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Umberto Eco on our duty as the Community

March 16, 2014

Umberto Eco’s essay “The Power of Falsehood” was originally delivered as the inaugural lecture for the academic year 1994-1995 at the University of Bologna. An expanded version was published in the collection On Literature, and was the source of the excerpts here:

In my essay on fakes and forgeries, written some years ago, I concluded that there certainly exist tools, either empirical or conjectural, to prove that something is a fake, but that every judgment on the question presupposes the existence of an original that is authentic and true, against which the forgery is compared; however, the real cognitive problem consists not only in proving that something is a forgery but in proving that the authentic object is just that: authentic.

And yet this obvious consideration must not lead us to conclude that there is no criterion of truth, and that stories said to be false are the same as those that we consider today to be true, just because both belong to the literary genre of narrative fiction. There is a practice of verification that is based on slow, collective, public work done by what Charles Sanders Peirce called the Community. It is through our human faith in the work of this community that we can say, with a certain degree of tranquility, that the Constitutum Constantini was a forgery, that the earth moves around the sun, and that Saint Thomas Aquinas at least knew that the earth was round. …

Since for some people the suspicion that the sun does not go around the earth seemed at a certain moment in history just as foolish and execrable as the suspicion that the universe does not exist, it is useful to keep our mind free and fresh for the moment when the community of men of science decrees that the idea of the universe was an illusion, just like the flat earth and the Rosicrucians.

Deep down, the first duty of the Community is to be on the alert in order to be able to rewrite the encyclopedia every day.


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