena.
2007 - Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
2008 - Doctor Honoris Causa, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden.

Major Works


  • Il nome della rosa (1980; English translation: The Name of the Rose, 1983)
  • Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; English translation: Foucault's Pendulum, 1989)
  • L'isola del giorno prima (1994; English translation: The Island of the Day Before, 1995)
  • Baudolino (2000; English translation: Baudolino, 2001)
  • La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (2004; English translation: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, 2005)

Books on philosophy

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

  • Il problema estetico in San Tommaso (1956 - English translation: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 1988, Revised)
  • "Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale," in Momenti e problemi di storia dell'estetica (1959 - Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, 1985)
  • Opera aperta (1962, rev. 1976 - English translation: The Open Work (1989)
  • Diario Minimo (1963 - English translation: Misreadings, 1993)
  • Apocalittici e integrati (1964 - Partial English translation: Apocalypse Postponed, 1994)
  • Le poetiche di Joyce (1965 - English translations: The Middle Ages of James Joyce, The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, 1989)
  • Il costume di casa (1973 - English translation: Travels in Hyperreality, Faith in Fakes, 1986)
  • Trattato di semiotica generale (1975 - English translation: A Theory of Semiotics, 1976)
  • Il Superuomo di massa (1976)
  • Dalla periferia dell'impero (1977)
  • Lector in fabula (1979)
  • The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979 - English edition containing essays from Opera aperta, Apocalittici e integrati, Forme del contenuto (1971), Il Superuomo di massa, Lector in Fabula).
  • Sette anni di desiderio (1983)
  • Postille al nome della rosa (1983 - English translation: Postscript to The Name of the Rose, 1984)
  • Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio (1984 - English translation: Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 1984)
  • I limiti dell'interpretazione (1990 - The Limits of Interpretation, 1990)
  • Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992 - with R. Rorty, J. Culler, C. Brooke-Rose; edited by S. Collini)
  • La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (1993 - English translation: The Search for the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe), 1995)
  • Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994)
  • Incontro - Encounter - Rencontre (1996 - in Italian, English, French)
  • In cosa crede chi non crede? (with Carlo Maria Martini), 1996 - English translation: Belief or Nonbelief?: A Dialogue, 2000)
  • Cinque scritti morali (1997 - English translation: Five Moral Pieces, 2001)
  • Kant e l'ornitorinco (1997 - English translation: Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, 1999)
  • Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998)
  • How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays (1998 - Partial English translation of Il secondo diario minimo, 1994)
  • Experiences in Translation (2000)
  • Sulla letteratura, (2003 - English translation by Martin McLaughlin: On Literature, 2004)
  • Mouse or Rat?: Translation as negotiation (2003)
  • Storia della bellezza (2004, co-edited with Girolamo de Michele - English translation: History of Beauty/On Beauty, 2004)
  • Storia della bruttezza (Bompiani, 2007 - English translation: On Ugliness, 2007)


  • Come si fa una tesi di laurea (1977)

Books for children

(art by Eugenio Carmi)

  • La bomba e il generale (1966, Rev. 1988 - English translation: The Bomb and the General'
  • I tre cosmonauti (1966 - English translation: The Three Astronauts')
  • Gli gnomi di Gnu (1992)


  1. Jane Sullivan, Religious conspiracy? Do me a fervour. The Age, December 24, 2004. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
  2. Philip Pullella, Umberto Eco, Italian author of 'The Name of the Rose,' dies at 84 Reuters, February 23, 2016. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0192802392), 32 and 126 for discussion of the novel.
  4. "Postscript to the Name of the Rose," printed in The Name of the Rose. (Harcourt, Inc., 1984), 506.
  5. Umberto Eco, On Literature (Mariner Books, 2005, ISBN 978-0156032391).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford Univ. Press, 2002. ISBN 9780192802392.
  • Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1983. ISBN 9780151446476.
  • Francese, Joseph. Socially symbolic acts: the historicizing fictions of Umberto Eco, Vincenzo Consolo, and Antonio Tabucchi. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006. ISBN 9780838640982.

External links

All links retrieved May 2, 2023.


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