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  • Resisting the Habit of Tlön:Whitehead, Borges, and the Fictional Nature of Concepts

The stories of Jorge Luis Borges and philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead view concepts as fictions, aesthetic objects that abstract particular aspects of reality, altering our feeling of the world around us. This aesthetic function of concepts makes them crucial elements of our perspective of the world. They delineate relevant and irrelevant aspects of experience, further directing our interests and concerns. By thinking with Borges and Whitehead, we see how we might use theories to widen our experience through the production of novel concepts. Doing so opens up greater possibilities for creative action and alternative ways of living together.

Our interpretations of experience determine the limits of what we can do with the world.

—A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 78

Jorge Luis Borges's short stories act as narrative experiments with the potential to alter the reader's experience. They provide momentary glimpses into a remixed reality that, through their vivacity, allow us to wonder at the immanent possibilities that emerge when we acknowledge the irreality of language. This function of Borges's writing follows from his understanding of fictions as imaginative verbal constructions that are effective due to their aesthetic quality, the capacity to evoke emotional responses through play with narrative form. Borges does not write to produce truths. He is doubtful of the ability of any given theory or hypothesis of reality to fully capture its entirety. Instead, his writing [End Page 81] provokes readers to investigate the concepts they take for granted and imagine alternatives yet to be discovered.

This provocative function of Borges's work runs parallel to the theory of propositions in Alfred North Whitehead's speculative philosophy. Propositions, for Whitehead, identify potential relations as important or interesting, organizing our perspectives into relevant and irrelevant aspects of the world around us. A walk in the woods is a total body experience where we are confronted with the sounds of birds, the feeling of the soil underfoot, the heat and light of the sun, and the presence of trees, weeds, and all the other creatures that share our space. If, along the walk, one of our companions proposes that "the sunlight through the trees is wonderful today," our attention shifts and we abstract away from the total forest, focusing on this relationship to evaluate. The concepts at work in this proposition (trees, sunlight, beauty) are fictions that reduce the plethora of real objects into a singular perspective, focusing our concern. Like Borges's fictions, they are not exhaustive and their primary function is not related to their truth. Concepts highlight certain aspects of our world as worthy of attention and fundamental to our understanding. Propositions bring these highlights together into relational perspective of reality. However, there are always other aspects that remain to be discovered.

Taken together, Whitehead's notion of concepts and Borges's notion of "fictions" form a theory of the fictional nature of concepts that underlies the role of concern, or feeling more generally, in the relationship between theory and action. Borges's understanding of fictions, exemplified in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius," draws attention to the constructed nature of concepts. They are abstract, always partial, and never completely capture our surroundings. Yet they are essential for establishing what we see and the importance, as Whitehead would say, of what we see. Whitehead's understanding of concepts mirrors Borges's notion of fictions and clarifies their role in transmitting the feeling of value inherent in reality. For Whitehead, concepts are not simply definitional; they color experience, giving it an emotional tone that draws individuals to appreciate certain relations in the world and neglect others. In doing so, they animate our sphere of concern, provoking us to see the world in a perspective based on shared experience and values.

This account of concepts as fictions invites us to approach the construction of theory as a way of generating possibilities for action. The fictional nature of concepts implies that experience is always partial and the field of possible activity always wider than we are consciously aware. [End Page 82] If this is the case, we can develop concepts to draw our attention to a broader field of possibilities and opportunities for change. In doing so, we earn a greater number of possibilities for satisfaction and the capacity for creative action.


Whitehead's speculative philosophy is "the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted."1 The core concern of his project is not, however, the production of a system but the coordination of our abstractions with reality. For Whitehead, the history of philosophy has been marred by the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: "neglecting the degree of abstraction involved when an actual entity is considered merely so far as it exemplifies certain categories of thought" (PR, pp. 8–9). In non-process speak, philosophers interpret experience fully in terms of their concepts, preventing that experience from speaking for itself. As a result, our observations of reality are ultimately subsumed under our theoretical understanding. Experience indicates that this procedure is inadequate. Our observations of reality lead us to the conclusion that, while there is an order that concepts capture, the limited scope of language (and experience) produces blind spots that prevent us from truly seeing the whole. In response, Whitehead wants to refine our understanding of concepts into a synthetic view of the connection between physical and mental life, which we've inherited as a distinction between concept and object.

