Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will


Long before he probed the workings of time, human choice, and human frailty in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant philosophical critique of Richard Taylor's argument for fatalism. In 1962, Taylor used six commonly accepted presuppositions to imply that humans have no control over the future. Not only did Wallace take issue with Taylor's method, which, according to him, scrambled the relations of logic, language, and the physical world, but he also called out a...

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Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

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Long before he probed the workings of time, human choice, and human frailty in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant philosophical critique of Richard Taylor's argument for fatalism. In 1962, Taylor used six commonly accepted presuppositions to imply that humans have no control over the future. Not only did Wallace take issue with Taylor's method, which, according to him, scrambled the relations of logic, language, and the physical world, but he also called out a semantic trick at the heart of Taylor's argument.

Wallace was a great skeptic of abstract thinking made to function as a negation of something more genuine and real. He was especially suspicious of certain paradigms of thought-the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever gimmickry of postmodernism-that abandoned "the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community." As Wallace rises to meet the challenge to free will presented by Taylor (and a number of other philosophical heavyweights), we experience the developing perspective of this major novelist, along with the beginning of his lifelong struggle to establish solid logical ground for his soaring convictions. This volume reproduces Taylor's original article and other works on fatalism cited by Wallace in his critique. James Ryerson, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, draws parallels in his introduction between Wallace's early work in philosophy and the themes and explorations of his fiction.

A companion website, www.davidfosterwallace-fate-time-language.net, established by Maureen Eckert, will feature interviews with philosophers and avid Wallace fans on the import of his arguments.

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Editorial Reviews

Justin Moyer
The particulars of Wallace's argument will elude lay readers unfamiliar with philosophy's "contingent future-tensed propositions" and "law of the excluded middle." Still, fiction lovers with even a minimal knowledge of Aristotle and Wittgenstein will understand that the core proposition of fatalism—we have no say in what we do—haunted Wallace's writing.
—The Washington Post
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Fatalism, the sorrowful erasure of possibilities, is the philosophical problem at the heart of this book. To witness the intellectual exuberance and bravado with which the young Wallace attacks this problem, the ambition and elegance of the solution he works out so that possibility might be resurrected, is to mourn, once again, the possibilities that have been lost.

Financial Times - Anthony Gottlieb

[A] tough and impressive book.Financial Times

Times Literary Supplement - Robert Potts

an excellent summary of Wallace's thought and writing which shows how his philosophical interests were not purely cerebral, but arose from, and fed into, his emotional and ethical concerns.

Notre Dame Philosophical Review - Daniel Speak

Fate, Time, and Laguage contains a great deal of first-rate philosophy throughout, and not least in Wallace's extraordinarily professional and ambitious essay....

Australian Literary Review - James Ley

Valuable and interesting.

Midwest Book Review

A philosophical argument that deserves a place in any college-level library interested in modern philosophical debate. A lively, debative tone keeps this accessible to newcomers.

Financial Times
[A] tough and impressive book.

— Anthony Gottlieb

Times Literary Supplement
an excellent summary of Wallace's thought and writing which shows how his philosophical interests were not purely cerebral, but arose from, and fed into, his emotional and ethical concerns.

— Robert Potts

Notre Dame Philosophical Review
Fate, Time, and Laguage contains a great deal of first-rate philosophy throughout, and not least in Wallace's extraordinarily professional and ambitious essay....

— Daniel Speak

Australian Literary Review
Valuable and interesting.

— James Ley

The Barnes & Noble Review

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 which, 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 more deeply into its stony hands. To quote Doris Day, "Que sera, sera" and that's all there is to it.

This 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; (centrally) Wallace's essay; 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 Phil-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, a-chronologically, 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 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 anti-establishment explosions of prose and his extreme emotional makeup than it does about tweedy-elbowed profs fantasizing about ordering their ships into battle. For, after all, who, besides everyone around him, would the terrorist have killed?

--Daniel Menaker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231151566
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/10/2010
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) wrote the acclaimed novels Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System and the story collections Oblivion, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Girl with Curious Hair. His nonfiction includes the essay collections Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and the full-length work Everything and More.


