Malcolm K. Read

Jorge Luis Borges and His Predecessors, Or,
Notes Towards a Materialist History of Linguistic Idealism



In England the Puritans carried through the kind of revolution for which the French middle class had to wait till 1789. The Civil War (1640-60) enabled the bourgeoisie to acquire precisely sufficient political power so as to institute a regime propitious to its own economic well-being and advancement. Intellectually, its success gave rise to scientific empiricism which, in contrast to continental rationalism, insists on the isomorphism of language and reality. Empiricism represents a much more radical departure from organicist, substantialist notions than animism which constitutes for empiricists a compromise with feudalism or indeed a variation of the same. It was disseminated through the Royal Society, whose emphasis on things and the senses featured distinctively in the British strand of universal grammar and language planners. Consider, for example, G. Dalgarno’s Ars signorum (1661) and J. Wilkins’ Essay Towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language (1668). Wilkins’ project was at least to some extent a cooperative and purely British effort, on the part of a group of scholars at Oxford which included Dalgarno, Seth Ward and John Wallis. The legacy of Renaissance humanism—suspicion of scholastic metaphysical verbiage—manifests itself in the seventeenth century in the neglect of syntax, and in a corresponding tendency to limit attention to the lexicographical level of language. Necessarily, the verb is downgraded in favour of the noun, as the principal word class. In Dalgarno, for example the former has only a minor status, whereas in Wilkins (as incidentally in Port-Royal scholarship), it is resolved into the copula and adjective. Both Wilkins and Dalgarno exhibit, in a typically English manner, a firm belief in the capacity of language to mirror things.

Borges approached the whole question of the universal language schemes from the standpoint of the Nature/Convention debate. Overtly, he considers the debate to be somewhat sterile, in view of the obvious rightness of the conventional thesis: “todos los idiomas del mundo [. . . ] son igualmente inexpresivos” (OI, 140). After all, he argues, can one truly decide whether “moon” or “luna” is more meaningful? However, if the choice of a lexeme so singularly resonant with poetic overtones does not alert us to the possibility of a volte-face on Borges’ part, past experience should warn us that this advocacy of the commonsensical view often preludes a covert shift towards its opposite. And this is precisely what happens in the present case. Wilkins’ lexemes, he confesses, “no son torpes símbolos arbitrarios” (OI, 141). Indeed, it seems, Wilkins’ system of forty categories, with their numerous sub-categories, possesses qualities reminiscent of the cabbala, a fact guaranteed to recommend it positively to Borges’ attention. Ideologically, the universal language schemes correspond in part with a desire to stabilize and legitimize bourgeois ascendency. The conquest of reality proceeds through the classification of objects, on the basis of their distinctive attributes. The emphasis upon qualitative, as distinct from quantitative, change, betrays a covert desire less to change the world than to preserve it, to which end the category of nature is substituted for a convention more amenable to an aspirant class. At the same time, however, it is important to emphasize that this nature presupposes not a reinstatement of a material reality that convention had so effectively effaced, but rather a Platonic affirmation of language’s underlying idealism. To this extent, Borges was both philosophically and historically justified in mentioning cabbalism in the context of the universal language schemes. For Wilkins’ work represents a continuation of currents of medieval and Renaissance thought involving strongly mystical strains.

Even within English empiricism of a hard-nosed variety, the seventeenth-century approach to Nature was still inextricably entangled with all kinds of occultism, astrology, alchemy, and magic, inherited from an earlier animism, that converge on a preoccupation with the virtues of an Adamic tongue. By playing off nature and convention one against the other, Borges was able to highlight certain fundamental ambiguities present in classical thought, in which a would-be realistic approach based on the prior observation of facts is accompanied by a widespread nominalism subversive of any attempt to construct a one-to-one correspondence between name and referent. Empiricism rejects universals as mere “names” while simultaneously providing names for the “particulars” of the universe. The conviction is that symbols represent not words but refer directly to things, or at any rate to men’s concepts of them. But Bacon’s nominalism called into question the very raison d’etre of seventeenth-century empiricism by questioning the link between concepts and things. For concepts must perforce be defined, and definitions, however detailed and complex, cannot renege on their status as language. On this basis, Wilkins’ and other scholars schemes suffer from a basic circularity. Claiming to catalogue the real world as a preliminary to its symbolization, they take as their starting point the Aristotelian categories inherited from tradition, and then seek properties in phenomena to correspond to them. The problem is that reality cannot easily escape mediation, since it is not simply there, waiting to be seen, but must pass through the lens of language.

[pp. 78-80]


Convention in the modern context serves the purpose not of an expansive bourgeoisie, intent upon breaking down the barriers of a closed feudal society, but of a class in retreat. It emphasizes the idealist dimension of classical thought, at the expense of its empiricist ambitions. Speculation has become a game, a mere pastime, unconcerned with the life we mistakenly call the real: “La imposibilidad de penetrar el esquema divino del universo no puede, sin embargo, disuadirnos de planear esquemas humanos, aunque nos conste que éstos son provisorios. El idioma analítico de Wilkins no es el menos admirable de esos esquemas” (OI, 143). In this way, Borges, whose own concerns are strictly with the spirit, interprets classical thought as shunning the referent in order to turn in upon itself. It is no longer the empiricist aspects of the universal language schemes that fascinate him but their quality of the fantastic or marvellous, and the improbable: “Teóricamente, no es inconcebible un idioma donde el nombre de cada ser indicara todos los pormenores de su destino, pasado y venidero” (OI, 143).