Whitehead's radical claim is that concepts are simply an extension of the process of sensual abstraction at work in any occasion of experience. In his view, conscious perception is a second, supplementary mode of perception (presentational immediacy) that refines the primary phase of feeling one's environment (causal efficacy) (PR, p. 172). Prior to conscious discrimination, we have the unconscious experience of manifold sensations impressing themselves upon us. Our concerns in the present moment refine these sensations into a particular perspective. In Whitehead's terminology, our process of prehending (feeling) our environment relies on the subjective aim at work in the moment we are experiencing. Based on this subjective aim, we include (positively prehend) or exclude (negatively prehend) certain aspects of our environment, foregrounding and backgrounding them. This initial process of abstraction is the starting point for our more refined intellectual encounters with the world around us. [End Page 83]

Our experience of distinct objects in measurable space is already a level of abstraction removed from our initial place, "in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures" (PR, p. 50). Our concepts, or intellectual feelings, form a third level of abstraction from the environment that encodes the relevant aspects of our experience into language. The crucial point is that abstractions are not purely conceptual. They relate to the way an experiencing subject "feels" its environment. For Whitehead, "Abstraction expresses nature's mode of interaction and is not merely mental. When it abstracts, thought is merely conforming to nature—or rather, it is exhibiting itself as an element in nature."2 Mental abstraction mirrors the natural process of extracting the relevant or important features of experience that end in the satisfaction an entity. This satisfaction is the "immediacy of enjoyment and purpose." The linkage between conceptual abstraction and abstractions in nature is possible for Whitehead since his ontology understands experience as a process of feeling one's reality. It is a way of forming relations (coming into contact) with the aspects of the world that provoke our concern.

The draw of particular abstractions lies in their ability to lure or seduce us into particular ways of feeling the world. Whitehead's radical claim is that the propositions are "lures for feeling": ways of being concerned about relations and including them in the field of conscious experience. In making this move, Whitehead challenges us to imagine abstraction as a process active even in nonhuman experience. Take, for example, a houseplant that bends toward the sun on its windowsill. On a standard account of abstraction, the plant as subject asserts its agency by acting on its environment. It seeks out sunlight and stops when it has discovered it.

A Whiteheadian account of process reverses this relationship. The plant acknowledges the sun because it is stimulated by its warmth. It is "lured" to the sun by its nourishing effects. For Whitehead, mental abstractions function in the same way. The concepts and propositions that appeal to individuals do so through their resonance with present experience or by problematizing experience, forcing a reevaluation of the present perspective. Their novelty or proximity to our own experience draws us to accept them as elements of our subjective perspective. In turn, our perception of reality changes, causing us to feel differently and to see more or fewer relations as a result. Thus, the world is more complex than a series of objects to be discovered. Our experience is a process of feeling things out to identify objects and compose a perspective of them. The question for philosophy is how to translate this [End Page 84] understanding of abstraction into a mode of analysis that acts in the service of novelty and inquiry rather than producing concepts that restrict our perspective to their simple reproduction.


Borges's notion of fictions originates in the desire to reconnect the faculties of thought and imagination in our understanding of ideas. Like Whitehead, he contends that fictions are linguistic constructions deployed to organize our experience of reality. The constructed nature of fictions also leads Borges, like Whitehead, to be critical of their status as ultimate truths or completely adequate descriptions. Thus, in her article on Borges's "Tlön," Silvia Dapia argues that "Borges urges us to stop thinking of our theories as being literally descriptive of the world and accept the view that reality is for us only our construction, our representation."3 This reading of his work has led to a view of a Borges as primarily a postmodernist or poststructuralist relativist. Hence, in his memorial essay on Borges, Alastair Reid interprets Borges's understanding of fictions as being value neutral. According to Reid, "Unlike hypotheses, which posit a possibility to go on to test its truth, fictions are understood to be no more than linguistic formulations. They are ways of bringing chaos into a temporary verbal order, rather than expressions of conviction or even of opinion."4

