personal unicorn

We (in the sense of human beings) travel and explore the world, carrying with us some “background books.” These need not accompany us physically; the point is that we travel with preconceived notions of the world, derived from our cultural tradition. In a very curious sense we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovering, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travelers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books.

For example, all medieval tradition convinced Europeans of the existence of the unicorn, an animal that looked like a gentle and slender white horse with a horn on its muzzle. Because it was in creasingly difficult to come upon unicorns in Europe (indeed, according to analytic philosophers, they do not exist, although I am not sure I agree), tradition decided that unicorns were living in exotic countries, such as the kingdom of Prester John in Ethiopia.

When Marco Polo traveled to China, he was obviously looking for unicorns. Marco Polo was a merchant, not an intellectual, and moreover, when he started traveling, he was too young to have read many books. But he certainly knew all the legends current in his time about exotic countries, so he was prepared to encounter unicorns, and he looked for them. On his way home, in Java, he saw some animals that resembled unicorns, because they had a single horn on their muzzles, and because an entire tradition had prepared him to see unicorns, he identified these animals as unicorns. But because he was naive and honest, he could not refrain from telling the truth. And the truth was that the unicorns he saw were very different from those represented by a millennial tradition. They were not white but black. They had pelts like buffalo, and their hooves were as big as elephants. ’Their horns, too, were not white but black, their tongues were spiky, and their heads looked like wild boars.’ In fact, what Marco Polo saw was the rhinoceros.

We cannot say Marco Polo lied. He told the simple truth, namely, that unicorns were not the gentle beasts people believed them to be. But he was unable to say he had found new and uncommon animals; instinctively, he tried to identify them with a well-known image. Cognitive science would say that he was determined by a cognitive model. He was unable to speak about the unknown but could only refer to what he already knew and expected to meet. He was a victim of his background books.

[...]

But what does sound cultural anthropology mean? I am not among those who believe there are no rules for interpretation, for even a programmatic misinterpretation requires some rules: I believe that there are at least intersubjective criteria to tell if an interpretation is a bad one, in the very sense in which we are sure that Kircher misinterpreted some aspects of Egyptian and Chinese culture and that Marco Polo did not really see unicorns. However, the real problem does not so much concern rules as our eternal drive to think that our rules are the golden ones.

The real problem of a critique of our own cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by any chance it is not a rhinoceros.

From Serendipities: Language & Lunacy by Umberto Eco.


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