Underrated Philosophers VI: Jorge Luis Borges

And this is where I jump the shark. Dante’s understandable—he at least wrote a couple of philosophical treatises, he gets an entry in the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy—but Borges? The whacked-out Argentinian surrealist writer of trippy short stories with a weird obsession with tigers and labyrinths? The man who never wrote anything over fifteen pages? The man who said that metaphysics is really just a branch of the literature of fantasy? Seriously? Seriously?

Nicolás Menza, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), 2000.

First, his poetry’s awesome, so shuddup. Second, you have to read his essays to really make sense of his short stories and poetry (assuming you’d actually want to, rather than just enjoying the Weird). Third, his essay on Ramon Llull is both the inspiration for this underrated philosophers series and why I’m not doing one on Llull, much as I’d like to; it wouldn’t be as good as the one that already exists. Fourth, there are lots of philosophers who love Borges, some of whom even organize traveling art exhibits based on his work.*

But, as a philosopher…well, he may be the only absolute idealist worth reading. Granted, there aren’t a lot of absolute idealists (Borges, Berkley, and…um…uhh…), and Berkley’s bad crazy, but that’s beside the point (kinda). What isn’t beside the point is what happens when an absolute idealist goes blind and starts writing fiction.

Brief primer on Berkley for those of you lucky enough not to have read him: if nobody sees it, it doesn’t exist. Period. The old Zen koan about trees in the forest making sounds? The question is stupid and nonsensical; if there’s nobody around to hear the tree fall, the tree doesn’t exist, and therefore isn’t around to fall and (not?) make a sound! Of course, you can think of a tree falling and (not?) making a sound with nobody around, but then all you’re doing is imagining a situation in which you (don’t?) hear a tree making a sound and ignoring that you’re the one (not?) hearing it. Perfect sense, how could it be otherwise Socrates, Q.E.Duh.

There. I just saved you from having to read the most overrated philosopher of all time. No, really, trust me on this one; you can read his books if you have to for some reason, but his arguments for why this is the case only make him look worse.

In the hands of a fiction writer, however, this whacked-out metaphysics lets you recreate the world however you want to. If you perceive it to be so, it is so; once the relationship between world, perception, and imagination is reversed, you can get some pretty strange stuff. It’s not that the line between fantasy and reality gets blurred in Borges, so much as it just goes away. Personal identity is based on one’s transient perceptions or the ideas of others, not, say, continuity through time or persistence of memories (didn’t Hume disprove both of those anyway?); strange objects, artifacts, and people are dreamed into existence, only to disappear, then come back later in the ideas of someone else; totalities and infinities can be compressed into nutshells, and the sum total of all that will ever happen in the world found in one incomprehensible book, somewhere in an infinite library ruled over by the blind librarian.

Most fantasies play by certain rules. If the rules only exist because you think they do, because you stipulate they do, things get…much stranger.

But this is all well-worn territory. Everyone who reads Borges notices about three lines in that his world’s a bit nuts. Are there odd connections created between seemingly unrelated things, like what would happen if one of Llull’s theological slide rules that demonstrated the interconnectedness of all the attributes of God were used to build a world, not merely describe it? Sure. That might be one explanation for what’s going on. But does all this philosophical background explain how a Frenchman can write Don Quixote, rather than just offering one more way of analyzing something that doesn’t quite make sense? In other words, is Borges not the only one suggesting odd connections that may not actually be there?

Actually, now that you mention it…

It turns out that Borges indirectly explains a lot of his stories and poetry in his essays. If you want to know what the deal is with the universal library behind “Library of Babel,” it’s right there. Ditto all the metaphors relating to blindness, including the ones you didn’t think of. Ditto the story behind the tigers. Ditto all the things about one person being another that keep cropping up in the short stories and poetry.

Another brief summary of someone else: David Hume on personal identity. If you don’t have a single unifying form to your body—like, say, a soul—and the matter in your body is always changing and moving around, can you really say that your body is the same object is was at some other time? According to Hume, no, you can’t—and this applies no matter how short the interval between time 1 and time 2 are. Again, there’s a bit more to the story than simply this, but not that much more.

So let’s combine this thesis—you’re not the same person you were a moment ago—with the idealist thesis from above—the world exists only because it’s being perceived. This means that the ones perceiving the world are constantly changing, becoming entirely new beings, from moment to moment—and with them, the world is constantly renewing, worlds are constantly flickering into and out of existence, worlds that exist only for a present moment, with no past or future time. Thus, if there is no past or future in the world, time does not pass, and therefore, does not exist.