This interpretation of Borges's notion of fictions is correct in its characterization of fictions as ways of structuring an encounter with the world. To compose a fiction is to produce an experience by bringing order to chaos. An author uses various elements to craft a world for the reader, and in doing so gives rise to a novel interaction. This view, however, downplays the positive aspect of Borges's critique. The author's relativist idealism is not simply an indictment of the reality of the world of fictions. It is his method to reunite philosophical thought and imagination:

Plato and the pre-Socratic thinkers knew that philosophical logic and poetic mythologizing were inseparably linked, complementary partners. Plato could do both. But after Plato the Western world seems to have opposed these activities declaring that we either dream or reason, use arguments or metaphors. Whereas the truth is that we use both at once. . . . It was not until the emergence of modern idealism in Berkeley, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Bradley . . . that philosophers began to explicitly [End Page 85] recognize once again their dependence upon the creative and shaping powers of the mind.5

Borges's position goes beyond the critique of language to emphasize its creative power. Our concepts and words produce images that shape the world of our experience. They are the elements of our subjective life that define the field of our potential relations with the rest of reality. His position negates neither the reality of the real nor the necessity of ideas. It aims at demonstrating the reality and importance of ideas, despite their artifice. The problem Borges raises is how we should understand the reality of fictions and their effects. "I wonder why a dream or an idea should be less real than this table, for example, or why Macbeth should be less real than today's newspaper. I cannot quite understand this," he remarks in an interview.6 The linkage between the two aspects of reality, the dream and the table, is their mutual participation in reality. For Borges, fictions are real precisely because they influence human motivations and affect material relations.

This principle ties Borges's view to that of Whitehead, who views literary expression, along with philosophy and the social sciences, as "engaged in finding linguistic expressions for meanings as yet unexpressed."7 We see this process at work in Borges's short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius," the first entry in Ficciones.8 The story tells of a fabricated planet and the world of its fictions, which manage to transform reality itself after being haphazardly discovered. The inquiry surrounding Tlön models the instantiation of abstractions in reality, indicating that the reality of concepts doesn't require materiality and, in fact, that concepts become material through their realization in human perspectives.

The opening pages of the story explore the transition from fiction to reality through the initial emergence of Uqbar. Borges and his collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, discover this fictional country by virtue of a dubious epigram, "Mirrors and copulation are abominable because they multiply the number of mankind" (CF, p. 68). This epigram raises eyebrows since it appears neither in Borges's nor in any other extant copy of the encyclopedia. The article that contains it only exists in Casares's copy, with a more elaborate and interesting version of the saying: "For one of those Gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or, more precisely, a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are hateful because they multiply and proclaim it" (p. 69).

The presence of Uqbar in an authoritative text shifts its status from "a fiction [Casares] had invented on the spur of the moment, out of [End Page 86] modesty, in order to justify a fine sounding epigram," to a potential place (CF, p.69). However, it remains possible, not actual. Uqbar exists in text, but there is no Uqbar where we might tread. The discovery of Uqbar in the encyclopedia makes it suppler and gives it contours that were not previously present. This aspect of the text creates a tension in the heart of Uqbar, that it "multiplies" the entities available in the visible world, which it holds to be an illusion. The irony of the epigram is that illusions also proclaim and multiply the visible world. As potential objects, fictions provide the starting point for a search that uncovers their presence in reality, which is found in the relations they form in the "real world" surrounding us.

This principle is at work in the second section of the story, where Borges uses a contrast between the existence of Tlön and that of Herbert Ashe, a friend of Borges's, to subvert our intuition that reality depends on material presence. Instead, the reality of concepts and objects depends on the number and intensity of their relations. The brief biography Borges gives of Ashe defines him through his lack of significant relationships with others. Ashe is a man "afflicted with unreality," "in death, he is not even the ghost he was in life" (CF, p. 71). He is a widower "without issue"; he and Borges's father have an "English friendship, a relationship that "begin[s] by excluding confidences and soon eliminate[s] conversation" (p. 71). Borges's description of Ashe provides a way of evaluating the reality of fictions and material things through their importance.

