The Force of Falsity
Eco illustrates through multiple examples on what tenuous grounds much of our accepted history of today stands. What we believe, exists. And the belief outweighs the actual existence, or lack thereof.
Each of these stories/examples have a virtue: as narratives, they seem genuinely plausible, more than everyday or historical reality, which is far more complex and less credible. The stories seemed to explain something that was otherwise hard to understand. Hard to understand without accepting the “Force of Falsity” in shaping perception and thus History.
In other words, what links the essays collected here is that they are about ideas, projects, beliefs that exist in a twilight zone between common sense and lunacy, truth and error, visionary intelligence and what now seems to us stupidity, though it was not stupid in its day and we must therefore reconsider it with great respect.
It is not easy sailing, moving through these essays. Eco assumes a familiarity with the Italian language and histories of secret societies, that is hard to summon for the casual reader. But if you can just go along with the flow and accept the few over-shots, the general thrust and playfulness is still enjoyable enough.
The first half of the book on these ‘falsities’ and their impact on history is a delight. The rest of the pieces are half-lunatic essays into the origins of language, from a biblical perspective. It is very hard to follow with the numerous references to biblical scholars and medieval studies and almost exclusive obsession with the more obscure aspects of Dante scholarship.
“False tales are, first of all, tales, and tales, like myths, are always persuasive. And we could mention many, many other false tales,for example, the myth of the Terra Australis, that immense continent that supposedly extended all along the polar cap and subtropical Antarctica. The firm belief in the existence of this land (affirmed by countless maps showing the globe encircled, to the south, by a broad terrestrial band), drove navigators from various nations for at least three centuries to try to explore the south seas and even the Antarctic.
What can be said of the idea of Eldorado and the fountain of youth, which led mad, brave heroes to explore the two Americas? Or the stimulus given to nascent chemistry by hallucinations inspired by the phantom of the philosopher’s stone? And what about the tale of Phlogiston, the tale of cosmic ether?
Let us forget for a moment that some of these false tales produced positive effects, while others produced horror and shame. All created something, for better or worse. Nothing in their success is inexplicable. What represents a problem is rather the way they managed to replace other tales that today we consider true. Although instruments, whether empirical or conjectural, exist to prove that some object is false, every decision in the matter presupposes the existence of an original, authentic and true, to which the fake is compared. The truly genuine problem thus does not consist of proving something false but in proving that the authentic object is authentic.
And yet this obvious consideration must not lead us to the conclusion that a criterion of truth does not exist and that tales now called false and tales that today we believe true are equivalent because both belong to the genre of narrative fiction.There exists a process of verification that is based on slow, collective, public performance by what Charles Sanders Peirce called “the Community.”
It is thanks to human faith in the work of this community that we can say, with some serenity, that the Donation of Constantine was false, that the earth turns around the sun, and that Saint Thomas at least knew the planet is round. At most, recognizing that our history was inspired by many tales we now recognize as false should make us alert, ready to call constantly into question the very tales we believe true, because the criterion of the wisdom of the community is based on constant awareness of the fallibility of our learning.”