Mazes and Amazements

Borges and Western Philosophy

by Shlomy Mualem (Author)
Monographs X, 272 Pages


Borges gained his first lessons in philosophy from his father while still a young boy – an intimate home schooling that grew into a long-term obsession. Its ubiquitous presence in his thought and writing has made him one of the most distinctive literary philosophers in the West, expressing itself in a wide-ranging array of fictional essays, metaphysical parables, philosophical poetry, and multifaceted literary artifacts. In contrast to the prevailing perception of Borges as a «dogmatic sceptic» for whom philosophy serves solely aesthetic or rhetorical purposes, this volume proposes a novel approach for understanding Borges as an intellectual, together with an interpretive structure for comprehending his work, based on a systematic examination of the complex relations between literary writing and Western philosophy in his œuvre. Offering a reading of selected Borgesian texts in the light of the Western philosophers of whom he is most enamoured, and analyzing the way in which philosophical theories underpin his texts, it illustrates the fundamental tension of Borges’ writing as a manifestation of what he calls the «intellectual instinct.»

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Philosophical Inquisitions
  • Chapter 1: Labyrinthal Paradigms: Western Philosophy in Borges’ Oeuvre
  • Chapter 2: Literary Philosophers: Mythos and Logos in Borges and Plato
  • Chapter 3: Philosophy and Ideology: Dialectical Orientalism in Borges’ Writings
  • Part II: Comparative Perspectives
  • Chapter 4: Borges and Schopenhauer: Microcosms and Aesthetic Observation
  • Chapter 5: Borges, Heraclitus, and the River of Time
  • Chapter 6: A View from Eternity: The Archetypal Quest
  • Chapter 7: Borges and Levinas Face to Face: Writing and the Riddle of Subjectivity
  • Chapter 8: Narrative Aspect Change and Alternating Systems of Justice: A Wittgensteinian Reading of Borges
  • Chapter 9: Borges, Wittgenstein, and Kierkegaard on the Boundaries of Language: Mystical Silence and Indirect Communication
  • Chapter 10: Borges and Berkeley: Idealism and the Ontology of the Fantastical Object
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Subjects
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


← viii | ix →


This volume was published with the generous help of the Zabludovsky Foundation at Bar-Ilan University. The fruit of long-term study of Borges and his philosophical perplexities, I hope it reflects the still, small voice of intellectual pleasure that accompanied its composition. It is dedicated to my wife, Orit, and three sons, Avishay, Matan, and Yuval, my constant companions in weaving the way through the wonderful maze that is life. My deep thanks, too, to Liat Keren for her elegant and meticulous translation and editorial polishing of the chapters. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


According to legend, growing up as a young Athenian aristocrat Plato aspired to be a playwright, writing plays and poetry. Hearing Socrates teaching in the market one day, however, he engaged him in a lengthy dialogue. In the wake of this encounter, he abandoned his literary pretensions, burning his works, and embarked on a philosophical career. Although this story may be fictitious, it presents us with a powerful scene: the fateful moment at which the most prominent of Athens’ oral philosophers (to whose words Alcibiades later attributed the same effect as Marsyas the satyr’s melodies [Symposium 215c]) harnesses the person who will become the greatest writer of prose philosophy in Western history to his new career, in the wake of which Western philosophical tradition becomes, in Whitehead’s phrase, “a series of footnotes to Plato” (1979, 39).

Some 2500 years later, history presents us with another initiation scene, this time in Argentina. A young, shy, myopic lad by the name of Jorge Luis Borges grows up in his aristocratic father’s library in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. A philosophical anarchist, his father does not believe in traditional education, thus preferring to homeschool his son, teaching him poetry and literature. As Borges later recalled,

He also, without my being aware of it, gave me my first lessons in philosophy. When I was still quite young, he showed me, with the aid of a chessboard, the paradoxes of Zeno – Achilles and the tortoise, the unmoving flight of the arrow, the impossibility of motion. Later, without mentioning Berkeley’s name, he did his best to teach me the rudiments of idealism. (1987, 23)

This intimate home induction became a long-term philosophical obsession in Borges’ thought and writing, turning him into one of the most distinctive literary philosophers of the Western literary tradition, author of a wide and broad-ranging array of fictional essays, metaphysical parables, philosophical poetry, and multifaceted literary artifacts. ← 1 | 2 →

The fruit of long years of the study of Borges’ attitude towards and relationship with philosophy, this volume teases out the traces and reflections of Western philosophical thought in Borges’ oeuvre. I approach it from a synoptic, all-embracing perspective that examines both the central philosophical themes that preoccupy his thought – such as the nature of human subjectivity, the order of the universe, the flowing of time, and the ontology of fantastical objects – and the philosophers to whose thought he repeatedly refers throughout his writings – Plato, Heraclitus, Spinoza, Berkeley, Schopenhauer, and others. The first part of the book thus addresses meta-philosophical questions that relate to the nature and status of philosophy as a rational mode of inquiry, the second discussing specific philosophical issues and the way in which they are manifest in Borges’ fiction, poetry, and theoretical essays.