As far as we can tell, Ashe, although corporeal, is as much a ghost as Uqbar. His ultimate significance is that he leaves behind a First Encyclopedia of Tlön, a book of one of two fictional realms in which the literature of Uqbar unfolds. Ironically, as Uqbar becomes more real, Ashe slips into unreality. Borges experiences Ashe only because he leaves behind further evidence of the existence of Tlön. Without this experience, Ashe does not exist. His value or relevance is negligible at best. In contrast, Uqbar, and now Tlön, gain a greater influence over Borges and Casares as the encyclopedia amplifies the sense of wonder surrounding it. A four-page encyclopedia article, which could be dismissed as a practical joke, grows into the possibility of a fully developed, though fictional, planet.

Where the life of Herbert Ashe demonstrates that materiality is not necessary to establish the reality of a thing, the description of Tlön contained in the encyclopedia illustrates how fictions can realize themselves in the material world. From Ashe's encyclopedia, Borges learns that, [End Page 87] "For the people of Tlön, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts—the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial" (CF, p. 73). Because of this proposition, their world is undefined and indefinite. Inhabitants respond to this openness by abandoning science for philosophical speculation, which unravels into an infinite variety of systems of thought. For the Tlönians, "Metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy" (p. 74), a move that mirrors Borges's own theory of fictions. Further elaborating his position, he states in an interview, "I believe that metaphysics is no less a product of imagination than is poetry. After all the ontological idea of God is the most splendid invention of imagination" ("BWF," p. 77).

This move is not an indictment of metaphysics. Rather, the culture of Tlön illustrates how propositions function, in Whitehead's language, as "lures for feeling." Concepts propose potential ways of feeling the presence of objects of experience. Philosophical and scientific inquiry produce propositions that, in the attempt to elucidate our reality, lead to the discovery of new objects that confirm the dreams of philosophers and scientists. In Tlön, this process happens unintentionally. Tlönian idealism aims at creating an infinite universe: "Their fiction has but a single plot, with every single imaginable permutation. Their works of a philosophical nature invariably contain both the thesis and antithesis, the rigorous pro and contra of every argument. A book that does not contain its counterbook is incomplete" (CF, p. 77).

Under these conditions, any attempt at a complete account of reality produces an absolutely indefinite world. When infinite possibilities are equally relevant, all possibilities are simultaneously affirmed, and particular relations between things lose their significance. At the same time, this doesn't prevent the emergence of real things. As long as participants are unaware they are involved in an experiment, the suggestion that they should find particular objects leads to the "unearthing" of those objects in reality (CF, p. 77). These objects, called hrönir, turn archeological digs and treasure hunts into self-fulfilling prophecies. Tell the workers what to seek, and they shall find it. But as a counterpoint, these objects do not last:

Things tend to duplicate themselves on Tlön; they also tend to grow vague or "sketchy," and to lose detail when they begin to be forgotten. The classic example is the doorway that continued to exist so long as a certain beggar frequented it, but which was lost to sight when he died. Sometimes a few birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater.

(CF, p. 78) [End Page 88]

From this image, we see that the abstract nature of concepts does not imply their falsehood; rather, it indicates the tentative nature of the relations they locate in experience. The emergence of hrönir is an example of how objects are in many cases created through intellectual discovery, but their permanence requires continued attention. They must anchor themselves in experience through their importance. On this basis, the partiality of ideas is a function of the fact that experience is not simply given. It involves contrasts of attention to particular aspects at the expense of others. For example, people "idealize" friends or lovers when they abstract the positive aspects of their characters or personalities from the full set of their characteristics. These abstractions are real insofar as they are a part of the experience they have of the other. They relate to their partners based upon a characterization of their person. Their negative traits are virtually eliminated from experience, though they may be in plain sight to other friends and acquaintances. Conversely, these same aspects make their way to the fore when someone is displeased with their partner; their positive aspects are relegated to the background.

On this basis, we should be attentive to what Borges calls "the creative and shaping powers of the mind," not because the world is fully constructed by ideas, as in "Tlön," but because our ideas are intertwined in the emotional texture of our experience. The relations between entities do not have the character of properties separable from their objects; they capture the way something in experience is felt and is therefore real to us.


