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Davide Dal Sasso, Maurizio Ferrari e Ugo Volli
Traduzione di Sarah De Sanctis
p. 3-10

Note della redazione

The introduction has been translated in English by Sarah De Sanctis.

Testo integrale

1The investigation that can be carried out on a given problem often requires taking into account both its characteristics and the theoretical tools that make the investigation possible, as well as the resources that can contribute to feeding and developing it. The research work – or, to use an oxymoron, theoretical practice – is based both on the quality and rigour of the investigation that is conducted on the possibilities and limitations that it encounters while being as coherent and reliable as possible with respect to its object. Ultimately, it is an activity that is also characterised by the continuous verification of the degree of stability that theory can achieve with respect to its explanation of reality.

2However, working on the theoretical level can also mean distancing oneself from reality. In some cases, the outcome can be more than questionable, since in activating the “theory machine” the gears and wheels of interpretation and conjecture can turn so frantically as to lead to explanations that turn out to be much too distant from the facts. The cases in which a thesis is contradicted, an interpretation is denied, a theory refuted or falsified are far from rare. If anything, they occur naturally within the framework of the production of theories that may even end up in smoke.

3The research carried out by Umberto Eco since the second half of the 20th century, immediately following his degree in philosophy from the University of Turin under the guidance of the philosopher Luigi Pareyson, is exemplary in this sense. And it is so for at least three reasons. First, because his findings show how his thinking was continually directed not only at clarifying the objects of his investigations but also, and above all, at the resources, limits and possibilities of the very theoretical elaboration that makes them possible. Second, because it is also on the basis of this methodological awareness that Eco conducted such a wide-ranging research programme. He studied themes concerning aesthetics, communication and medieval thought; he did so by elaborating a semiotic theory and studying language and cognition. Third, because his reflections on the method and the possibilities of theoretical formulation have been crucial for his contributions on numerous topics of philosophical interest.

4These reasons can be identified by retracing his research programme, namely by reviewing his philosophical and semiotic studies. In order to do so, we can briefly consider some of his views that have developed around this theoretical path through a targeted selection of his essays.


  • 1 Cf. Eco [1968b] 1983: 5-6.

5These aspects are already highlighted in one of the books that, we might say, marks the turning point of Eco’s research towards semiotics, namely the collection of essays entitled La definizione dell’arte published in 1968. The sections that make up the volume deal with different themes that can be traced back to three areas of investigation dedicated to historical, conceptual and methodological questions. In the introductory note,1 Eco made it clear that his studies at the time were focusing on aesthetics and mass communication – mentioning the volumes The Open Work (Opera aperta, 1962) and Apocalypse Postponed (Apocalittici e integrati, 1964) – and announced the forthcoming semiological studies dedicated to communication, quoting the book La struttura assente (1968). The essays collected in the volume, while ranging from different themes – from Pareyson’s theory of formativity to the relationship between aesthetics and medieval historiography, from the problem of the definition of art to the characteristics of the open work and artistic experimentalism, to the specificities of interdisciplinary research – show that they are bound by the thread of the analysis of the method. Or rather, the limits and possibilities of research and the tools that can be used to conduct it.

  • 2 Eco [1968a] 2002: 9.

6In the studies preceding the publication of A Theory of Semiotics (Trattato di semiotica generale, 1975), Eco would further highlight the reasons we have identified. In the book La struttura assente (1968) Eco examines semiotic research, its resources and the tools that it can implement in the direction of its objectives. He comes to what he calls the ‘semiological frontier’ – to which he dedicates the final section of the book – through four areas of investigation: the study of the ‘signal’ and of ‘meaning’; the examination of visual codes and their reception in different interpretative fields (from the arts to advertising); the study of the sign in the context of the relationship between architecture and communication; discussions about the nature and specificity of structure as a theoretical device. That Eco’s reflection progresses through its own self-questioning – as if it were a reflection of the influence of Pareysonian formativity, according to which doing finds its way forward by doing – can be seen from the introduction of La struttura assente. In it, Eco points out that when dealing with issues such as information and code, his investigation of the meaning of semiological research discusses the possibility of seeing all phenomena of culture as phenomena of communication. Shortly afterwards, however, he writes: «[o]f course, the question that arises at this point is whether it is reasonable to want to see all phenomena of culture as phenomena of communication».2

  • 3 For more information, see the second part of the afterword of the fifth edition of La struttura ass (...)
  • 4 See the first part of the afterword in Eco [1968a] 2002: I-VIII.
  • 5 Section D has the same title as the book. For more on this, see Eco [1968a] 2002: 251-380.

