Umberto Eco and the lift: tribute to a great

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“He showed how not only to understand culture, in general, but to create new culture that way. That is what this man was about. Not only that, he loved it, he enjoyed every minute of it. To be with Eco was to just enjoy life.” Umberto Eco passed away about one year ago, in mid February 2016 and this is the description made by his friend, George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Umberto Eco was so many different things: a semiotician, an essayist, a philosopher, a literary critic, a university professor and a novelist. He wrote academic texts, children’s books and many essays. He was described in so many different ways: “the man who knew everything”; “author and explorer”; “the writer who changed Italian culture”; “the master who brought Italian culture to the whole world”. He was also defined as “an extraordinary example of a European intellectual, combining unique intelligence of the past with a limitless capacity to anticipate the future”.
Probably, not all of you do remember he once mentioned also elevators. He did it in his book “Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition”. Eco explored in depth questions of semeiotics, cognitive science and philosophy. The book has been described as “a tour of the world of our senses, told by a master of knowing what is real and what is not”.
Elevatori wants to pay a tribute to such a giant of culture by publishing part of the paragraph of the book “Some misunderstandings regarding prototypes” in which elevators are described.

Some misunderstandings regarding prototypes – Umberto Eco

Prototypes have enjoyed and still enjoy vast popularity in psychological literature, but their history is fairly complex, partly because the person who has worked most on them, Eleanor Rosch, has successively changed her mind about their nature.
(…)
The story of prototypes springs from a series of questions, from Wittgenstein to Rosch, that regard family resemblances, centrality (the idea that some members of a category are better examples than others), gradience (the hen is seen by many as less of a bird than the sparrow), linguistic economy (the fact that language uses shorter and more easily memorizable words for things that appear as organic wholes rather than a set or class of morphologically different objects). But this, (…) proves the fact that there are basic categories that depend on the perception of forms, on our motor acts, and on the facility of memorization, and that on this level speakers name things that manifest “an integrity of their own” and are “human-sized” with greater ease.
(…)
In point of fact Rosch makes it clear that the prototype is neither a member of a category nor a precise mental structure but, rather, the result of an experiment that aims at collecting and quantifying judgments on the degree of prototypicality. What does degree of prototypicality mean? We are said to have an identification of prototypicality when a member of a category is assigned the greatest number of attributes that it shares with other members of the category.
Now, the subjects who attribute to vehicles in general only two properties (of moving and of transporting people), tend to identify a motor car as the prototype of vehicle (with about twenty-five characteristic features) and to put the bicycle or boat on lower levels, while reserving the lowest places in the ranking for the lighter-than-air vehicle and finally the elevator. The elevator is attributed with only two properties (of moving and of transporting people). But in that case, the elevator ought to be the prototype of Vehicles, seeing as it presents precisely those properties common to any vehicle and would therefore allow us to relate even the most diverse species and tokens to vehicles. In any categorial order, the superordinate genus must have fewer features than the subordinate species, and the species fewer of the individual tokens that make recognition possible”.

By Fabio Liberali

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