Borges's "fictions" and Whitehead's theory of propositions present the relation between concept and reality as aesthetic rather than epistemic. Our concepts solidify and expand the subjective form we give to the nebulous content of experience. In doing so, they perform the creative task of isolating the things that are important to us and concretizing the world of our imaginations in the reality that surrounds us. This is why, for Whitehead, abstractions

are not "abstract forms" that determine what we feel, perceive and think, nor are they "abstracted from" something more concrete, and finally, they are not generalizations. . . . Abstractions act as "lures," luring attention toward "something that matters," vectorizing concrete experience. While they are often approached as definitional, their function is to "induce empirically felt variations in the way our experience matters."9 [End Page 89]

The fictional nature of concepts, their work in building our perspectives and role in the structure of our feelings, dramatically changes the role of theory in action. Rather than the disclosing truths, "the primary function of theories is as a lure for feeling, thereby providing immediacy of enjoyment and purpose" (PR, p. 184). Theory functions as an element in the composition of experience, not determining the type or form of experience, but establishing its contours and significance.

This notion of theory is why, for Whitehead, "in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than it be true. The importance of truth is that it adds to interest" (PR, p. 259). The same goes for conceptual clarity. Mirroring Borges's linkage of reason and myth, Whitehead contends,

In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember, that insistence on hardheaded clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions. Our reasonings grasp at straws for premises and float on gossamers for deductions.

(AI, p. 72)

Even our heritage of the clarity and distinctness of concepts is maintained by a particular way of feeling the world. We can easily imagine how Descartes, alone in his study, yearning after indubitable truths, would found his system upon clarity and distinctiveness. His quest for truth is simultaneously the construction of a mode of thought that is drawn from his relationship to his environment.

The final moments of Borges's story exemplify this affective pull of ideas. In a fictional, dated postscript, Borges explains how, years after the discovery of the single volume of the encyclopedia of Tlön, the entire forty-volume set is discovered in Memphis. Simultaneously, two Tlönian objects appear: a compass containing the letters of the Tlön alphabet and an image of the Tlönian deity, a cone made of unearthly material. The presence of material Tlönian objects leads to Earth's gradual transition to Tlönian culture. The language, history, and culture are taught in schools, replacing contemporary Earth culture with the Tlönian narrative. As a result,

Almost immediately, reality "caved in" at more than one point. The truth is, it wanted to cave in. Ten years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—could spellbind and hypnotize mankind. How could the vast [End Page 90] world not fall under the sway of Tlön, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: "inhuman laws") that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

(CF, p. 81)

The key feature of these final events is the seduction of the world by Tlön, a process analogous to the appearance of hrönir. The comprehensiveness of the document, its symmetry and orderliness capture the human imagination and transform Borges's reality. The document's importance alters reality, generating truth. This process is consistent with Borges's claim that the function of fictions is to generate wonder at the mystery contained in orders both human and divine. As Joseph Agassi notes, "The aim of Borges is to impart to his reader the sense of the mystery of the world, a sense of skeptical reverence, akin to Einstein's 'cosmic religious feelings.'"10

In the case of Tlön, we see how this function of fiction is dual edged. Its seductive quality lures men into belief and adherence, transforming Tlön from possibility to reality. At the same time, Borges as narrator is critical of this adherence. The distinction he draws between divine and human order indicates that the same fascination we find in the symmetry and completeness of fictional constructions is immanent in the order of nature. The deficiency of Tlön as fiction lies in the fact that its order draws attention to abstract, human systems, mistaking their concreteness for "natural" order. Beyond the labyrinth of Tlön is a divine maze, inexhaustible by concepts but holding unimagined experiences in reserve. The order of human systems is limited in comparison to divine order; their possibilities are minuscule in comparison with the aspects of nature that remain to be discovered.

A similar concern is present in Whitehead's work, especially in Adventures of Ideas, where he refers to the order of nature as having an Eros, "the urge towards the realization of ideal perfection" (AI, p. 275). Eros constitutes the initial feeling of wholeness or togetherness in experience that aims at the continuation of order, but with greater intensity (the involvement of more relations). This Eros is the ground of feelings from which concepts abstract and have their own emotional quality or tone. The structural resonance between ideas has an emotional resonance in the order of things. Eros explains the pull toward perfection and systematic wholeness, a fullness of relations between [End Page 91] existing things that is felt in the emotional texture of our experience. "God" and other ultimate principles are manifestations of the desire to capture this wholeness and make it a central feature of our experience. Thus, as in the Borges's remark above about reality, the ontological idea of God, along with our other grand metaphysical presuppositions, should be seen as an attempt to seduce us into a shared experience for mutual satisfaction.