Born in Ithaca, NY, and raised in Champaign, IL, David Foster Wallace grew up athletically gifted and exceptionally bright, with an avid interest in tennis, literature, philosophy, and math. He attended Amherst and graduated in 1985 with a double major in English and Philosophy. His philosophy thesis (on modal logic) won the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize. His English thesis would become his first novel, The Broom of the System. Published in 1987 during his second year of grad school at the University of Arizona, the book sold well, garnering national attention and critical praise in equal measure. Two years later, a book of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, was published to admiring reviews.

In the early 1990s, Wallace's short fiction began to appear regularly in publications like Playboy, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker, along with excerpts from his second novel, a complex, enormously ambitious work published in 1996 as Infinite Jest. Surpassing 1,000 pages in length, the novel was hailed as a masterpiece ("[A]n entertainment so irresistibly pleasurable it renders the viewer catatonic," raved Newsweek. "[R]esourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique," pronounced Atlantic Monthly), and Wallace was crowned on the spot the new heavyweight champion of literary fiction.

Hyperbole aside, Infinite Jest, with its linguistic acrobatics (challenging complex clauses, coined words, etc.) and sly, self-referential footnotes, proved to be the template for a new literary style. Subversive, hip, and teeming with postmodernist irony, the book attracted a rabid cult following and exerted an influence on up-and-coming young writers that is still felt today. The scope of Wallace's achievement can be measured by the fact that one year after the publication of Infinite Jest, he was awarded the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant."

Nearly as famous for his nonfiction as for his novels and stories, Wallace produced mind-boggling essays on assignment for magazines like Harper's. In contrast to his sad, dark, disturbing fiction, these essays -- subsequently collected into such bestselling anthologies as A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997), Everything and More (2003), and Consider the Lobster (2007) -- were ridiculously exuberant, fairly bursting with humor, energy, and good cheer. Yet Wallace himself suffered from clinical depression most of his adult life. He was treated successfully with anti-depressants, until side effects from the drugs began to interfere with his productivity. At his doctor's suggestion, he stopped taking the medication.The depression returned, and he did not respond to any further treatment. In September of 2008, at the age of 46, he committed suicide.

Wallace's influence on contemporary literature cannot be overstated. Descended from post-war superstars like Thomas Pynchon and Don De Lillo, his style is clearly visible in the work of postmodernists like Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers. His untimely death was mourned by critics, writers, and millions of adoring fans. As author David Lipsky stated in a tribute that aired on NPR in September, 2008: "To read David Foster Wallace was to feel your eyelids pulled open."

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    1. Date of Birth:
      February 21, 1962
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ithaca, NY
    1. Date of Death:
      September 12, 2008
    2. Place of Death:
      Claremont, CA
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English & Philosophy, Amherst College, 1985;MFA, University of Arizona, 1987

Table of Contents

Preface, by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert Introduction: A Head That Throbbed Heartlike: The Philosophical Mind of David Foster Wallace, by James Ryerson
Part I: The Background
Introduction, by Steven M. Cahn
1. Fatalism, by Richard Taylor
2. Professor Taylor on Fatalism, by John Turk Saunders
3. Fatalism and Ability, by Richard Taylor
4. Fatalism and Ability II, by Peter Makepeace
5. Fatalism and Linguistic Reform, by John Turk Saunders
6. Fatalism and Professor Taylor, by Bruce Aune
7. Taylor's Fatal Fallacy, by Raziel Abelson
8. A Note on Fatalism, by Richard Taylor
9. Tautology and Fatalism, by Richard Sharvy
10. Fatalistic Arguments, by Steven Cahn
11. Comment, by Richard Taylor
12. Fatalism and Ordinary Language, by John Turk Saunders
13. Fallacies in Taylor's "Fatalism", by Charles D. Brown
Part II: The Essay
14. Renewing the Fatalist Conversation, by Maureen Eckert
15. Richard Taylor's "Fatalism" and the Semantics of Physical Modality, by David Foster Wallace
Part III: Epilogue
16. David Foster Wallace as Student: A Memoir, by Jay Garfield Appendix: The Problem of Future Contingencies, by Richard Taylor

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