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Philosophy in Latin America

Borges, the Apologist for Idealism

Marina Martín
St John's University (MN)

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ABSTRACT: In Nueva refutación del tiempo, Borges explicitly interprets both Berkeley and Hume as genuine exponents and "apologists" of idealism. We may not owe Berkeley the discovery of a doctrine which according to Borges is practically as "ancient" and "popular" as metaphysics itself. However, his arguments connote a unique philosophical achievement. Borges himself adheres to these arguments and goes beyond them. He makes Berkeley's doctrine flow into Hume's which in turn flows into the uniform ocean of pantheistic idealism as envisioned by Schopenhauer and by Oriental philosophy. A close reading of the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" shows how the epistemology inherent in the language descriptions of this planet leads its metaphysicians to move from the underlying Berkeleian-Humean principles to the acceptance of pantheistic idealism. This story is not only a subtle, imaginative fantasy; it is also a work of intellectual elegance reading deep into the problem of knowledge of the external world. Berkeley and Hume devoted their whole attention to this issue and developed views that could adequately address the problem. Borges avoids arguing whether their doctrine falls under the denomination of "immaterialism," "phenomenalism" or "idealism." He seems either to deliberately ignore this scholarly dispute or to go beyond it in an effort to let the texts speak for themselves. Thus, Berkeley's Principles, and Hume's Treatise and first Enquiry show a common fact: the world is mind-dependent.

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Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi, St. Augustine, De vera religione, XXXIX, 72.

The first person narrative voice in "El Zahir," one of the stories included in El Aleph, states that according to the idealist doctrine the verbs "vivir" y "soñar" son rigurosamente sinónimos ("living and dreaming are rigorously synonymous," OC I 595). Borges portrays himself as a fictional character — a common narrative device used in many of his stories — and talks with a voice that seems to echo other voices. The attentive listener will detect many. Only a few, such as Schopenhauer, Hume, and Berkeley, have a distinctive recurrence in Borges' writings, but they also echo other voices in this our infinite "Library of Babel."

In volume II of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung we read that the world must be recognized as "akin to a dream," a mental creation (vol II, 4).For Schopenhauer, no truth is more certain than this: everything that exists for knowledge is only object in relation to the subject, perception of the perceiver, or "representation" (vol. I, 3). From a phenomenalist position, Hume holds the same view: perceptions can only be explained in relation to consciousness. Most important, their existence conveys certainty. Being immediately present to us by consciousness, perceptions "command our strongest assent, and are the first foundation of all our conclusions" (T 212). Hume grants the immediacy of impressions to have a predominant ontological status over other perceptions that are either their copies or fictitious mind constructions. Although Berkeley emphasizes the mind-dependent character in every perception, he plainly denies that an "illusory world" follows from his doctrine. Whether or not Berkeley is consistent in making this claim lies beyond the scope of the present study. It is important to realize, however, that Borges reads Berkeley through Hume's eyes: the world is a mental construction reducible to an empty appearance shaped and limited by our cognitive faculties.

"Nueva refutación del tiempo" explicitly interprets both Berkeley and Hume as genuine exponents and "apologists" of idealism (139). We may not owe Berkeley the discovery of a doctrine which according to Borges is practically as "ancient" as metaphysics itself, but his arguments connote a unique philosophical achievement. (1) Borges himself adheres to these arguments and goes beyond them. He makes Berkeley's doctrine flow into Hume's which in turn flows into the uniform ocean of pantheistic idealism as supposedly envisioned by Schopenhauer and by Eastern philosophy. A close reading of the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" shows how the epistemology inherent in the language descriptions of this planet leads its metaphysicians to move from the underlying Berkeleian-Humean principles to the acceptance of pantheistic idealism.

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is not only a subtle, imaginative fantasy. It is also a work of intellectual elegance reading deep into the philosophical problem of knowledge of the external world. Needless to say, Berkeley and Hume devoted their attention to this issue and developed views that could adequately address the problem. Borges does not want to argue whether or not their doctrine falls under the denomination of "immaterialism," "phenomenalism," or "idealism" . He seems to either ignore deliberately this scholarly dispute or to go beyond it in an effort to let the texts speak for themselves. Thus, Berkeley's Principles, Hume's Treatise, and first Enquiry would show a common fact: the world is mind-dependent.