This last point ties together Whitehead's and Borges's work as aesthetic projects. I use "aesthetic" to indicate that both thinkers evaluate their constructions by their potential to produce wider and richer varieties of feeling in experience. Echoing Borges's emphasis on the imagination, Whitehead argues, "Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists, and also into an enlargement of their imaginations. By providing the generic notions philosophy should make it easier to conceive the infinite variety of specific instances which rest unrealized in the womb of nature" (PR, p. 17). The philosophers and theorists who capture our imagination do so by their aim to push beyond the conceptual order of the immediate present to the "divine" order we can never fully capture. Philosophy and theory succeed when they deploy the tools of imaginative abstraction to create concepts that lure us into an expanded vision of the reality that surrounds us and into an enhanced concern for the world we inhabit.

The same concern is at play in Borges's critique of the systems in the narrative. In the final moments of the text he claims that "the habit of Tlön" has "disintegrated this world" (CF, p. 81). His criticism rests on the repetitive, reductive nature of such systems that give a semblance of order in the universe, though ultimately reduce its features to a few systematized elements. They lure us into committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The alternative provided through the fictional nature of concepts differs in its aim to provoke an ongoing series of novel reactions rather than sacrifice the possible at the altar of the past. We are not charged with abandoning theory and conceptualization. The goal is to shift their mode of production.


I've invoked the fictional nature of concepts to gesture toward a field of theoretical creativity that perpetually renews itself by provoking us to expand our sense of relatedness to the world around us through the imaginative use of concepts. The conclusion of Tlön indicates how our [End Page 92] theoretical approaches tend to perform the opposite function. Our discourse over politics, social issues, and economics all revolve around sets of concepts taken as concrete matters of fact. We tend to mistake these abstractions for the relationships they aim to capture, a mistake that limits our view of alternatives to the present. We can avoid this tendency by approaching theory as the construction of fictions. The theorist acts as the composer of a perspective on the world that reflects upon our own, guiding us toward the transformation of our own present. For Whitehead, philosophy is "a survey of the possibilities and their comparison with actualities" (AI, p. 98). Philosophy uses the facts, theory, alternatives, and ideals taken as a given to construct novel ways of encountering the world that expands their scope or surpasses them altogether. Taking this track demands that we reemphasize the role of the imagination in the formation of concepts and pay attention to the role that propositions play in the construction of our shared world.

Borges's notion of fictions draws our attention to imaginative origins of concepts. By taking his idea seriously, we see that theories are ways of composing a perspective for a particular form of experience. They insist on the importance of the issues they highlight and the necessity of altering our perception and, subsequently, our experience to participate in collective solutions. The theorist's insistence on the significance of their particular point of view is ultimately powerful, but can also produce blind spots relative to alternative perspectives. When we forget the specific issues and concerns at the heart of the theories we champion, we extend our abstractions beyond their bounds.

This phenomenon is active in the seduction of the world by Tlön insofar as the "construction" of the planet is never addressed. The extensive descriptions and their objects are the product of Borges and Casares's translation of a cabal's secret project. Though the order of Tlön is a fantastic order, it is a human order. Thus, the perspective it builds is limited to the scope of interest of its authors. The elements of experience it relegates to the background are eliminated by systematic rigor. What we seek are systems that function as methods of approach and analysis; ways of beginning with basic concepts that generate previously unnoticed connections. We aim at drawing out the novelty inherent in the order of things, reaching toward the divine rather than insisting on the sufficiency of human order.

Equally essential is that our theories not be pure speculation. They are creative recombinations, remixes if you will, of our experiences and shared ways of thinking. The invocation of fictions and appeal to novelty [End Page 93] do not mean that we produce concepts ex nihilo. As both a philosopher and mathematician, Whitehead is committed to the formation of concepts in a context that helps define their scope and purpose. Concepts without a problematic framework divorce abstraction from experience, which is illegitimate. Similarly, for Borges, fictions are not constructed sui generis; they arise from experience and memory. Speaking of his own Ficciones, he conjectures that "it's made of half-forgotten memories. . . . Perhaps that's what we call inventing—mixing up memories. I don't think we're capable of creation in the way God created the world" ("Interview," p. 323). This is true of the majority of his work, which rests on recasting the images found in Borges's literary interest to give rise to reevaluations of their character and new ways of approaching their original context. This is consistent with the theory of fictions presented here insofar as the reality of ideas is contingent upon the relations they hold with the elements of our experience. Otherwise they fail to resonate in a way that makes their possibility salient. Hence, in appealing to the current material of our shared world, we aim at supplementing the sense of importance and experiences that are already in play. That being said, we must also be careful to observe the context that gives rise to our abstraction and not overextend its scope. To do so is to risk the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The aim, then, is to interrogate reality to cultivate the unrealized possibilities immanent to it.

