The philosophy of David Foster Wallace

A new book republishes the late writer's early academic work -- with surprisingly telling results

Topics: Writers and Writing, Nonfiction, Books,

The philosophy of David Foster Wallace

In 1962, a philosopher (and world-famous beekeeper) named Richard Taylor published a soon-to-be-notorious essay called “Fatalism” in the Philosophical Review. As the title indicates, it concerned a subject that, as a matter of human intellectual concern, surely dates back to the minute Homo became sapiens. That is the subject of the future and how it is determined: by the gods or God; solely by the past and the present; or (in circumstances that appear to be within our control), by our own agency — free will. Taylor’s argument, which he himself found distasteful, was that certain logical and seemingly unarguable premises lead to the conclusion that even in matters of human choice, the future is as set in stone as the past. We may think we can affect it, but we can’t. When we try to change it, we simply put ourselves deeper into its stony hands. To quote Doris Day, “Que sera, sera” and that’s all there is to it.

Barnes & Noble ReviewThis position bothered young David Foster Wallace when he was an undergraduate at Amherst, in the 1980s, with a double major in philosophy and creative writing. In fact, he was beginning his general transition from the one professional field to the other, maybe in part Oedipally, as his father was a well-known philosopher. And his opposition to fatalism coincided with his burgeoning interest in fiction, whose very nature might be said to demand some semblance of free will, as it nearly always concerns dramatic choices. It is almost as if the young genius were defying his own fated future in philosophy by becoming a literary writer — a writer of obsessive talent, now somewhat overrated because of his untimely death, whose works include the novels “The Broom of the System” and “Infinite Jest.”

In any case, Wallace’s thesis in philosophy, “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” has — along with Taylor’s original essay and a good deal of additional apparatus — now been published by Columbia University Press under the title “Fate, Time, and Language.” It contains an excellent introduction by James Ryerson, which first appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2008, shortly after Wallace’s suicide; many articles attempting to rebut Taylor’s argument; responses by Taylor; Wallace’s essay(centrally); an epilogue about Wallace as a student; and an appendix. The philosophical parts of the book are very difficult, replete with symbolic-logic signs — it will no doubt have a bought-to-finished ratio similar to that of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” though the “bought” factor may be a lot smaller.

But even if the reader doesn’t understand all or even half of it, this is an excellent chapbook about a subject — human responsibility — that, with advances in neuroscience, is of increasing urgency in jurisprudence, social codes and personal conduct. And it also shows a brilliant young man struggling against fatalism, performing exquisite exercises to convince others, and maybe himself, that what we choose to do is what determines the future, rather than the future more or less determining what we choose to do. This intellectual struggle on Wallace’s part seems now a kind of emotional foreshadowing of his suicide. He was a victim of depression from an early age — even during his undergraduate years — and the future never looks more intractable than it does to someone who is depressed.

Here is my philosophy-minor’s drastically oversimplified effort to describe Taylor’s thesis and Wallace’s attempted rebuttal. Taylor imagines a naval commander on the deck of a ship who can today order the ship to commence battle or refrain from doing so. Tomorrow it will be the case that he did issue the order or that he did not. If tomorrow it is the case that there was no battle today, that means that the commander cannot have issued the order. That is, the condition tomorrow — battle or not-battle — can be said, achronologically, to have required the commander’s decision: There is only one future, and everything in the present, despite our illusion of will and choice, is required to happen to create that future. “A fatalist thinks of the future,” Taylor says, “in the manner in which we all think of the past.”

Wallace’s ornate, symbol-laden response, based on a new system of truth-value he calls J, leads him to the conclusion that right now there are indeed many possible futures, and that what we decide to do today — this, that or the other decision — will determine which future we will have. That, for instance, when someone on a train to St. Louis says, “I could just as easily be on a train to Chicago,” it actually means something. Taylor would say that it means only what the words mean and has nothing to do with any real possibility in the world, even in the past, for in fact the person is on the train to Chicago and was always going to be.

Taylor presents his case calmly, like a beekeeper at his hives. Wallace’s essay, necessarily much longer, as it was his thesis, feels a little more informal and excited — “One approach to defusing the Taylor argument is to attack presupposition 1.” — as befits not only a younger man but also someone who is in a way fighting for his life, or at least the meaning of his life. Wallace’s essay conveys everywhere that this issue matters. Taylor seems far more clinical but also regretful, in a detached way.

Make no mistake — “Fate, Time, and Language” is very hard going for the general reader: “Since the modalities Kripke is concerned with are alethic, K is the set of all worlds that are not logically inconsistent.” But there is a way of reading it for the bare bones of the issue and disregarding the vascular complexities.

Speaking of Oedipus, Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy presents a perfect dramatization of this exact philosophical problem, with the Greek gods thrown in to complicate matters a little. Oedipus is, after all, told his fate by the Delphic oracle. In order to try to avoid it, he does nothing but make sure it happens. But there are stops along the way to his tragedy where the playwright seems to be saying that Oedipus could indeed have not slain his father and stayed out of bed with his mother — for example, simply by not marrying a much older woman.

Finally, speaking of slayings, “Fate, Time, and Language” reminded me of how fond philosophers are of extreme situations in creating their thought experiments. In this book alone we find a naval battle, the gallows, a shotgun, poison, an accident that leads to paraplegia, somebody stabbed and killed, and so on. Why not say “I have a pretzel in my hand today. Tomorrow I will have eaten it or not eaten it” instead of “I have a gun in my hand and I will either shoot you through the heart and feast on your flesh or I won’t”? Well, OK — the answer is easy: The extreme and violent scenarios catch our attention more forcefully than pretzels do. Also, philosophers, sequestered and meditative as they must be, may long for real action — beyond beekeeping.

Wallace, in his essay, at the very center of trying to show that we can indeed make meaningful choices, places a terrorist in the middle of Amherst’s campus with his finger on the trigger mechanism of a nuclear weapon. It is by far the most narratively arresting moment in all of this material, and it says far more about the author’s approaching antiestablishment explosions of prose and his extreme emotional makeup than it does about tweedy profs fantasizing about ordering their ships into battle. For, after all, who, besides everyone around him, would the terrorist have killed?

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