From Allegories to Novels  

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"George Henry Lewes has observed that the only medieval debate of any philosophical value is the debate between nominalism and realism. This opinion is rather temerarious, but it emphasizes the importance of the persistent controversy provoked at the beginning of the ninth century by a sentence from Porphyry, which Boethius translated and annotated: a controversy that Anselm and Roscellinus continued at the end of the eleventh century and that William of Occam reanimated in the fourteenth."


"To the best of my knowledge, the allegorical genre has been analyzed by Schopenhauer (Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, I, 50), by De Quincey (Writings, XI, 198), by Francesco De Sanctis (Storia della letteratura italiana, VII), by Croce (Estetica, 39), and by Chesterton (G. F. Watts, 83). In this essay I shall consider only the last two. Croce denies the allegorical art; Chesterton vindicates it. I agree with the former, but I should like to know how a form we consider unjustifiable could have enjoyed so much favor."


"The passage from the allegory to the novel, from the species to the individual, from realism to nominalism, required several centuries, but I shall attempt to suggest an ideal date when it occurred. That day in 1382 when Geoffrey Chaucer, who perhaps did not believe he was a nominalist, wished to translate a line from Boccaccio into English, E con gli occulti jerri i Tradimenti (“And Treachery with hidden weapons” ), and he said it like this: “The smyler with the knyf under the cloke.” The original is in the seventh book of the Teseide; the English version, in “The Knightes Tale.”


"Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist. I do not think it possible that any one born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian. They are the two classes of men, beside which it is next to impossible to conceive a third. The one considers reason a quality, or attribute; the other considers it a power. I believe that Aristotle never could get to understand what Plato meant by an idea. ... Aristotle was, and still is, the sovereign lord of the understanding; the faculty judging by the senses. He was a conceptualist, and never could raise himself into that higher state, which was natural to Plato, and has been so to others, in which the understanding is distinctly contemplated, and, as it were, looked down upon, from the throne of actual ideas, or living, inborn, essential truths." --Samuel Taylor Coleridge's table talk


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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"From Allegories to Novels" (Spanish: De las alegorías a las novelas) is an essay by Jorge Luis Borges, collected in the anthology Other Inquisitions 1937-1952.

Excerpt:

"The Platonists sense intuitively that ideas are realities; the Aristotelians, that they are generalizations; for the former, language is nothing but a system of arbitrary symbols; for the latter, it is the map of the universe. The Platonist knows that the universe is in some way a cosmos, an order; this order, for the Aristotelian, may be an error or fiction resulting from our partial understanding. Across latitudes and epochs, the two immortal antagonists change languages and names: one is Parmenides, Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Francis Bradley; the other, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, William James. In the arduous schools of the Middle Ages, everyone invokes Aristotle, master of human reason ( Convivio IV, 2), but the nominalists are Aristotle; the realists, Plato. George Henry Lewes has opined that the only medieval debate of some philosophical value is between nominalism and realism; the opinion is somewhat rash, but it underscores the importance of this tenacious controversy, provoked, at the beginning of the ninth century, by a sentence from Porphyry, translated and commented upon by Boethius; sustained, toward the end of the eleventh, by Anselm and Roscelin; and revived by William of Occam in the fourteenth.

As one would suppose, the intermediate positions and nuances multiplied ad infinitum over those many years; yet it can be stated that, for realism, universals (Plato would call them ideas, forms; we would call them abstract concepts) were the essential; for nominalism, individuals. The history of philosophy is not a useless museum of distractions and wordplay; the two hypotheses correspond, in all likelihood, to two ways of intuiting reality. Maurice de Wulf writes: "Ultra-realism garnered the first adherents. The chronicler Heriman [in History of mediæval philosophy" [1]](eleventh century) gives the name 'antiqui doctares' to those who teach dialectics in re; Abelard speaks of it as an 'antique doctrine,' and until the end of the twelfth century, the name moderni is applied to its adversaries." A hypothesis that is now inconceivable seemed obvious in the ninth century, and lasted in some form into the fourteenth. Nominalism, once the novelty of a few, today encompasses everyone; its victory is so vast and fundamental that its name is useless. No one declares himself a nominalist because no one is anything else. Let us try to understand, nevertheless, that for the men of the Middle Ages the fundamental thing was not men but humanity, not individuals but the species, not the species but the genus, not the genera but God. From such concepts (whose clearest manifestation is perhaps the quadruple system of Erigena) allegorical literature, as I understand it, derived. Allegory is a fable of abstractions, as the novel is a fable of individuals."

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