The story of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is not only a carefully structured piece of fiction. It is also an interpretation of the complex, and yet to be defined philosophical concept of "idealism." Although left unacknowledged by critics, this is one of Borges's significant accomplishments — yet, one that exposes him to severe criticisms from supporters of orthodox views. These attacks, far from diminishing his merit, tend to increase it. Borges's attitude may indeed be humorous, but not frivolous. He does not group together in his writings, out of fancy classification, different philosophers such as Berkeley, Hume, and Schopenhauer. Nor does he relate them on inadequate grounds. After all, one of his well known purposes is to make his reader aware of the arbitrariness underlying man-made classifications. What appears to be an inflexible and rigid label can easily turn out to be a provisional name. We may then question to what extent idealism is to be identified only with the doctrines exposed by Kant, Fichte, Hegel, or Schopenhauer. Is there a general consensus as to what we should understand as genuine "idealism"? We are invited to dig into the volumes crowding the endless libraries that were always subject to the uncanny curiosity and devoted attention of an Argentinean "lost in the maze of metaphysics": un argentino extraviado en la metafísica (NR 135). Borges lets us envision a web of disputes which heads toward what Kant called the "battlefield" of endless controversies, namely metaphysics (CPR 7).

By calling both Berkeley and Hume "idealist philosophers," "Nueva refutación del tiempo" deliberately introduces a polemical view. Our attention is thereby directed to a still unsolved controversy: should Berkeley be understood as an "idealist"? Should Hume? A. A. Luce, one of the most acclaimed Berkeley scholars, insists that the Berkeleian doctrine can be assimilated to Kant, Hegel or Bradley's "only by being misinterpreted" (Berkeley's Immaterialism 25). The main purpose of this doctrine, he claims, is to refute material substance, a supposed non-spiritual substrate of the things perceived — an external world of material objects. That is why Berkeley called his own philosophy "immaterialism" — a most appropriate label, according to Luce, since it emphasizes existence as necessarily related to actual or possible perception. It is still not clear, however, how Luce's own definition of immaterialism conflicts with idealism, or how it ultimately differs from it. If the world is mind-dependent, as idealism claims, if existence is to be related to actual or possible perception, then one could legitimately conclude that immaterialism is the logical outcome of the idealist's claims. "Perceptions are the only existences of which we are certain, " Hume declares (T 212). "The world is my representation," Schopenhauer claims. And Borges's writings portray the view that what lies beyond our minds or our language is impossible to either say or decipher.

From a critical, skeptical position that questions common sense beliefs both Borges and Hume grant Berkeley that the assumption of an external world behind our internal and perishing perceptions is irrelevant and superfluous. Borges points out that Berkeley negó la materia — did refute matter — and explains what he thinks Berkeley meant by it: "He argued that adding a matter to our perceptions is adding an inconceivable, superfluous world to the world" (NR 144). (2) Borges shares Berkeley's "idealism." Yet he never takes the world displayed by the senses to be real. Although we are naturally compelled to view it so — since no form of action would otherwise be possible — that very world of objects, taken for granted in our daily lives, is for both Borges and Hume "a fiction of the imagination," a mental creation determined by our cognitive competence.

The controversy about the proper use of the term "idealism" applies to related issues, such as those of "space" and "time." Luce blames Kant for the prevalence of a misleading practice, i.e., calling Berkeley an idealist. In his "Refutation of Idealism" Kant does indeed take Berkeley as the paradigm of "dogmatic idealism." Space turns, according to Kant, into "something which is in itself impossible," consequently the things existing in it are nothing but "imaginary entities" (CPR 244). These could well be Borges's own words for he holds that Berkeley persistently refuted absolute space — repetidamente negó el espacio absoluto (NR 145).

