Umberto Eco on lists  

Umberto Eco on lists

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

...At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

...We like lists because we don't want to die.

Here is much more.  Make sure you read the quotation under the photo; I don't want to reproduce it on a family blog. 

I wonder if this interview was translated from some other language, given the difference between "lists" and "enumeration."  Here is an important MR post: Jeffrey Lonsdale writes.

I thank Cardiff Garcia for the pointer.

Posted by Tyler Cowen on November 14, 2009 at 07:57 AM in Education | Permalink


I may be dense, but I'm not sure why this qualifies as insightful. Substitute "language" for "lists".

And I'm not clear on his point about liking lists "for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia."

Unless he's saying that pedophiles are exactly like people who like soccer and lists. Huh?

And what's the reluctance to quote "pedophilia" on a family blog when you quote the number of woman Don Juan allegedly slept with?

Posted by: anon at Nov 14, 2009 9:17:04 AM

Indeed, more pretentious pseudo-philosophy from Eco.

I thought Jeffrey Lonsdale writes made complete sense. Sometimes more means less.

Posted by: Chris Dornan at Nov 14, 2009 9:21:00 AM

The list is a potent information processing tool - think about artificial intelligence oriented computer language LISP (name derives from List Processing).

I suppose that what Eco is driving at is that a written list is probably the original concrete realization of "memory." A narrative or a story can be conceived as a list of events. What you write is a fragment of memory that has a chance of surviving you.

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig at Nov 14, 2009 9:28:42 AM

The list is a potent information processing tool

OK, now I understand. lists combine language AND numbers.

1. Language

Two. Numbers

3. More language

Four. Even more language

Like that?

Posted by: anon at Nov 14, 2009 9:48:32 AM

"If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you're an idiot."

That is at the end of the interview. It is the best quote I have ever seen from Umberto Eco.

Enumerations makes much more sense than lists. I agree that the interview is affected by problems of traslation. They may have been in Eco's mind if thery were not introduced in publication.

Posted by: David Heigham at Nov 14, 2009 10:27:34 AM


The earliest written materials seem to have been lists of commodities, perhaps primitive merchant accounts or tax rolls:

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig at Nov 14, 2009 11:04:37 AM

When European intellectuals open their mouths, what comes out is one part insight, six parts word games, and three parts outright bullshit. He flogs his metaphor like a dead horse.

Perhaps lists, at least the "top ten" variety, have their origins in the dominance hierarchies of social animals. It represented a need to know one's place within the group and keep track of others'. Culture created a myriad of new ways to be superior, beyond mere physical or psychological strength, but in many of these endeavors a one-on-one contest isn't really possible to define (what does it mean for one song to "defeat" another?), so such rankings are often vague, subjective, whimsical and largely meaningless. We have evolved a mental hammer and everything in the universe looks like a nail, as we seek to impose one-dimensional well-ordered rankings on an intricately interlocked multi-dimensional universe. In this sense, lists are indeed primitive.

Posted by: anonymous at Nov 14, 2009 2:45:40 PM

1)English is not my language, but the dictionary says that enumeration means numbered list. So where all this confusion comes from? The meaning of what is written seems clear to me.

2)It doesn't make any sense to write:"Make sure you read the quotation under the photo; I don't want to reproduce it on a family blog". If you find that statement inappropriate and you do not want it to appear on your blog, you simply ignore it. This behavior seems kind of hypocritical to me.

I am sorry, but this is European outspokenness.

Posted by: Isabella at Nov 14, 2009 3:14:52 PM

I think his whole point is that lists are an intrinsic part of being human. However, I think he's a bit simple minded in this regard as memory functions more properly as a web. Lists are non-cyclical paths through that web.

Posted by: Dan at Nov 14, 2009 4:09:04 PM

A penchant for list-making tends to be Aspergery and adolescent. For example, the urge to make lists of favorite movies or songs or books are an attempt to assert one's identity in terms of products consumed. This urge usually declines with age, in favor of attempts to understand why you like some things and other people like other things, although there are prominent to this maturation process.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at Nov 14, 2009 5:26:55 PM

Steve, are you saying that people with Asperger's become less so with age? Or simply that Asperger's is just a form of immaturity? Or is this just a swipe at someone?

Posted by: Eric H at Nov 14, 2009 11:09:42 PM

I have a listless feeling about the direction this debate has taken.

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig at Nov 15, 2009 12:12:53 AM

Edo - The list is the origin of culture.

But culture is like a big river. It originates in a myriad of little trickles. Anybody know where I can find a list of all the tributaries to the Missippi?

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig at Nov 15, 2009 12:17:20 AM

Steve, based on your comment, I wouldn't go so far as to suggest you don't know any aspies, just that you seem to have many prejudices typical of "normal people" or are wholly misinformed. If you know one aspie, you know one aspie.

Saying an aspie has the urge to make lists as an attempt to assert their identity by cataloging their product consumption can't possibly be serious. Rather, this sounds like a perfect summary of "normal" people. They're the ones who are big on signaling and keeping up with the Jones'. Auties don't care; half the time they're collecting items that *society* has deemed to be of no or limited value. This is amounts to your opinion and not (in my opinion) a well formed one at that.

Posted by: kathleen at Nov 15, 2009 10:29:23 AM

1. Continental
2. philosophastering.
3. Must
5. stay
6. awAKE!

Posted by: John at Nov 16, 2009 1:37:50 AM

Concerning the page it came from it is certainly a translation: the original is in German - where list and enumeration are described by the same word (it gets complicatied to translate enumeration to german). And I am not sure if the original interview was in italian, but they did not indicate a translator so it could well be that Eco spoke in German (which after all is a foreign language to him)

Posted by: Arne at Nov 16, 2009 3:32:25 AM

Why the hate? The guy says he likes list and the many ways you see them in history, and the response is that European intellectuals spout bullshit?

Posted by: Zamfir at Nov 16, 2009 3:48:02 AM

2.065, dear Umberto.

In Italia, 640
In Almania, 231
100 in Francia
In Turquia 91
Ma in Hispania...
... in Hispania son gia 1.003

That's 2.065!...
... 2.066 by the end of the opera, and of my life.

Posted by: Don Giovanni at Nov 16, 2009 4:18:27 AM

Umberto Eco's work (Name of the Rose) is a lot like Orhan Pamuk's work (My Name is Red) and it's funny that I came across this post and this one ( in the span of a few minutes.

Both artists revive almost completely deceased cultures in their work, in addition to their "collecting" and "making lists".

Posted by: Liam at Nov 16, 2009 6:49:41 AM

Numero Zero
The Prague
The Vertigo
of Lists
The Name of
the Rose
The Island of
the Day Before
History of
The Mysterious
Flame of
Queen Loana

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