Subjecting What we Read to Inquiry

The name of the rose

“The problem with the Internet is that it gives you everything — reliable material and crazy material. So the problem becomes, how do you discriminate?”

“Books are not meant to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”

[Umberto Eco]

With greater access comes greater responsibility — learning to separate bedrock from sand and thinking critically about what we read are a good starting point. Asking questions, engaging in conversations, creating shared understanding are very much in demand, yet many organizations have forgotten how to get there.

Eco's very first novel, The Name of the Rose, is a good place to start this investigation of meaning. It became an international bestseller, selling 50 million copies worldwide, and was later made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

The novel is a mystery set in 1327 and narrated by Adso of Melk. The plot:

Brother William of Baskerville is sent to investigate a wealthy Italian abbey whose monks are suspected of heresy. When his mission is overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths patterned on the book of Revelation, Brother William turns detective, following the trail of a conspiracy that brings him face-to-face with the abbey’s labyrinthine secrets, the subversive effects of laughter, and the medieval Inquisition.

Caught in a power struggle between the emperor he serves and the pope who rules the Church, Brother William comes to see that what is at stake is larger than any mere political dispute–that his investigation is being blocked by those who fear imagination, curiosity, and the power of ideas.

It was a time of profound transformation, and the powers that be feared what imagination, curiosity, and new ideas would bring about.

I captured what the book means, at least one of its meanings, to me in the truth of signs, an earlier post. As I said in that post, the dialogue between Adso and Brother Williams was the perfect opening for some considerations on our propensity in business to fall in love with our ladders:

“I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand is the relation among signs . . . I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.”

“But in imagining an erroneous order you still found something. . . ”

“What you say is very fine, Adso, and I thank you. The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless . . . The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.”

William tells Adso that many hypotheses, false though they may be, can still lead one to a correct solution:

“The only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for the truth.”

Later on he says:

“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”

And so while certainty remains an impossibility, we have our imagination, curiosity, and the ability to create new things we can rely on and we should also remember that:

“Love is wiser than wisdom.”