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17 Mar

Borges on Irish Philosophy

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Borges

110 Borges [warholized]
(c) Gisela Giardino/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I was intrigued by these quotes from Jorge-Luis Borges in Richard Kearney’s Post-Nationalist Ireland.

My father introduced me to Berkeley’s philosophy at the age of ten. Before I was even able to read or write properly he taught me to think. He was a professor of psychology and every day after dinner he would give me a philosophy lesson. I remember very well how he first introduced me to Berkeley’s idealist metaphysics and particularly his doctrine that the material or empirical world is an invention of the creative mind: to be is to be perceived/esse est percipi. It was one day after a good lunch when my father took an orange in his hand and asked me: ‘What colour is this fruit?’ ‘Orange’, I replied. ‘Is this colour in the orange or in your perception of it?’ he continued: ‘And
the taste of the sweetness—is that in the orange itself or is it the sensation on your tongue that makes it sweet?’ This was a revelation to me: that the outside world is as we perceive or imagine it to be. It does not exist independently of our minds. From that day forth, I realised that reality and fiction were betrothed to each other, that even our ideas
are creative fictions.

An early diet of Berkeley explains a lot, I think! Borges also had thoughts about whether there were any particular common strands in Irish philosophy…

Berkeley was the first Irish philosopher I read, from the Principles and the Three Dialogues to Siris, and even his messianic poem about the future of the Americas: ‘The course of Empire takes its sway… etc.’ Then followed my fascination for Wilde, Shaw and Joyce. And finally there was John Scotus Erigena, the Irish metaphysician of the 9th century. I loved to read Erigena, especially his De Divisone Naturae, which taught that God creates himself through the creation of his creatures in nature. I have all of his books in my library. I discovered that Berkeley’s doctrine of the creative power of the mind was already anticipated by Erigena’s metaphysics of creation and that this in turn recurred in several other Irish writers. In the last two pages of the foreword to Back to Methuselah, we find Shaw outlining a philosophical system remarkably akin to Erigena’s system of things coming from the mind of God and returning to him. In short, what Shaw calls the life-force plays the same role in his system as God does in Erigena’s. I was also very struck by the fact that both Shaw and Erigena held that all genuine creation stems from a metaphysical nothingness, what Erigena called the ‘Nihil’ of God, which resided at the heart of our existence. I doubt that Shaw ever read Erigena; he certainly showed very little interest in medieval philosophy. And yet the coincidence of thought is there. I suspect it has less to do with nationalism than with metaphysics.

Both quotes from J.-L.Borges in conversation with Seamus Heaney and Richard Kearney in The Crane Bag, (2), 1982. First on p. 75, second pp.75-6.
Reprinted in R.Kearney, States of Mind (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1995).

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