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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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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...

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