Echoes of Eco

[Sorry, couldn’t resist that title.]

My favorite classes at the Hittorf-Gymnasium in Münster were Math, Chemistry, Latin, and Philosophy. My philosophy teacher, Herr Ledwig, in particular, was formative. We read lots of seminal European philosophy (Aristotle, Descartes, Vico, Weber, …). I spent a lot of time in the public library looking at and borrowing plenty of stuff that was a true challenge. I struggled through the writings of Benjamin, Adorno, and Marcuse. When I graduated and enrolled at the University of Münster, I decided not to become the mathematician that I had once thought I was going to be. I became an English major with Philosophy and History of Arts as minors.

Around that time, in 1982, Eco’s The Name of the Rose appeared in the German translation and was an instant sensation. I devoured the book. I was immediately and completely obsessed with everything that had to do with the book. Aristotle, medieval history, medieval philosophy, James Bond, semiotics, aesthetics, Latin, Greek, whatever. I taught myself enough Italian to read Eco’s thesis on medieval aesthetics. I read his Theory of Semiotics. I read Peirce. I took Professor Schepers’ classes on medieval logic at the Leibniz Research Institute, where we read Ockham and William of Sherwood in the original. I read Quine’s Word and Object.

When I spent a year at Cambridge University as an exchange student and English major, I dutifully did my work on English Romantic poetry and on the modern/post-modern novel, but really I was finally discovering my future profession: the study of semantics within general linguistics. This was then cemented when I returned to Germany and switched universities to study in Cologne. There, the revelations were Professor Samuelsdorff’s seminar on the recently circulating manuscript of Keenan & Faltz’s Boolean Semantics for Natural Language and my independent reading of Barwise & Cooper on generalized quantifiers and of Horn’s thesis on The Semantics of Logical Operators in English. I had found my calling. In a seminar on Aristotle and the medieval Islamic scholars, I discovered the Islamic logicians’ work on exceptives and their correspondences in medieval logic. This directly led to my first generals paper at UMass a couple of years later (which then became my first journal article in the new journal Natural Language Semantics).

Just before I came to UMass, in 1986, I attended a summer school in Munich, where I took classes with Robin Cooper and Roland Hausser. At that time, there was a conference in town where Eco gave a talk on “Fakes”. Afterwards, I went down to ask him a question. I shook his hand and was barely able to speak, completely star-struck.

Looking back on this story, there’s a lot of serendipity and luck (I can’t believe I got into the UMass program to learn semantics from Angelika, Barbara, and Emmon). But, there’s also Eco. He was simply pivotal in helping me find my passions. Rest in peace, Maestro.

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