Given Borges's sympathetic attitude toward idealism we may well ask whether he maintained, as Kant and Schopenhauer did, that space and time are to be understood as necessary forms of intuition. But Borges's concept of space is not easy to pin down. He may have held early in life a view close to Kant's. Thus, a poem included in Fervor metaphorically states that space and time are "magic instruments of the soul" — instrumentos mágicos del alma (OP 29). Later on, he claims that space is an incident in time, rather than a universal subjective condition of intuition, as Kant thought: "I believe that the proper idelaist position states that space is nothing but one of the forms in the heavy flow of time." (3)

For Hume "thought" and "extension" are incompatible, since the former is indivisible whereas the latter is not. In this view, the alleged mind-body interaction raises extravagant hypothesis: "Wou'd the indivisible thought exist on the left or on the right hand of this extended divisible body, on the surface or in the middle?" . . . (T 234) Borges, like Hume, is not willing to hide the amusement this issue causes him.

Both "space" and its conjoined concept of "extension" or "extended body" are nothing but forms of empirical knowledge. Our "imagination," according to Hume, inevitably compels us to perceive phenomena as being extended in space and persisting in time, despite our absence. Borges approaches the concepts of "space" and "external world" through fiction. Since "space" is not always required to make perception possible, he depicts imaginary beings whose cognitive faculties seem to be deprived of spatial intuition. Such is the case with the inhabitants of Tlön who are congenitally idealist (435). A quite interesting precedent of this story is found in an early essay, "La penúltima versión de la realidad," written in 1928. Its closing paragraph briefly advances a fantastic postulation. Can we imagine the human race with just the senses of smell and hearing? Borges invites his readers to envision such a possibility: Imaginemos anuladas así las percepciones oculares, táctiles y gustativas y el espacio que éstas definen (OC I 201). Once we cancel perceptions of sight, touch or taste, we cancel the space that these perceptions define. We might then assume that humans would eventually "lose" the concept or idea of "space" or would have no recollection of such a thing: {l}a humanidad se olvidaría de que hubo espacio (OC I 201). Borges is thus illustrating a main tenet of idealism: our world is determined by the nature of our perceptual cognition. Because we are so constituted, we are bound to approach the world from a human, spatio-temporal perspective. Had our faculties been framed otherwise, we would have been exposed to a different world of phenomena.

"Space" is a deliberately vague notion in "Tlön," yet rich in connotations. It incorporates Borges's own reading of Berkeley, namely no positive formulation of space is to be expected. Space is not an external and absolute entity in Tlön, since this planet's fictitious inhabitants do not "view" extended objects persisting in time: no conciben que lo espacial perdure en el tiempo ("Tlön" 436). The continued existence of an unperceived "something" is an absurd hypothesis. Tlön's idealist nations believe that lo espacial has no existence outside the perceiving mind. So, properly speaking, the world is not un concurso de objetos en el espacio — a world of extended objects — persisting through time, but rather a mental "parade" of rapidly perishing perceptions ("Tlön" 435). It is a world made out of time, not of space.

The fantastic Tlönian mind mirrors Hume's analysis of experience: a flux of discontinuous perceptions rapidly succeeding each other. The fact that geometry, like any other science, is diligently developed in Tlön reveals a common narrative technique used by Borges: the overlapping of the "fantastic" with the "real" to create a parody of reality. Humor and imagination mix together in this story to unfold the metaphysical problems involved in idealism.

The elements of consciousness, depicted in the atomistic Humean analysis of sense data, show that there is nothing beyond, or at least that there is no way to know. Common sense beliefs, however, compel us to assume an external world — Hume, the naturalist, constantly notes. If the imaginary inhabitants envisioned by Borges are not so compelled, how are we supposed to understand the existence of a discipline in Tlön such as geometry? Do these strange inhabitants have an idea of "space" at all? Are they somehow intellectually framed as to perceive extended objects? Borges does not give a straightforward answer, but remarks with humor that Tlönian geometry has two branches: la visual y la táctil. These parodic terms which obviously involve the notion of "extension" — an idea acquired, as both Berkeley and Hume maintain, through vision and touch — refer to the human perceptual make-up and bring the story on familiar ground. Surprisingly, the remote inhabitants of Tlön turn out to be closer to us than we first thought. By mixing deliberately the fantastic with the real, Borges makes the reader aware that the limits presumably separating one realm from the other do not exist. If at the beginning of the story the description of Tlön fits that of a fictitious planet, at the end the reader is shocked by the striking similarity found between Tlön and our own planet. Borges has achieved this effect with brilliant skill by gradually increasing descriptive and parodic elements taken to be "real."