7In some reflections written between 1971 and 1972 and published in subsequent editions of La struttura assente,3 Eco tackled the theme of structure by highlighting two aspects in particular: the ontological self-destruction of structure and the idealism that influenced some research carried out in the structuralist sphere. These issues would be the subject of further study (published in 1980)4 in which Eco returned to the section dedicated to the theme of ‘structure’5 which in his book offers an epistemology of structural models. In these pages he again underlines the limitations and possibilities of philosophical discussion on the foundations of structuralism, including the successes and failures of its investigations. One of these researches addresses the approach of his own studies, which from an initial semiotics of architecture became an investigation aimed at establishing the relationship between semiotics and structuralist methodology. Eco wrote about this:

  • 6 Eco [1968a] 2002: IV.

Looking back at it now, the project appears too ambitious: on the one hand, I was interested in laying down the principles for a generalised semiological study, and I recognised that this, although it could and should make use of many aspects of structuralist methodology, could not identify with it. In A Theory of Semiotics this problem is abundantly overcome, that is, it no longer exists as a problem. But at that time, I mean 1967-1968, it was not clear what distinguished semiology from structuralism. It was not yet clear that the first, if it was not a science or a homogeneous discipline, in any case was the approach to an object, be it given or posited. While the second was a method to study that and other objects.6

8Eco’s research in semiotics was further defined, before the publication of A Theory of Semiotics, in the books Le forme del contenuto (1971) and Il segno (1973). In the latter, he presents a study on the possibility of codifying a certain element of a communication process within a cultural system. It is a study on the notion of ‘sign’ and the ‘grid of systems of signs’ that make practical or theoretical operations possible. At its basis there is an investigation of the relationship between nature and culture developed by elaborating, as Eco proposes in those pages, a phenomenology of signs motivated as follows.

  • 7 Cf. Eco 1973: 17.

To do it may seem pedantic and byzantine; not to do it means to keep our discourse at an absolute vagueness or metaphorical level. The fact that many philosophers have accepted this last solution is no excuse: on the contrary, it is an invitation to be more rigorous and technical.7

9After stressing the importance of Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic contribution, Eco made two observations in the same book: on the task of philosophers and on the role of semiotics. On the first he presented the following note of methodological criticism.

  • 8 Ibidem: 18.

Now there is no doubt that philosophers must deal with those all-embracing problems which the various sciences, in their sometimes short-sighted and parochial sectoral approach, lose sight of. But dealing with global problems does not mean ignoring sectoral results: on the contrary, it means taking them into consideration and interpreting them (when they have been produced outside the philosophical exercise) or even producing them when philosophy ventures into a field in which specific disciplines have not yet done a reliable job.8

  • 9 Ibidem.

10About semiotics, designated as a «research technique» that allows one to explain how communication and signification work,9 Eco observed in this phase of his studies that it can be developed by exploiting the limitations and possibilities of the philosophical method.

  • 10 Ibidem: 20.

It may be that in the end there will still be dark zones, which a semiotic description cannot clarify for the time being: it will mean that a philosophy of the sign will have to remain in permanent service, venturing hypotheses where semiotic theory leaves empty zones or opens up contradictory situations.10

11What Eco has highlighted through his articulated research programme is therefore a reflection of a methodological nature aimed at also showing the value of the theoretical practice mentioned at the beginning of these pages.

  • 11 Cf. Eco 1988: X.
  • 12 Eco 1973: 21.