It is no coincidence that Socrates has already made an appearance herein. The starting point of this study – clearly manifested in the first chapter – lies in the claim that the dominant interpretive paradigm that holds that Borges is a sophistic skeptic or philosophical nihilist is fallacious, Borges in fact being motivated primarily by what he calls the “intellectual instinct” – the Socratic aspiration to shed light on the great metaphysical secrets of the “enigma of the universe” via literary symbols.

The volume may be read in various ways. In line with the Indian understanding of philosophy as darshana – viewpoint or glimpse (recall also the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant) – the ten chapters that compose it may be regarded as presenting a divergent, monadic set of perspectives, each focusing on a specific theme or theory. The essence of this “nominalist” reading thus lies in the details – Borges’ attitude towards a particular philosophical idea and the traces of this in his writings.

Alternatively, the two parts of the book may be regarded as constituting complementary ways of addressing Borges’ relation to Western philosophy. The first part examines philosophy per se as the rational pursuit of knowledge – its nature, boundaries, interrelation with other disciplines, and function in human life. The second investigates seven central philosophical issues in Borges’ oeuvre, each of its chapters discussing an idea or doctrine in detail and analyzing Borges’ writing in light of this exploration. These chapters thus comprise a type of experimental, empirical series ← 2 | 3 → of studies that seek to elucidate the way in which philosophical postulates find expression in Borges’ texts. The volume as a whole can be regarded in this view as an attempt to reveal Borges’ relation to Western philosophy in a complementary fashion, probing meta-philosophical matters deductively in the first part and specific philosophical issues inductively in the second.

Commensurate with Aristotle’s comment on tragedy (Poetics, 1450b25), the third reading understands the chapters to form a single, complete unit. Here, the diverse perspectives, literary exegeses, and philosophical doctrines coalesce into a holistic form, generating a portrait of Borges the intellectual or the philosophical orientation that informs his writing. Borges himself depicts this approach in the epilogue to Dreamtigers:

A man sets himself to the task of portraying the world. Over the years he fills a given surface with the images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses, and people. Shortly before he dies he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face. (SP 143)

As noted above, I believe these outlines (the Indian elephant, as it were) present us with an image of Borges as a Socratic writer propelled by the force of philosophic tension in search of the order of the universe, his approach to reality always being filtered through the lens of intellectual and emotional (a)maze(ment). In the wake of the Heideggerian declaration regarding “the end of philosophy” in our era, this image of a literary-philosopher who addresses the most profound metaphysical issues via the literary symbol may denote a return to the point at which Western philosophy began – the ancient wonder that Socrates explains to Theaetetus: “For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris [the messenger of heaven] was the child of Thaumas [Wonder] made a good genealogy” (d155).

Even if I have succeeded in exemplifying it here, this reading will always be imperfect in its ambitious inclusiveness – not because it represents an eclectic discussion of some Western philosophical schools and not others (Plato rather than Aristotle, for example) but because Eastern (primarily Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Persian, and Buddhist) philosophies form a central chain in Borges’ textual genealogy. An extensive examination of Borges’ relation to philosophy would thus have to include Alexander the ← 3 | 4 → Great’s “two horns” – both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. This task must be taken up in a separate volume, however.

I hope that that these three ways of reading will converge into a hermeneutic arc that preserves the dialectical tension within Borges’ writings – what he calls the “incessant flexibility” of the literary text.

← 4 | 5 →


Philosophical Inquisitions

← 5 | 6 →

← 6 | 7 →


Labyrinthal Paradigms: Western Philosophy in Borges’ Oeuvre

The impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe does not, however, dissuade us from planning human schemes, even though we know they must be provisional. (Borges 2003a, 229)

“I am neither a thinker nor a moralist, but simply a man of letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of literature” (Borges 1969, xv). Appearing in the foreword to one of the numerous studies of his work, this comment by Borges has often been quoted by subsequent scholars. Pointing to the close and complex relationship between literary writing and systematic philosophic thought, it first adduces one of the prominent features of his vast oeuvre – the philosophical theories that inform all the layers of his works. This is then followed by what appears to be a skeptical – perhaps disparaging – view of his own modest philosophical inquisitions in particular, and the very human attempt to constitute a comprehensive philosophical system in general.

This approach is heightened in his Norton lectures at Harvard (1968), wherein he observed,

The great English writer and dreamer Thomas De Quincey wrote … that to discover a new problem was quite as important as discovering the solution to an old one. But I cannot even offer you that; I can offer you only time-honored perplexities. And yet, why need I worry about this? What is a history of philosophy but a history of the perplexities of the Hindus, of the Chinese, of the Greeks, of the Schoolmen, of Bishop Berkeley, of Hume, of Schopenhauer, and so on? I merely wish to share those perplexities with you. (2002) ← 7 | 8 →


X, 272
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
Jorge Luis Borges Comparative literature Philosophy
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 272 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Shlomy Mualem (Author)

Shlomy Mualem is Head of the Department of Comparative Literature at Bar-Ilan University. His principal fields of interest, informed by a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective, are literature and philosophy and their interrelation, spanning such figures and fields as Jorge Luis Borges, Greek and modern philosophy, aesthetics, East–West theories, and Kabbalistic poetics.


Title: Mazes and Amazements
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