My favorite contribution of Umberto Eco

Written on February 25, 2016 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies


By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University

Last week, Umberto Eco, the Italian professor, philosopher and writer, died at 84. He is worldwide known for his novels and philosophical essays, but he was also an active intellectual,  engaged in multiple public debates. Here I focus on one of my favorites.

Some years ago, Eco published an article in L’Expresso [1], the Italian weekly magazine, under the title: “The first duty of intellectuals: to remain silent when they cannot be of any use”. The title is self-explanatory, but I extract a passage from the article that has been quoted often subsequently:

“Intellectuals are useful to society, but only in the long run. In the short term they can only be professional speakers or researchers, school administrators, communication managers at a political party or a company, or maybe blow the fife in a revolution, but they cannot perform a specific and distinctive task. To say that they are useful in the long run means that they work before and after the actual events, but never during those events. An economist or a geographer could have warned about the transformation of terrestrial transports when the steam machine came into scene and could analyze the future pros and cons of that transformation or develop a study one hundred years later to show how that invention revolutionized our lives. However, when stagecoach companies were becoming bankrupt and the first steam machines were taking the lead, (intellectuals) had noting to contribute or, in any case, much less than an engine driver. To ask intellectuals for something else is like reproaching Plato for not finding a remedy for the gastritis (…) The only meaningful thing an intellectual can do when his house is burning is to call the fire brigade” [2]

Indeed, it is an exemplary piece of irony. However, I do not agree with Eco’s statement. I believe that intellectuals and academics can and should exercise their social task effectively and produce a direct impact on their societies, for the better. Countless examples could be used as evidence. However, Eco’s scathing statement and the analogous ideas formulated by others are often used by critics of the “ivory tower” accusing academics of living in an unreal Arcadia, very detached from the real world. Suppose that Plato had been a professor at a business school in our days. Wouldn’t we have asked him for concrete remedies to business problems?

Business schools and universities need both academics and practitioners in their faculties and deans often look for those who represent the best symbiosis of the two. Most deans I have talked to agree with me on the need to have academics as well as practitioners, and they rightly believe that the challenge is to find the adequate blend of the two. Indeed, a real challenge for business schools’ deans is how to manage diversity when the profile of faculty members is so complementary.

Traditionally, the reciprocal reaction between academics and practitioners has been to reject the other. It is time to overcome this mutual exclusion and explore the formidable synergies that could result from diversity and merging different profiles of faculty members. I have always insisted that that business schools should act as bridges between academic and the business world.

In fact, one of the most pressing challenges on business schools today is precisely to provide valuable solutions to real business and manager’s problems. The key question is how business schools could more effectively foster the creation and the diffusion of relevant management research. This, in turn, is related to two issues:

  1. what is relevant management research or knowledge, and
  2. what should be considered as valuable channels of diffusion of this research.

The problem in distinguishing between those two questions is that, conventionally, the quality of a given piece of research is validated by its publication in some canonical vehicle of communication. For example, the quality of an article is supported by its publication in a refereed journal. Is there some way to escape this conceptual trap or, to put it differently, this Catch 22 situation?

Indeed, today the channels for the discussion and diffusion of novel ideas are multifarious and go beyond academic journals. Many academics realize about this fascinating phenomenon and already interact with multiple stakeholders from different quarters, inside and outside universities, through diverse means. Technology and the digital world have prompted these new ways of communication enormously and are transforming the ways knowledge and ideas are generated and distributed.

I do not agree with Eco about the ancillary role of intellectuals in solving actual social problems, and I support a very active participation of academics in all spheres of society. At the same time, I do not endorse Plato’s thesis that the best possible government is that composed of the wisest (intellectuals). A good balance, as in many other societal challenges, is probably the best solution.

Many thanks Umberto Eco, for your intellectual contributions, which have produced a real impact in the global society.


[1] Taken from A. Tabucchi, ‘La gastritis de Platón’ (tranlated by Carlos Gumpert), (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1988), p. 31.

[2] L’Expresso, 24/04/1997


Cycle Russia: Past and Present “THE HISTORICAL GHOSTS”

Written on February 24, 2016 by Fernando Dameto Zaforteza in Russia Past & Present

RPP_Historical_GhostsThursday, March 3rd 2016, 6pm, at Sala Capitular (Segovia)


Sometimes current political decisions seem difficult to explain without the necessary historical background. The present seminar aims at giving a general overview of Russia since it has been, and still is, a key player in the history of Europe. In discussion with academic experts we will try to find out how this lasting empire portray herself with respect to the immediate neighbours and how does she perceive relations with others.