It is only a short step from claiming that language has no direct access to the thing-in-itself to claiming that this thing does not exist and that language does not bear the onus of referring to a reality outside of itself. The classicist is thereby saved any concern with the real world, a view which became increasingly attractive during the decline of the bourgeoisie. As Borges notes, “los escritores de hábito clásico más bien rehuyen lo expresivo” (D, 67). Since Borges demands so little of language in the way of referential capability, he saves himself the despair of those who would have words refer to things. The referent has largely been omitted, and no longer taunts the speaker with its absence: “El clásico no desconfía del lenguaje, cree en la suficiente virtud de cada uno de sus signos” (D, 67).


The pattern of Borges’ subsequent career is thus set: increasingly he dispenses with a key Romantic element of idealism, namely its sense of lack and its frustration at the inability of language to capture the real. Taking a Romantic neo-idealism, in which a privatized individual struggles with the sheer publicity of language, in an effort to express his feelings exactly, he transforms it into a kind of classicism which dispenses with the whole notion of referents. By doing so, he avoids the possibility of dissatisfaction with the insufficiency of language. At the same time, however, by calling into question the empiricist assumption that language opens out directly upon the world, Borges’ brand of idealism de-stabilizes the whole classical episteme. This episteme presupposed a structural fixity intrinsic to which was the pre-eminence of the noun. An idealistic romanticism which privileges the fluidity of the verb exposes the provisionary, partial basis of the classical tables and systems of nomenclature, which otherwise assume the mantle of eternity. There simply exists no neutral ground upon which such classifications can be erected, except in the form of a Chinese encyclopedia that divides animals into (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) stuffed, (c) tame, (d) fabulous, (e) that behave as if they are mad, (f) that are innumerable, (g) that are drawn with the brush of a fine camel hair, etc. The force of such an argument is irresistible: “no hay clasificación del universo que no sea arbitraria y conjetural. La razón es simple: no sabemos qué cosa es el universo” (OI, 142-3).

In sum, Borges’ classicism is the product of a purely contemplative view of the world. It postulates a knowledge to which one accedes directly, without any practice/praxis, a pre-existent Truth that simply awaits categorization and cataloguing. In the absence of any movement or mediation between subject and object, this truth can be acquired only through a cold gaze that scans motionless, remote objects silently arranged in space and which, it transpires, are nothing less than the mute projection of the subject’s own internal abstractions.



“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” traverses much the same terrain as that covered in “Funes”: scientific pretensions, based on an objective, one-to-one match between word and thing, are subverted by a process of idealization. In addition, this story marks far more clearly the transition from noun to verb, as the principal part of speech, and consequently is far more compromised by Romantic idealism. In fact, it represents an expansion of Borges’ “Chinese encyclopedia,” which endeared him so much to post-structuralists such as Foucault.

“Orbis Tertius” is visibly rooted in the problematics of the Enlightenment. As a project, Tlön was initiated by a secret society associated with Dalgarno and Berkeley. Dalgarno, we have seen, was one of the early inventors of a universal language, whose aim was to recreate a new Adamic language. His appearance in Borges’ fiction is due to more than chance: “[t]he same analytical language of Wilkins and the ordered world of Tlön are both expressions of the same yearning for an order that is unattainable to human intelligence” (Alazraki [1971 (ii)], 49). The encyclopedia, the means by which Tlön infiltrates our world, is the quintessential symbol, along with the dictionary, of the age of reason and the empiricist tradition.” Bayle’s Dictionary (1687) and Diderot’s Encyclopedia (1751-) correspond with the incorporation of British thought by Continental scholarship, and indicate the strengthening of the bourgeoisie in France.


Alazraki, Jaime. “Oxymoronic Structure in Borges’ Essays,” in The Cardinal Points of Borges, edited by Lowell Dunham and Ivor Ivask (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University .Press, 1971), pp. 47-53.

SOURCE: Read, Malcolm K. Jorge Luis Borges and His Predecessors, Or, Notes Towards a Materialist History of Linguistic Idealism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carrolina Dept. of Romance Languages, 1993. (North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages & Literatures; 242). Chapter III: Monsters of Enlightened Reason: (excerpts of) sections II (pp. 78-80), III (81-82, 83-84), VI (88-89).

Abbreviations 17
Introduction 19
I. From Classical Symbols to Medieval Signs 31
II. Public Usage and Private Abusage in the Age of Conflict 54
III. Monsters of Enlightened Reason 76
IV. The Ideal Revolution: Romanticism and Its Legacy 100
V. To Have and Have Not: Modernist Literature as Fetishism 122
Conclusion 142
Bibliography 147

The Ideal Revolution: Romanticism and Its Legacy: V (Macedonio Fernández)
by Malcolm K. Read

Stanislaw Lem on Jorge Luis Borges (Borges 16)

Marx on political economy vs reversion to Romanticism

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Jorge Luis Borges & Lucien Goldmann’s Genetic Structuralism

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Ars Combinatoria Study Guide

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


‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’
(originally ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins’)
by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Lilia Graciela Vázquez
   Translated by Will Fitzgerald
    Spanish original & English translation

One Man’s Opinion: “Utopia of a Tired Man”
by Jorge Luis Borges, read by C. R. Stapor
(Oct. 4, 2017)

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