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Mazes and Amazements

Borges and Western Philosophy


Shlomy Mualem

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.»


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Part I: Philosophical Inquisitions


Part I Philosophical Inquisitions Chapter 1 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 par- ticular, and the very human attempt to constitute a comprehensive philo- sophical 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...

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