Tlön's idealist nations find inspiration in the doctrines expounded by Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer since all forms of idealism, according to Borges, conclude in the same way: the world around us — the "solid" world of extended objects — is a dream, a mental construction. Certainly, neither Berkeley, nor Kant, unlike Hume and Borges, consider themselves to be skeptics and both claim that the world of phenomena is not an "imaginary entity." The controversy about idealism may have no end. Whether or not Borges properly attributes to Berkeley and Kant the same skeptical, negative conclusion reached in Book I of the Treatise is certainly an issue opened to discussion. (4) Whether or not Borges's wide use of the term "idealism" is misleading may certainly be argued, but it cannot simply be dismissed. We might discover that it is worth exploring the reasons alleged by philosophy scholars who happen to justify his views. (5)

Borges's inclusion of Hume within idealism opens up one of the most interesting issues discussed in the increasingly vast bibliography devoted to the Scottish philosopher: the role played by the imagination in the making of experience. This role underlies Hume's famous reply to Berkeley, quoted in "Tlön," i.e. that Berkeley's doctrine admits of no answer and produces no conviction. Borges admired Berkeley's ingenious and unanswerable arguments as much as Hume did, but neither could bring themselves to embrace their truth in practice. Acceptance of an external world is a fact that our "imagination" has not left to our choice.

In order to understand Borges's epistemological approach to the external world, his relation to idealism should be fully considered. This, in turn, involves an examination of his position with regard to the concepts of "identity" and "time." A brief survey of his position is sketched below.

"Nueva refutación del tiempo" — one of Borges's most relevant essays — focuses predominantly on Berkeley and Hume, presenting extensive quotes from their writings. Most important, in this essay Borges refers to his own position as the "unavoidable outcome" of their doctrine: creo haber deducido . . . la consecuencia inevitable de su doctrina (NR 135). Acceptance of the Berkeleian premise esse est percipi, according to him, is an ipso facto commitment to idealism. All his works, especially his fiction, convey this imprint in one way or another.

Borges and Hume share a position which is in essence quite ironic: while consciousness provides the foundation of existence, the idealist arguments lead them to emphasize the mental world and yet deny the existence of a mind. They grant epistemological and ontological priority to the Cartesian concept of cogitatio, not to the cogito, which turns out to be a "necessary illusion." This is a major step in Borges's works. It can be traced back as far as 1925, when he publishes "La nadería de la personalidad" (The Nothingness of the Self") — an essay in which he implicitly shows his devotion to Hume and to his beloved and much respected Macedonio Fernández. Later in life, he states that the self is a delusion and calls our attention to the similarities between the Humean negative doctrine and Buddhism: "The self is one of the major delusions. Buddhism therefore agrees with Hume, Schopenhauer and with our dear Macedonio Fernández." (Siete noches 93). (6) Borges did not change his position on this point in the least, rather he reinforces the denial of personal identity from an epistemological standpoint to which he remains faithful. The Berkeleian doctrine is here left behind. But Borges thinks this is only partially true, since he claims to be keeping the very essence of that doctrine. He then joins Hume in the common effort to bring the Bishop's premise to its ultimate consequence:

Once the idealist argument is admitted, I see that it is possible — perhaps inevitable — to go further. For Hume it is not licit to speak of the form of the moon or of its color ; the form and color are the moon; neither can one speak of the perceptions of the mind, since the mind is nothing other than a series of perceptions. The Cartesian "I think therefore I am" is thus invalidated; to say "I think" postulates the self and beggs the question ; Lichtenberg in the eighteenth century, proposed that in place of " I think" we should say, impersonally, "it thinks, " just as one would say "it thunders" or "it rains."

Admitido el argumento idealista, entiendo que es posible -tal vez, inevitable- ir más lejos. Para Hume no es lícito hablar de la forma de la luna o de su color; la forma y el color son la luna; tampoco puede hablarse de las percepciones de la mente, ya que la mente no es otra cosa que una serie de percepciones. El pienso, luego soy cartesiano queda invalidado; decir pienso es postular el yo, es una petición de principio; Lichtenberg, en el siglo XVIII, propuso que en lugar de pienso, dijéramos impersonalmente piensa, como quien dice truena y relampaguea(NR 139).

