Borges Ironizing Idealism: I Dream Too Much

More Notes by Ralph Dumain

There are many facets to Jorge Luis Borges, for which returning to his brilliance is always worthwhile. When I read “The Congress” [1] four years ago I absorbed the impact of landscape in relation to the abstract ideas that get bounced off it. Being modern and modernist are not mere abstractions; the modern emerges from within and in contrast to a more primitive mode of existence, in this literature, Borges’ Argentina. The utopian project of the Congress is set in a relatively primitive environment, just right for its time, akin in some ways to the practical emergence of the artificial language movement in the late 19th century in the form of Volapük and Esperanto.

A recent re-reading of the “The Aleph” [2] revealed a dimension of Borges’ preoccupation with the I had not previously thought through. The psychologically deadened pedantic encyclopedic ordering and reshuffling of information in the person of Daneri is the very antithesis of poetic experience and sensibility, and, by the logic of this story, is symptomatic of the impoverishment of experience generally. While “The Aleph” is not about the ars combinatoria per se, Borges’ essays on the futility of the combinatoric projects of Ramón Llull and John Wilkins [3] can be seen in a new light.

There is the perennial question of the actual function of the extreme subjective idealism embraced in Borges’ writings, particularly with the admission of its untenability in the essays, above all, “A New Refutation of Time” (1947) [4], in which Borges admits his argument constitutes a reductio ad absurdum and concludes: "The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges." There are others, though, who lack the appropriate sense of irony. [5] The dynamic revealed in Borges’ writing involves the relation between experience and the world, and the relation of both to conceptualization and public expression. The metaphysical anxiety displayed therein is not an affirmation of mysticism. Borges’ nominalist posture is roiled by abstraction (whether justified by Platonism or materialism). The fact that the philosophy is embedded within the genre of literature makes all the difference. Borges should not be treated as if he literally believes in his own philosophy. [6]

The secularization of the poetic, imaginative impulse and its differentiation from affirmative knowledge claims is key here. Compare for example Borges’ writings to the Romantic non-ironic resurrection of the ars combinatoria in the Counter-Enlightenment project of Novalis. [7] One might well ask, what is the role of the poetic and imaginative in the modern world, a question conspicuously raised by Romanticism in several nations, and whose ambitions spilled outside the confines of literary and artistic expression.

Is there a philosophy that Borges believes in un-ironically? Bruno Bosteels [8] and Jaime Nubiola [9] have called attention to a rarely seen 1945 preface by Borges [10] to a Spanish translation of William James' Pragmatism. (Borges would not anthologize this essay.) Borges is full of praise for James, but Nubiola sees them as very different: Borges, unlike the American James, is a metaphysical pessimist. Furthermore, “his skepticism in a philosopher would be an abdication of our personal responsibility towards humankind and its future.” Bosteels argues for the centrality of James in Borges’ philosophy. In the war between nominalism and realism, Borges approves of James’ “middle solution.” Metaphor is another way to break free of this dichotomy. Bosteels quotes Borges (translating):

The universe of the materialists suggests an infinite, sleepless factory; that of the Hegelians, a circular labyrinth of vain mirrors, prison to one person who believes to be many, or to many who believe to be one; that of James, a river. The unending and irrecuperable river of Heraclitus. Pragmatism does not seek to restrain or attenuate the richness of the world; it wants to keep growing like the world.

Borges’ aversion to both materialism and objective idealism are noteworthy here. Bosteels also links Borges to Peirce’s notion of abduction. Bosteels sees significant implications in the linkage between Borges and pragmatism, but ultimately, he seems most excited when importing poststructuralism into the discussion. These digressions, however, add up to nothing as far as insight into Borges is concerned. The one potentially useful assertion by Bosteels here is:

Seen in this light, it is no longer paradoxical that Borges, in the early text from El tamaño de mi esperanza quoted at the beginning of this essay, trades his almost innate nominalism for the belief in language’s unlimited inventive power. “I am insisting on the inventive character of any language, and I do so intentionally,” he writes: “Language constructs realities. The various disciplines of intelligence have engendered worlds of their own and possess an exclusive vocabulary to describe them” (“Verbiage for Poems” 7).

What exactly Borges is affirming here and what is his actual positive view of reality? There are no clear answers. That language can express something about reality after all, or is at least unlimited in its power of expression in creating its own worlds? How does this substantially change our perception of the content of Borges’ work? What does advocacy of the “middle path” and the power of metaphor yield in the end? It seems that Bosteels has other fish to fry, so he leaves us hungry for a conclusion.

While, according to Borges, James’s pragmatism aims at growing with the world, I don’t see Borges doing this. While he never merely repeats himself, Borges endlessly recycles the same radically skeptical themes. His method is the reductio ad absurdum. While the affinity with James is understandable, it is not clear what Borges would use constructively in pragmatism. I find Nubiola’s assessment far more convincing.

