Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Truth Is in the Making: Borges and Pragmatism

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Truth Is in the Making: Borges and Pragmatism

Article excerpt

Jorge Luis Borges's affinities with pragmatism, while certainly no secret to his critics, have rarely been studied before with the intensity and seriousness they otherwise undoubtedly deserve. This fact in and of itself should not come as a surprise; rather, it is consistent with a widespread tendency to speak only with a great deal of irony about this author's philosophical alliances. Did not Borges himself talk of his "basic skepticism" as a tendency "to evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular and marvelous about them" (Other Inquisitions 189)? Such an evaluation in terms of aesthetic worth would seem to preclude interrogations of a strictly theoretical kind, as if the sheer marvel of a philosopher's inventions could not but overshadow their truth content. Aside from the occasional mentions of Arthur Schopenhauer and Fritz Mauthner as the philosophers whose books he annotated the most, Borges also only rarely pronounces his philosophical commitments other than in literary-aesthetic terms, for instance, when he refers to metaphysics as a branch of "fantastic" literature. Quickly making this skeptical stance their own, many of Borges's critics in turn shy away from a sustained inquiry into the coherence of his philosophical beliefs. In so doing, they all but completely loose sight of the possibility that beneath the surface of irony they might find a small but fairly systematic set of philosophical principles, the genealogy of which is worth looking into as well. In the case of pragmatism, especially the version dear to William James, this is all the more unfortunate insofar as Borges's debts to James warrant such a genealogical inquiry perhaps more so than his affinities with any other modern philosopher.

Indeed, what should come as a surprise even to the skeptics is the strong language with which Borges, in a few marginal texts, expresses his utmost admiration for James's philosophy. In the most significant of these texts, the preliminary note to the 1945 Argentine translation of Pragmatism, Borges even goes so far as to abandon his commonly self-proclaimed skepticism for an outspoken ethical judgment in favor of James. Never included in Borges's complete works nor in any of the collections of essays and prologues published during his lifetime, this text is now at last more widely accessible thanks to the materials gathered in Textos recobrados. "For an aesthetic appreciation," Borges writes, "the universes of other philosophies might be superior (James himself, in the fourth conference of this volume, speaks of 'the music of monism'); ethically, William James is superior. He is the only one, perhaps, for whom human beings have something to do" ("Nota preliminar" 11). For a writer who only rarely invokes the term of ethics, it must be said that these are unusually strong words indeed. How, then, should we understand this alleged superiority of James's philosophy? What exactly is this doing or this making that is allowed to, or demanded from, all human beings according to the view that Borges attributes to James?

The claim that I want to defend in the following pages holds that James's pragmatism is actually far more central to Borges's work than is commonly accepted--not just in the prologue to Pragmatism or even in the one written for the translation of Varieties of Religious Experience as part of Borges's Biblioteca personal, but right from the earliest beginnings of his career as a writer and essayist. Of course, we all know that as an adolescent Jorge Luis was fond of hearing his father lecture on philosophical topics with James's Principles of Psychology as his manual. Less well-known, if not completely speculative, is the fact that another of Borges's teachers, Macedonio Fernandez, for a while kept a correspondence with William James--with a signed photograph from the New England philosopher as the only surviving proof now in the possession of Macedonio's son and archiver Adolfo de Obieta (cf. …

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