This aim opens us up to the possibility of creative action. The Borges quotation above raises the possibility that human invention is always derivative in a sense. Invention involves producing the novel from experiments with the known. This view mirrors the concept of creativity present in nature for Whitehead. As he develops the concept in Adventures of Ideas, creativity captures the immanence of possibility in every occasion of experience (AI, p. 179). Creativity is not a separate factor in reality, it is the activity of perpetual (re)creation in the structure of reality. Reality, for Whitehead, is a process of synthesis that unifies its various occasions into a singular, novel entity. In this way, occasions of experience are creative in their essence. Thus, "'Creativity' is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively. It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity" (PR, p. 21).

The order of the universe owes its solidity to the activity of its constituent occasions. The implication is that the universe itself is a process of synthetic activity producing an order that is derivative, but novel in [End Page 94] relation to its previous instantiations. In other words, even if a particular object or process isn't experienced by us, it is experienced by something and owes its reality to that relationship. With regard to theory, this means that the production of concepts aims at widening our vision of these relations, adding to the potential data available for experience. This wider field of experience heightens the potential for creative action by enriching the field of relations in which we act.

Though we may cringe at the transformation of the world to Tlön, we can also read this change as a demonstration of the creative power of ideas actively realized. The emergence of Tlön rests on the translation of a singular volume of a counterfeit encyclopedia by two men curious about their discovery. Its capacity to form relations with their contemporary world rests on the activity of scholars, curious parties, and secret societies constructing a view persuasive enough to lure a population into its actualization on earth. We can say that theory and action, like concept and object, are not distinct but are both involved in the continued presence of an ordered world. The production of theory, an act in itself, attempts to provide a perspective of the world that directs our concern to a shift in perspective and subsequent change in social life. Theory provides us a way of generating creative action by widening our perspective of possible activity and alternatives to the present. The key is to resist the habit of Tlön and avoid ultimate seduction of a singular form of human order. The reorganization of the present rests on the imagination's continuous striving after the order of divine creation.

Michael L. Thomas
Susquehanna University


1. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), p. 3; hereafter abbreviated PR.

2. Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (New York: Macmillan, 1955), pp. 25–26; discussed further in Michael Halewood, A. N. Whitehead and Social Theory: A Culture of Thought (London: Anthem Press, 2011), pp. 148–49.

3. Silvia G. Dapia, "'This Is Not a Universe': An Approach to Borges' 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,'" Chasqui 26, no. 2 (1997): 94–107 (102).

4. Alastair Reid, "Jorge Luis Borges: Mapmaker of Imaginary Worlds," The Wilson Quarterly 10, no. 5 (1986): 142–47 (144–45). [End Page 95]

5. Seamus Heaney, Richard Kearney, and Jorge Luis Borges, "Borges and the World of Fiction: An Interview with Jorge Luis Borges," The Crane Bag 6, no. 2 (1982): 71–78 (75); hereafter abbreviated "BWF."

6. L. S. Dembo and Jorge Luis Borges, "An Interview with Jorge Luis Borges," Contemporary Literature 11, no. 3 (1970): 315–23 (317); hereafter abbreviated "Interview."

7. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York, Free Press, 1967), p. 221; hereafter abbreviated AI.

8. Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1999); hereafter abbreviated CF.

9. Isabelle Stengers, "A Constructivist Reading of Process and Reality," Theory, Culture, and Society 25, no. 4 (2008): 91–110 (96).

10. Joseph Agassi, "Philosophy as Literature: The Case of Borges," Mind 79, no. 314 (1970): 287–94 (292). [End Page 96]

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