The story of "Tlön" is conceived under this premise. There are no nouns, only impersonal verbs in the supposed Tlönian languages of the southern hemisphere. Borges's narrative voice explains that there is no word that denotes the moon — no hay palabra que corresponda a la palabra luna, — yet there is a verb: un verbo que en español sería lunecero lunar ("Tlön" 135). If we take these descriptions to be fancy, arbitrary creations, we fail to understand the story and its significant philosophical import. Hume's epistemological principles are tacitly assumed. The inhabitants of the imaginary planet, and their strange world, cannot be understood if no reference is made to Hume's negative doctrine. Berkeley's philosophy is not enough. One must, in fact, go beyond it and deny together with Hume the existence of both material and spiritual substance.

Upon rejection of the self, the so-called external world vanishes. This is the case with Tlön, a planet whose rational life is governed by the esse est percipi principle: a vertiginous, anonymous world of fleeting perceptions. But again, one must go beyond Hume's doctrine too and arrive at a conclusion, as the metaphysicians of Tlön eventually do, already implicit in his criticisms; namely, the denial of time.

How can we maintain the existence of an external, objective world, having refuted and canceled the inner, subjective world of the self? Both Hume and Borges pose this question from a critical, skeptical standpoint. How is it possible — Borges probes further — that, having rejected the "continuity" in both matter and the self, we still cling to a no less imaginary illusion, such as the continuity of time? In his early essay "La encrucijada de Berkeley," Borges anticipates his arguments in "Nueva refutación" and he writes that the self, matter and time vanish in the air: {L]o que sí vuélvese humo son las grandes continuidades metafísicas: el yo, el espacio, el tiempo (Inquisiciones 115).

The essay "El tiempo y J. W. Dunne," included in Otras inquisiciones, calls our attention to the subjects of "time" and "self identity." We learn about the existence of an ancient doctrine in India according to which the self cannot possibly be known: if the yo, the self, were immediately apprehended, a second self would have to be needed which, in turn, would require the existence of a third one, and so on ad infinitum. Schopenhauer corroborates in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung II, chapter 19, the impossibility of knowing the self. Self-consciousness involves the concepts of a "knower" and a "known." The knower as such, he explains, cannot be known, otherwise this knower would be in turn the known of another knower. We then encounter una vertiginosa y nebulosa jerarquía de sujetos — i.e. an abyssmal and hazy hierarchy of subjects — which seems to have no end, like the infinite library of Babel, or the measureless distance that Achilles has yet to go through to reach the tortoise.

"The identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one," Hume declares (T 259). It is at most a "bundle" or "collection" of perceptions. Nothing else (T 207, 252). Borges brings the argument further: "a collection?" Properly speaking, do we need to add such an empty concept? Where would this supposed "collection" begin or end? On what grounds should the continuity of time be assumed? The alleged collection of perceptions — la suma de diferentes situaciones de ánimo — can never be brought to completion — nunca [será] realizada ni realizable. Once the idealist argument has been accepted, Borges holds, there is no need to maintain the existence of time. Once the assumption of personal identity has been discarded beneath the flow of perceptions, this very "flow" collapses as well. If "to be" is indeed "to be perceived," we should then have an original impression of the alleged continuity of time. It seems that all we can be sure of, however, is the actual presence of perceptions.

As the young Borges of Inquisiciones points out, this fictitious entity that I call "myself" is tied up to an astonishing divisible present: Yo estoy limitado a este vertiginoso presente (116). Once spiritual and material substance — as well as their continuity in time — are discarded, on what grounds can we still assume the continuity of time?: [n]egados el espíritu y la materia, que son continuidades, negado también el espacio, no sé qué derecho tenemos a esa continuidad que es el tiempo (NR 139 ). Since we are unable to determine exactly when a moment begins or ends, we can no longer assume temporal continuity. Time — this constant reality we are made of — is also an "illusion." Only the present is real.

To conclude, one could say with Wittgenstein that "the limits of my world are the limits of "my thought," and consequently the limits of "my language" (Tractatus 5. 6). What lies beyond it. . . there is no way to know or say. Consciousness alone is given.