Speakers: Prof. Simon Franklin, University of Cambridge and Prof. Pierre Gonneau, Sorbonne Paris IV. Moderator: Susana Torres, Associate Professor IE University


If you wish to attend please register here


image_200033754_flyer_ie_arco_2016_21018810_21018810We will offer you the unique opportunity to discover one of Spain’s most exciting art fairs: ARCO Madrid! In collaboration with Art Gallery Tour, we will take you to the most prestigious galleries and introduce you to the work of uprising artists and provide professional insights about the contemporary art world.

THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE MUST during your stay here in Madrid, so don’t miss out!

The event will take place on Sunday February 28th at 4.30pm, will last one hour and a half and the price is 30€.

If you wish to attend please click here




The Name of Eco

Written on February 22, 2016 by Susana Torres Prieto in Literature

1127By Susana Torres Prieto, Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School.

Over the weekend, we have repeatedly read how the world of culture is in mourn for the death of Umberto Eco, the Italian professor who many find difficult to define: philosopher, philologist, novelist, semiotician, intellectual, literary critic. I believe the term that better defined Eco was thinker, because thinking, and thinking differently, was what he always did. If the loss for the world of culture and the Humanities in general is great, for a specialist in medieval literature it is almost dramatic.

Umberto Eco is, together with Marc Bloch, Mikhail Bakhtin, Georges Duby and few others, one of the key thinkers in the area of Medieval Studies of the twentieth century. If Bloch redefined the history of mentalities, Bakhtin showed the power of laughter and carnival to better grasp social relations and Duby gave us an invaluable insight into private life, Eco taught us how to see and understand medieval evidence as if we were there. That is what semiology and semiotics –almost the same thing- is all about: being able to understand culture according to the mental structures and values of the people who created it. In Semiotics, the truth, as the beauty, is not in the eye of the beholder. It is like an immense act of love in refusing to impose a contemporary and personal point of view in order to let the culture of the past speak for itself by providing only the keys for such understanding. Only someone who had dedicated time and intelligence to study the Middle Ages with loving generosity could create a character as the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville.

In medieval studies, as in almost all areas of Humanities, advances are not made by ground-breaking discoveries, but by slow advancements in already known evidence. That is one of the reasons why Humanities are not in the news, and sometimes seem an anachronism in a world that tweeters and re-tweeters itself constantly. From time to time, someone dares to re-examine existing evidence with new eyes, trying a new approach or a new methodology, and Humanities, as a discipline, advances, moves a little step forward. Except in extraordinary cases, in the study of Humanities we don’t discover, we just re-discover. And sometimes there are strange cases in which originality in insight is combined with encyclopedic knowledge, and instead of a little step, a great leap is made. This is what Umberto Eco has done in the area of medieval studies, showing us how to look differently in order to better understand. As Casaubon says at the end of Foucault’s Pendulum “I should be at peace. I have understood”. There could hardly be a better epitaph for a semiotician.


9788430607303Manuel Lucena Giraldo es Investigador Principal del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) y Profesor Asociado de Humanidades de IE University. El profesor Lucena tiene una extensa bibliografía que se han ocupado de viajeros y descubrimientos, historia urbana, imágenes de España e imperios globales. Sus últimos libros son Naciones de rebeldes. Las revoluciones de independencia latinoamericanas, Francisco de Miranda. La aventura de la política y La era de las exploraciones. Es colaborador habitual de ABC Cultural y Revista de Occidente. Forma parte del consejo asesor de National Geographic en historia global.

“Un recorrido excepcional por la historia de España a través de sus objetos. Un repaso ilustrado a los objetos —de los más cotidianos a los más excepcionales— que conforman la historia de España. Desde un hacha de mano hallada en Atapuerca, y la Constitución de 1812, hasta el microscopio de Ramón y Cajal, la fregona, la bombona de butano, los vestidos de Balenciaga o el Guernica.”

La presentación del libro “82 objetos que cuentan un país. Una historia de España” tendrá lugar el jueves 17 de marzo a las 18h en MMB102 (María de Molina 31 Bis, Madrid)

En caso de ser de su interés, ruego confirme su asistencia pinchando aquí

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