12In the preface to The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (Il problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino, 1970), a book that was originally his dissertation, Eco highlighted two important questions concerning philosophy and its possible objects of investigation. No theoretical system is exempt from bearing some kind of contradiction. If anything, being a structural model that aims to make reality temporarily intelligible, a system must contain a contradiction that can undermine its validity. Therefore, philosophers do not have the task of eliminating the contradictions of a system, but rather of seeking them out where they are not apparent.11 Eco has always followed this methodological principle in his research, from the first studies in the field of philosophical aesthetics to the subsequent studies in semiotics. From the latter discipline, indeed, he derives the possibility of cultivating his theoretical practice, precisely «because semiotics is not only a theory, it must also be a form of praxis».12

13The goal of developing a theoretical practice was seminal from his very first writings on aesthetics and the arts, but it appears even clearer in Eco’s research phase dedicated to the attempt to outline a cognitive semantics based on a contractual conception of reference. In Kant and the Platypus (Kant e l’ornitorinco, 1997) Eco clarified his approach as follows:

  • 13 Eco 2000: 5.

In doing this, I try to temper an eminently “cultural” view of semiosic processes with the fact that, whatever the weight of our cultural systems, there is something in the continuum of experience that sets a limit on our interpretations.13

14This issue of Rivista di Estetica proposes to return to the research carried out by Eco in philosophy, semiotics and about the arts in order to bring to light his reflection on theoretical investigation and the development of a practice that can offer important resources for the advancement of today’s research. It is an invitation to rethink those three theoretical areas by drawing on his teachings.

15The volume is divided into three sections dedicated to philosophy, semiotics and reflection on the arts. They are preceded by a text that showcases a philosophical discussion between Umberto Eco, Maurizio Ferraris and Diego Marconi on the dog schema, developing a reflection on Kantian schematism and conceptual applications. In addition to showing three different points of view on the subject, the text offers a dissertation that highlights the natural critical dynamic characterizing philosophical controversies. This dynamic, as Eco observes at the end of the text, is fueled by differences in focus and theoretical vocations. Which is what drives philosophical enterprises in all their possible expressions.

16The first section is dedicated to philosophy. In his essay, Claudio Paolucci retraces the evolution of the idea of ‘system’ in Eco’s studies, offering a reconstruction of the main phases that characterised it, focusing on the concepts of ‘summa’, ‘structure’, ‘code’, ‘encyclopaedia’ and ‘rhizome’. The text highlights the changes that have marked Eco’s research, and the continuous evolution of his thought. This aspect was also crucial for the influence of his philosophy, which is considered by Riccardo Fedriga in his essay, focusing on the objectification of memory and historiographical reconstructions. Fedriga tackles these issues by taking up two of Eco’s research tools, the categories of use and interpretation, applying them to examine the Middle Ages as a historiographical object. Eco’s thought is also characterized by his fine irony and by the acumen with which, both in philosophy and in literature, he has always been able to make his research activity fruitful. These aspects are highlighted by Maurizio Ferraris, who notes how the function of laughter elevated to art and the qualities of erudition are invaluable resources for the activity of a philosopher. In his text, Ferraris therefore presents three forms of comedy (monumental, antiquarian and critical) that characterise Eco’s reflections, thus showing his attention to humour and the refined forms it takes in his studies.