A far more illuminating line of inquiry lies in two essays by Marina Martín. She sees “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as a “parodic world” based on Berkeley and inflected by Hume, in which materialism is unthinkable. [11] She also turns her attention to “A New Refutation of Time.” Borges is much closer to Hume than to Berkeley, and shares with Humean skepticism the undermining of theism. The influence of Schopenhauer also looms large, and Buddhism can be factored into the dynamic correlation of all these philosophies. Martín expands on her thesis in the second essay [12], adding Kant and some of Borges’ other writings to the mix, examining the features that classify all the philosophers cited (including Hume) as idealists. Borges makes common cause with the defining doctrine of idealism that world is mind-dependent.

The argument for the centrality of Hume is convincing. I will single out one of several notable Humean themes: skepticism is logically irrefutable but psychologically unacceptable. Borges admits of this as well, and the ironic structure of key essays (especially when he splits himself into the writer and Borges) embodies this duality.

I would not be so sure that Borges believes (oxymoronic way of putting it, no?) in his stated skepticism, but as an imaginative stance, it clearly matters to him. One thing that Martín emphasizes is Borges’ unmistakable linkage of philosophy to fiction and dreaming. Even Hume does this, but Borges pulls out all the stops. Whether or not Borges believes that existence is a dream (and not merely dream-like, especially in its liminal moments), his characterization of philosophy as a branch of fiction should instill some doubt (!) as to whether to classify him unequivocally with the idealist philosophers he loves. [13]

A still broader historical view of the relationship between the imaginative life and the attempt to compute the universe can be found in a remarkable book by Florian Cramer. [14] Borges’ “The Library of Babel” plays a role here, but the whole book could be considered a natural history of ars combinatoria in all its cultural permutations from mysticism to computer science. How peculiar are the permutations of the interactions of poetry and computation. How dangerously fascinating to live at a historical moment when such a panoptic view is possible at last.

Whatever else we conclude, we are left with the conviction that experience is conterminous with imagination. Borges induces in us the vertigo of the imaginative plunge into our own experience, (especially when at odds with external society,) which I once referred to as the “tortuous inversions of materiality to ideality and back again” and “a dizzying logic of inversions, which felt something like what Blake must have felt turning the perceptible physical and social universe inside out, bringing to light the complementary logical structure and inverse properties of a mental universe unknown to official society—a process he called Mental War.” [15]

Borges belongs to a type who does most of his living in his own mind. An extreme version of what everyone does to some extent, as a portion of everyone’s “real life” is governed by fantasy, including the fantasies one lives by which are mistaken for realities. As the song goes, “I dream too much.” [16]


[1] Ralph Dumain, On “The Congress” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions.

[2] Ralph Dumain, On “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions.

[3] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (originally “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins” ).
         Translated by Lilia Graciela Vázquez
         Translated by Will Fitzgerald
         Spanish original & English translation

[4] Ralph Dumain, Borges Revisited (12): New Refutation of Time.

[5] Silvia G. Dapía, Review: Floyd Merrell's Unthinking Thinking, Variaciones Borges 2 (1996). Also in PDF format.

[6] Ralph Dumain, Borges Revisited (14)

[7] Novalis [Friedrich von Hardenberg], Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon; translated, edited, and with an introduction by David W. Wood. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. See also these reviews:

Jeremy Adler, "Novalis and Philo-Sophie," The Times Literary Supplement, April 16, 2008.
Jane Kneller, Novalis, David Wood (ed., tr.), Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon [review], Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2008.09.05.

[8] Bruno Bosteels, "The Truth Is In the Making: Borges and Pragmatism," The Romanic Review 98.2-3 (2007): 135-151. BNET | Scribd

[9] Jaime Nubiola, Jorge Luis Borges and WJ, Streams of William James, Volume 1, Issue 3, Winter 2000. See also Nubiola's follow-up article:

WJ and Borges Again: The Riddle of the Correspondence with Macedonio Fernández, Streams of William James, Volume 3, Issue 2, Fall 2001.

[10] Jorge Luis Borges, “Nota Preliminar," para Pragmatismo, un nuevo nombre para algunos viejos modos de pensar; conferencias de divulgación filosófica, de William James, traducción de Vicente P. Quintero (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1945), p. 9-12.

[11] Marina Martín, “Borges Via the Dialectics of Berkeley and Hume.”

[12] Marina Martín, Borges, the Apologist for Idealism, Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, Massachusetts, August 10-15, 1998.

[13] See: Ralph Dumain, For René Menil, Caribbean Surrealist-Philosopher. Perhaps Menil’s contrast of Césaire’s playful poetic vs. Senghor’s humorless philosophic approach to Négritude might serve as a usable analogy for Borges’ relation to philosophy.

[14] Florian Cramer, Words Made Flesh: Code, Culture, Imagination (2005). Another essay by Cramer features Borges, but his assertions are not readily comprehensible: “Text”and “Network”, Reconsidered (2007).

[15] Ralph Dumain, Contractions and Expansions.

[16] Ralph Dumain, I Dream Too Much.

Written 5-6 August 2010
©2010 Ralph Dumain

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

Irony in Philosophy, Romanticism, and Criticism: Selected Bibliography

Reflexivity & Situatedness Study Guide

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