That would be the first conclusion of “A New Refutation of Time.” Yes, the ironic title was intentional.

Second part, a bit more vaguely hinted at: if personal identity isn’t based on continuity of the body (impossible) or continuity of thought (there is no continuity of anything, so, also impossible), it might be based on present thought and intention. So, when I’m reading “Alexandria, A.D. 641,” comparing the Spanish to the English translation, pondering the imagery, the rhythm, the symbols, and the metaphysics of eternal return, of the ideas that live beyond any physical medium, then I am Borges, in a very real and probably literal sense!

That’s right: this post was written by me, Jorge Luis Borges, thinking about what I wrote, deciphering and describing my own ideas and philosophy.

Suddenly, all those stories and poems about being someone else, or being everyone else, actually make sense. They’re only weird if you don’t understand how the world works, right?

Now, here’s where I go out on a limb, but, I think, a justified one: if we take Borges’ idealism seriously (or as seriously as you can for an author who might just be writing fantasy under the guise of metaphysics, or metaphysics under the guise of fantasy), his stories don’t take place in another possible world, as contemporary modal metaphysicians would have it; no, they really do take place in this one. There is at most one possible world at the only moment there is, and the fantastic stories, poems, and essays that I, Borges, write take place in it.**

Now that your mind is sufficiently blown, let me justify that. Or let Borges. Or…whatever. In discussing Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream/dreaming butterfly, he concludes that
there is no other reality for idealism than mental processes; to add an objective butterfly to the butterfly one perceives therefore seems a vain duplication. Idealism holds that there was a dreaming, a perceiving, but not a dreamer nor even a dream; it holds that to speak of objects and subjects is to fall into an impure mythology. Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly, and during the course of that dream he was not Chuang Tzu but a butterfly. If the reasons I have indicated are Valid, then matter, the ego, the external world, universal history, our lives, also belong to that nebulous sphere of Meinong’s imaginary objects.

So, really, if your perceptions and imaginings are reality, then what Borges has caused to to perceive and imagine in your mind is just as real as you are. The Library of Babel, Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbus Tertius, the Circular Gardens and the House of Asterion, the non-infinite palace in which men spend their lives without ever leaving the cellars, the other horn of the unicorn, the Guardian of the Books…yes, these too are real, more real than the past, more real than the future.

So why should we doubt that we live in a world with unicorns, a world where there is no line between the Ficciones and Selected Non-Fictions? Why not believe that everything Borges wrote is true, and that the only fiction is that none of it is real? Is the reason his essays sound so much like his surreal stories and poems because he’s only playing with us, spinning tales of fancy while subverting the dry form of the metaphysics essay, or is it because they’re all real, all part of the world a blind man has created for us to live in, as his blindness has obliterated the one we presume to think is real?

Back when I taught metaphysics, it was always my goal to blow my students’ minds at least once per class, to show them that the world is far, far stranger than they could have ever imagined it being, and that everything they thought they knew about it, everything they thought was safe to take for granted, to not even be worth questioning, was fundamentally wrong. Maybe there isn’t a difference between reality and fantasy. Maybe everything we think is normal is, when viewed aright, fundamentally fictional and strange. Is Borges simply playing with us, making absurd metaphysical claims that only make sense in his fictional universe, useful only for writing? Perhaps, but it might also be plausible to think he’s the one who has it figured out, and what is commonly called “reality” is the surrealistic side of the coin, only made to look sensible because of some arbitrary quirk in our metaphysics.

*And at least one of whom is still kicking himself for missing it when it came through town a while back.
**No language is very good at describing metaphysics once it gets to the really weird bits that don’t accord well with the average everydayness of experience. When it gets to Borges levels of difference, though, you’d better be Borges good at writing. Which I am at those non-times I’m Borges, but, at those “times,” the quality of my writing suffers.
***Okay, so don’t go looking for what this is a footnote to (there isn’t anything), but I just noticed that Borges’ comments on the nature of the Cartesian ego (it doesn’t exist, or, really, it isn’t anything/anything) sounds an awful lot like what Sartre says about the same non-thing in The Transcendence of the Ego before taking the ball and running with it a good long way in a completely different direction. Something to look into, perhaps?
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One thought on “Underrated Philosophers VI: Jorge Luis Borges

  1. Phill…Simply superb. My compliments. In this context, however, do you not think the famous fable of The Map and the Empire would be relevant? Redundantly: thank you. [rhd]

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