A collection of historical essays by Umberto Eco. In it he attempts to trace the various influences that errors, fallacies and misunderstandings have had in the advancement of knowledge through the ages (mostly the post-Roman, European ages). His basic argument, set out magnificently in the first two essays, is that erroneous beliefs and information can sometimes serve as the basis for scientific and philosophical discoveries. The most obvious of his examples is that of Columbus, who, being a "good navigator but bad astronomer", miscalculated the circumference of the Earth and sailed off towards an India much farther off to the West than he thought. Still, he discovered America (Eco, unconcerned with modern political sensibilities, still allows him credit for that discovery).

Being a linguist (although for myself I mostly think of him as a philosopher of language), as the book proresses the essays become more and more specifically about language, particularly the history of the search for a perfect, primordial or empirical, language. Nevertheless they make for fascinating reading even for those not immediately interested in the history of linguistics, as they are still heavily concerned with the follies and foibles of well-meaning but misguided experts.

This is no easy read - Umberto Eco is nobody's popular writer. The essays are dense, the language characteristically elevated and the background knowledge assumed on the part of the reader considerable. Luckily the volume is sufficiently slim not to become an arduous slog, and the writer's obvious enjoyment of his subject adds a certain joy of dicovery even to the layman reader.

Serendipities, Umberto Eco, Phoenix 1998. ISBN 0 75380 878 1.

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