17The second section is dedicated to semiotics. Ugo Volli opens it with an essay that offers a precise reconstruction of Eco’s semiotic itinerary, showing its derivation from his philosophical formation. Volli’s essay highlights how Eco’s semiotics has always affirmed its identity as philosophical research precisely because he considered general semiotics as a fundamental part of philosophy. In addition to introducing some of the characteristics of the discipline, Volli also highlights the relationships between several theoretical fields and different aspects of the cultural climate in which Eco’s semiotic itinerary took shape together with the themes that have characterised it. A particularly important theme for the development of Eco’s thought, linked to his philosophy and addressed in semiotics, was that of the false. Anna Maria Lorusso discusses it in her essay, which shows the evolution of Eco’s thought in his non-fiction and literary production. The theme of falsehood is tackled by Eco in his studies on the sign, which can also be used for lying, in his reflections on the strength of the false in a cultural perspective, and in his novels. In her essay Lorusso therefore shows how Eco’s reflection has developed by examining the themes of lying, falsification and fiction. This latter theme allows Lorusso to recognise that Eco’s novels are the best setting for his study of the strength of the false. The study of signs, and in particular the characterisation of indexes, are another important theme for the semiotic research carried out by Eco. Massimo Leone addresses these themes in his essay, showing how Eco’s contribution to semiotics has also been to find a theoretical balance between deconstructive approaches (according to which cultural habits are purely conventional products) and motivational orientations (which argue for the natural foundation of culturally constructed habits). Leone shows that Eco has achieved this balance by understanding Peirce’s concept of ‘sign’ and making the semiotic nature of indexes manifest.

18The third section is dedicated to Eco’s views on the arts. Literature, on which Eco has dedicated many works and within which he produced his novels, is the first art that is considered in this section. In her essay, Carola Barbero asks what happens when we read a text and how we can understand what is imaginary and what is true in it. To answer this, Barbero returns to the reflections presented by Eco in his book Confessions of a Young Novelist (2011), to investigate the phenomenology of literature together with the themes of immersion and emotional involvement with narrative. Together with literature, music has often been the subject of Eco’s study. In his essay, Stefano Oliva dwells on references to musical production and the themes of listening and interpretation, reconstructing the intellectual and friendly relationship between Eco and the composer Luciano Berio. This reconstruction deals with different phases of Eco’s reflections, from The Open Work to Kant and the Platypus, and also highlights the debate around the concept of ‘open work’ developed especially in the fields of musicology and philological and philosophical research on music. The theme of the openness of the work is explored in depth by Polona Tratnik, who in her essay shows various dimensions that characterise it: in particular, the semantic and the formal one. Tratnik considers different aspects concerning the openness of the work in order to deal with the theme of the loss of autonomy of art, showing that artistic practices of participatory orientation – despite the active participation of the public – would still be characterised by semantic closure. Davide Dal Sasso’s essay concludes the section by presenting an investigation into the role of the concepts of ‘form’ and ‘structure’ in Eco’s philosophical practice. The essay also identifies some principles that can be considered as useful resources for the elaboration of a positive philosophy of the arts, which could be profitably developed taking into account the centrality of the notion of ‘structure’ in agreement with the theses presented by Eco before the elaboration of his semiotic theory.

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Eco, U. 1968a, La struttura assente. La ricerca semiotica e il metodo strutturale, Milano, Bompiani, 5th ed., 2002.

Eco, U. 1968b, La definizione dell’arte, Milano, Garzanti, 3rd ed., 1983.

Eco, U. 1973, Il segno, Milano, Isedi.

Eco, U. 1988, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, tr. by H. Bredin, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press.

Eco, U. 2000, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, tr. by A. McEwen, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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1 Cf. Eco [1968b] 1983: 5-6.

2 Eco [1968a] 2002: 9.

3 For more information, see the second part of the afterword of the fifth edition of La struttura assente: Eco [1968a] 2002: VIII-XXV.

4 See the first part of the afterword in Eco [1968a] 2002: I-VIII.

5 Section D has the same title as the book. For more on this, see Eco [1968a] 2002: 251-380.

6 Eco [1968a] 2002: IV.

7 Cf. Eco 1973: 17.

8 Ibidem: 18.

9 Ibidem.

10 Ibidem: 20.

11 Cf. Eco 1988: X.

12 Eco 1973: 21.

13 Eco 2000: 5.

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Notizia bibliografica

Davide Dal Sasso, Maurizio Ferrari e Ugo Volli, «Introduction »Rivista di estetica, 76 | 2021, 3-10.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Davide Dal Sasso, Maurizio Ferrari e Ugo Volli, «Introduction »Rivista di estetica [Online], 76 | 2021, online dal 01 mai 2021, consultato il 18 juin 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Davide Dal Sasso

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Maurizio Ferrari

Ugo Volli

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