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(1) The text reads: De las muchas doctrinas que la historia de la filosofía registra, tal vez el idealismo es la más antigua y la más divulgada — "Of the many doctrines registered by the history of philosophy perhaps idealism is the oldest and most widespread" (NR 144).

(2) "Razonó que agregar una materia a las percepciones es agregar al mundo un inconcebible mundo superfluo. Creyó en el mundo apariencial que urden los sentidos, pero entendió que el mundo material . . . es una duplicación ilusoria" — "[h]e argued that adding matter to perceptions is adding an inconceivable superfluous world. He believed in the world displayed by the senses, but he took the material world to be an illusory duplication" (NR 144).

(3) Pienso que para un buen idealismo el espacio no es sino una de las formas que integran la cargada fluencia del tiempo, he asserts ("La penúltima versión de la realidad" OC I 200).

(4) There is room, however, to assume that Kant himself comes close to depicting the phenomenal world as an "imaginary entity." Thus, he sometimes warns: "External objects (bodies), however, are mere appearances, and are therefore nothing but a species of my representations" (CPR 346). This means, as he clearly adds, that "[a]part from them," i.e., their being representations, "they are nothing" (CPR 346).

(5) C. M. Turbayne, unlike Luce, holds that Berkeley's doctrine can be properly labeled as "idealist." In fact, he claims that Kant not only repeated the Bishop's arguments against materialism using different terms, but also that he "took pains to distinguish his own system from Berkeley's" (Introd. xxxi). He therefore joins forces with Warnock, Ernest Mach, Unamuno, and Borges in an effort to dispel doubts about the adequate attribution of the term "idealism" to other than German Idealism. Borges of course adds the name of David Hume to the controversial list. Although this inclusion is strongly argued, a number of distinguished scholars have come down on the positive side of this issue. Lewis White Beck, for instance, draws an interesting parallelism between Hume and Kant. The role played by natural beliefs, according to Beck, can fairly be read as if in fact Hume meant them to be a condition of the possibility of experience (Essays on Kant and Hume). Keeping in mind the differences between Hume and Kant, Norman Kemp Smith had already noticed that parallelism ("The Naturalism of Hume"). What other interpretation can be given to the claim that if it were not for our natural beliefs — i.e. belief in the external world, and in causal relation — human life, together with any form of possible language, would vanish? For Hume, the naturalist, these beliefs are nothing but "the foundation of all our thoughts and actions, so that upon their removal human nature must immediately perish and go to ruin" (T 225). The implication here coincides with one of the fundamental tenets underlying the story of "Tlön": once the belief in a world of objects — portrayed in common language by the existence of substantives — is destroyed, human praxis, and language itself cease to exist.

Due to the significant role played by the imagination in the making of our daily experience, Hume's inclusion within idealism is justifiable. D. W. Livingstone, has recently held that "Hume's way is transcendental and points more in the direction of Kant's critical philosophy than back to Locke's and Berkeley's method of beginning with the contents of the mind" (11). This reading, which would have been considered "shocking" not long ago, is now beginning to gain acceptance. H. H. Price had already noticed a quite striking resemblance between Hume and Kant's use of "imagination" in his classical Hume's Theory of the External World. The section entitled "Scepticism with regard to the Senses" — whose closest parallel in Borges's writings is "Tlön" — presents Hume's most extensive statement of his theory of the external world. If Kant had been able to read this part of the Treatise when he was writing the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories, Price points out, he would have found that his own theory of the phenomenal world, and of the part played by the imagination "was in many ways parallel to Hume's" (2). P. F. Strawson makes a similar claim in his article "Imagination and Perception" and strongly supports Hume's link with idealism (Freedom and Resentment). Although this line of interpretation is relatively recent, there is still much to be explored in Hume's treatment of imagination in the Treatise, together with the implications it conveys. M. Warnock's Imagination proves to be a valuable help. However, more detailed and full-length treatment on the subject is still needed. Taking into account these views, there is good reason to acknowledge Borges's reading of Berkeley and Hume as a significant philosophical contribution underlying the artistic value of his works.

(6) Una de las delusiones capitales es la del yo. El budismo concuerda así con Hume, con Schopenhauer, y con nuestro Macedonio Fernández.

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