By Peter Cowlam
‘I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia…’
—J. L. Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’
No matter, God will sustain
Berkeley, who was Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, denied the existence of matter in a reply to Locke (1632–1704), whose conception of the universe was Newtonian and mechanistic; a place where material bodies conformed like clockwork. The Newtonian universe exhibited solidity, figure, extension, motion or rest, and number.
Among other things, material bodies produce an effect in human sense-organs, and have an effect on the immaterial substance of human minds – all of which conjoins to produce ideas. Therefore, what we perceive to be the real world that surrounds us is not actually the world around us, but only our ideas about it.
To Berkeley, this theory which he developed was repugnant, not least because, although as a system it allowed that God may have created the world, it did not require God to be present, eternally supervising his creation.
Therefore, what we perceive to be the real world that surrounds us is not really the world around us, but only our ideas about it.
For this reason, Berkeley denied the existence of matter, maintaining that material objects existed only because they were perceived, or, to put it another way, through the act of perception. Now, we need God, because the reason why things don’t cease to exist in our absence is Berkeley’s proof of the omnipresence of God, who at all times perceives all things, everywhere.
It was in this way that Berkeley (1685–1753) justified his proposal that the world existed as a sort of divine syntax through which any well-adjusted mortal might commune with his maker.
In Borges’ Mirror
In Jorge Luis Borges’s revision of Berkeley, Uqbar is an undocumented region of Iraq or of Asia Minor, one of whose heresiarchs had declared the visible universe either an illusion or sophism. Borges also claims for his imaginary heresiarchs that mirrors and procreation were abominable because they multiplied and disseminated the visible universe.
As it develops in Borges’s writing, it emerges that Uqbar is a region of Tlön, and that Tlön is the name of a country invented by a secret and benevolent society conceived in the early seventeenth century, which included Berkeley in its ranks.
As the society’s work began, it became clear that a single generation was not sufficient to articulate and describe the whole fictional country of Tlön. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement whereby this non-existent country was described.
Borges continues with his tale: There is no further trace of this society until two centuries later. However, one of the disciples of the society dedicated to describing the fictional Tlön is an ascetic millionaire from Memphis called Ezra Buckley who scoffs at the modest scale of the sect’s undertaking.
Instead he proposes the invention of an entire planet with certain provisos. The project must be kept secret. A whole encyclopaedia for the imaginary planet must be written. According to Borges, Ezra Buckley stipulates that the whole scheme should be free of Christianity and have no pact with the ‘impostor’ Jesus Christ. So, Borges closes the brooch of his argument – the imaginary planet would have no truck with Berkeley’s God.
So, Borges closes the brooch of his argument – the imaginary planet would have no truck with Berkeley’s God.
For Borges, though the date of Buckley’s involvement with the encyclopedia of an imagined planet is in 1824, it is approximately a century later when Buckley’s encyclopaedia of the fictional planet begins to emerge. Then, Borges writes that, like a magical mirror, the description of the planet starts to propagate its own universe.
The encyclopaedia, and the planet the encyclopaedia describes, are not objects in space. Consequently, one of the languages of Tlön has no nouns. Its central grammar construction is the verb, but with no subject (I, You, He, She, We etc). In Tlön, verbs are modified by adverbial suffixes.
The moon rose above the water in its Tlönic equivalent, would be expressed like this:
Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.
In another language of Tlön, the prime unit, rather than the verb, is the adjective. Just as in English, a compound adjective can be used as a noun. Instead of ‘moon’ the language says:
round airy-light on dark.
Borges makes his point: because there are no real nouns so there can be no possibility of deductive reasoning. If there is no matter there is no deductive logic.
Deductive logic is where, if the first two statements are true, then the conclusion must be true. Perhaps you remember the famous example of deductive reasoning. You can’t do it without nouns and adjectives together:
Bachelors are unmarried men.
Peter is unmarried.
Therefore, Peter is a bachelor.
People and objects all have telos (a purpose) but without people or objects there is no telos. If something doesn’t exist you cannot, through inductive reasoning, assume that other things like it exist. If I see a thousand white sheep, I might reason inductively that all sheep were white. While flawed, this inductive logic isn’t even possible in a fictional universe where there is no time and things cannot actually be.
We understand. Borges has dropped us into an ideal Berkeleian world where nothing exists. It is his imagining of Berkeleian idealism with one critical attenuation. Borges removes the unnecessary concept of a sustaining deity which Berkeley has injected into his philosophy to make it more palatable.
An interesting paradox arises. Because there is no time, any citizen of Tlön who draws breath in the present, is not the same citizen who drew his previous breath. There is no cause and effect, no movement of things in time. This fantastical notion of replicating non-beings provides an analogy with the view of Julian Barbour, who has argued against the existence of time. Apparently it is inconsistent with his quantum theory of gravity. Barbour has proposed that we may have to consider each moment as an unchangeable entity in itself.
Borges knocks European philosophy off balance.
We, who are not of Tlön, or particle physicists like Barbour, do believe in time because we see that everything exists and persists independently of us, through a flow of change that we choose to divide into a succession of moments.
Barbour, who is a particle physicist, can conceive of a universe that rises to its entire stock of moments simultaneously. To him we have invented time and diced it up in the way we prefer to live it. Of course, Barbour is only one influential physicist among many.
The fulcrum of philosophy shifts away from Europe
Unlike Borges, Russell is not playful. He sets out the essentials of Berkeleianism and then critiques it. Borges the philosophical writer has more of a sense of fun and removes Berkeleianism from its European loci, reflecting it in an indeterminate fictional world as ‘Buckleianism’..
Borges, in his playful philosophical fiction, encompasses Berkeleanism from the viewpoint of an Argentinian, a Latin American. He provides us with critical reflections on Berkeley – Buckleanism. The value of Borges’s critique is that it cannot be ignored. Borges knocks European philosophy off balance. It is not enough to reference Russell, one must go further abroad to get a better perspective on European philosophy, and on the value of every aspect of European culture.
Peter Cowlam is a poet and novelist. As a novelist, he has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. The Quagga Prize is awarded for independently published works of fiction. Other work has appeared in The Battersea Review, The San Francisco Review of Books, The Blue Nib, The Galway Review, Easy Street, Literary Matters, Eunoia Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Liberal, and others.
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