In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Depicting Borgesian Possible Worlds
  • Eleonora Orlando (bio)

The main purpose of this essay is to show that the philosophical concept of a possible world is part of Borges's fiction: particularly in "The Garden of Forking Paths." The main thesis is as follows: possible worlds are part of the narrative content of the two stories thereby involved, the main one and the novel embedded in it, namely, the book-labyrinth owed to Ts'ui Pên; moreover, the concept of a possible world is used in the main story to explain the meaning of the embedded novel. In this sense, the concept can be taken to play an explanatory role that is similar to the one it plays in semantic theories, and more specifically, in those that appeal to possible worlds in their account of fictional discourse. Finally, the analysis of the use of the possible world concept will enable me to put forward a hypothesis about Borges's conception of the relationship between metaphysics and fantastical literature [End Page 113]


Philosophers, as is known, have invented possible worlds to account for the meaning of some sentences whose truth (or falsity) does not depend—or, at least, does not exclusively depend—on what happens in the real and effective world. As an example, the sentence:

describes not a particular fact of the world, which might not have existed—such as the fact that this morning I bought four apples, or the fact that the solar system has nine planets—but something that could not have been otherwise. Philosophers will then say that (1), as well as many other sentences similar to it, is true under all possible circumstances of the world, or in other terms, that there is no possible world in which it is false. Accordingly, a necessary truth is defined as a sentence that is true in relation to all possible worlds, whereas a sentence that is true only in relation to the real and effective world will be considered a contingent truth. Another kind of example is provided by this sentence:

(2) Beethoven might have died before writing the Seventh Symphony.

Such an example describes not a particular fact of the real world, but rather a state of affairs that might have happened but did not. Once again, according to the philosophers, we are dealing with a sentence that is made true by an alternative circumstance of the world, or in other terms, by a merely possible world, one that is different from the real one. Consequently, positing such worlds allows us to understand and evaluate sentences—more specifically, counterfactual conditionals—like the following:

(3) If the Argentine territory had been colonized by the British, there would have been no crossing of races.

(4) If Pedro had been born in China, he would have been a Buddhist. [End Page 114]

These represent the kind of sentences that we utter when making conjectures about the consequences of ways of being and behaving that are different from the actual ones. As is thus clear, the concept of a possible world can play an explanatory role of intuitive notions such as necessity, possibility, contingency, and impossibility—those that philosophers call "modal notions"—and indeed that is the role it has been assigned to it within the framework of some formal theories about natural language.

Moreover, some philosophers have appealed to possible worlds to explain the meaning and truth value of a particular kind of sentence, namely, that belonging in fictional discourse, such as:

(5) Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain

(Borges 1993b, 142).1

Such sentences pose the following problem: if "Dahlmann" does not designate anything, any existent entity, it does not seem to be possible to assign either meaning or truth value to any sentence containing that name. The nineteenth-century philosopher Alexius Meinong decided to increase the ontological commitment by including nonexistent objects, to which fictional names, among other empty ones, were taken to refer (1960). For those who like possible worlds, there is the alternative of considering Dahlmann to be, instead of a nonexistent object, a merely possible one (Lewis 1983). Accordingly, to...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 113-123
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.