In The Name of the Rose, how is William of Baskerville the symbol of empiricism?
In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the author portrays a pivotal period in the history of scientific thought. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (the novel is set in 1327), the empirical thought of Aristotle had begun to gain ground as a reliable method by which to acquire knowledge. Up to that time, revelation, the passive transmission of knowledge, was favored by the Church. If one was meant to know certain truths, they would be "revealed." Empiricism, on the other hand, took a much more active approach to gaining knowledge. Rather than waiting for revelation, empiricists espoused the active search for natural knowledge.
The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in the enclosed world of a remote abbey in Northern Italy, serves as the backdrop of Eco's exploration of this relationship. When confronted with the series of murders, the monks' reactions to them are quite telling. The monks immediately explain the murders as divine punishment - God is revealing to the faithful his wrath. On the other side is William of Baskerville and his novice, Adso. Alone among the all the characters in the novel, William assumes the view associated with empiricism. Rather than attributing the murders to divine punishment, William looks at the physical world for clues as to the course of events resulting in the murders. He alone uses his senses to gather information about the murders. William embodies the empirical view for this reason. It is certainly not by accident that his name recalls to mind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes (and his novice's name is a nod to Holmes' assistant, Dr. Watson).
In this novel, Eco uses his two main characters and their differing approaches to interpretation (deduction from evidence versus analysis using doctrine) to inform other oppositions in the story. For example, Baskerville's empiricism warring with his student's doctrinal interpretation reflects the contrast between the modern and the medieval, the conscience of the individual and that of society, and ultimately between Platonic idealism and Aristotelian empiricism.
The clue is in Baskerville's name. We know names are important in the novel from its very title, which alludes to Shakespeare—"a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Baskerville by any other name would still be empirical, but the title forces the reader to focus on the name and note the allusion to that famous empiricist, Sherlock Holmes, and his adventure with the Hound of the Baskervilles. Accordingly, Baskerville's approach to solving the novel's key mystery relies, anachronistically, on privileging the hard evidence of his own senses over any form of doctrinal bias.