Philosophy Weekend: The Pointless Rationalism of David Foster Wallace

I know David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer, but I’ve never been able to enjoy his ponderous novels. So I looked forward to the posthumous publication of Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a paper he wrote to earn his philosophy degree at Amherst College in the early 1980s. I was especially excited to read this work because I was also a philosophy student in the 1980s. I figured I’d be able to relate to this work more than I ever could to his fiction.

Fate, Time and Language is getting a lot of attention, partly because it’s the first book release from the acclaimed postmodernist’s archives since his inexplicable suicide (another book, a novel called The Pale King, will come out in April, 2011). Because it’s a philosophy text addressing the question of free will, there is an implicit hope that the book may explain something about Wallace’s work, or perhaps even illuminate the tragic thought process that led him to kill himself. It’s also being floated as a serious work of contemporary philosophy, even a groundbreaking one.

I think Fate, Time and Language will have a lot of sentimental value to DFW fans, and is also valuable as an earnest, carefully composed demonstration of philosophical argument, or dialectic. However, I’m sorry to say there’s nothing groundbreaking about this essay. It’s thoroughly the work of a smart student. While I don’t disagree with Columbia University Press’s decision to publish it, I do find it hard to believe that Wallace, if he were alive today, would be particularly proud of it, except as a relic from his past. And I don’t think it does readers a service for anyone to hype the book as an actual advancement in its field.

The purpose of the essay is to refute a well-known argument in support of fatalism (and therefore against the notion of free will) published by an established philosopher, Richard Taylor, in 1962. Taylor’s logic is usefully summarized in an introduction to Fate, Time and Language written by James Ryerson:

Like the doctrine of determinism, its better-known metaphysical cousin, fatalism holds that it is not in our doctrine to do anything other than what we actually end up doing. Unlike determinism, fatalism does not proceed by contemplating the causal mechanics of the universe — the implications for human freedom of Newtonian physics or thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. Instead, the fatalist argues that his doctrine can be established by mere reflection on the logic of propositions about the future. If I fire my handgun, one second from now its barrel will be hot; if I do not fire, one second from now the barrel will not be hot; but the proposition “one second from now the barrel will be hot” is right now either true or false. If the proposition is true, then it is the case that I will fire the gun; if it’s false, then it is the case that I won’t. Either way, it’s the state of affairs in the future that dictates what I will or won’t do now.

This is the weak argument that David Foster Wallace’s essay grapples with. Wallace breaks down the logical components that support the conclusion, and analyzes the subtly different senses of time and causality behind Taylor’s paradox:

Consider the following two instances of what we’ll assume to be valid, non-logical, physical implications:

III-1) (I give order O -> Sea-battle B tomorrow)
III-2) (Combustion -> Presence of fuel)

In both these instances, the antecedents are “sufficient” for the consequents, and, more important, the consequents are “necessary” for the antecedents. Yet we should very quickly be able to see significant differences between the internal relations in the two entailments. We can see that, in (III-1), battle B is a necessary consequence of order O. But would we want to say, with regard to (III-2), that the presence of fuel is a necessary “consequence of” combustion? Not really: it would be more natural and sensible to say instead that it is necessary for combustion. In (III-1), the antecedent brings about, causes, gives rise to the consequent. In (III-2), though, the fire does not “bring about” the presence of fuel; it looks rather as though the presence of fuel was one of the things that actually brought about the fire (fuel together with, say, sufficient local temperature, the presence of a conductive atmosphere, the absence of local flame-retarding agents, etc.). We may, it appears, legitimately say that the consequent in (III-1) is an instance of a condition that is “necessary-of,” and that the consequent in (III-2) is an instance of a condition that is “necessary-for”.

Wallace is certainly correct to refute Taylor’s argument, which calls to mind an ancient puzzle known as Zeno’s Paradox that “proved” motion to be impossible. But, like Zeno’s paradox, Richard Taylor’s argument had very little force to begin with. The important question isn’t whether or not Zeno’s or Taylor’s conclusions are correct; we know that objects can move, and we know that the future does not control the past. The better question we can ask with regard to either paradox is what words we can use to explain them away.

This is why I’m disappointed in David Foster Wallace’s essay — not because it’s wrong (rather, it’s entirely correct) but because its ambition is misplaced. In this essay, David Foster Wallace swats a logical fly to death. It’s pleasant enough to watch him doing so, and readers who haven’t been exposed to philosophical dialectic will learn something from the process. Wallace is quoted admiring the “click” of symbolic logic in the book’s introduction, and he’s right that this “click” carries with it an aesthetic feeling of joy.

But the idea, suggested by the book’s introduction and supplementary material, that Wallace’s essay accomplishes something other philosophers have not been able to do, cannot be taken seriously. Other academic philosophers have also refuted Richard Taylor’s argument. More meaningfully, two major modern thinkers who predate Richard Taylor had already kicked the Free Will Problem into oblivion decades before Wallace wrote this piece.

I’m speaking, as I admit I so very often do, of William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Compare David Foster Wallace’s turbid formulas with James’s modest but powerful declaration a hundred years earlier: “My first act of free will is to believe in free will”.

Too simple? But, really, all the greatest philosophers have written simply and from the heart. It’s a current myth, and not a very helpful one, that a good philosophy book should read like a calculus textbook.

Wittgenstein, meanwhile, showed us that logical difficulties found in language do not prevent us from thinking clearly. The fact that we cannot pin down exactly why a paradox is a paradox does not mean that the paradox is important. Wittgenstein’s response to Richard Taylor’s argument that we do not have free will because statements about the future are either true or false today would be a primal one: “you are playing with words”. There are more important things for philosophers to do than attempt to trap each other with oddities and amusements based on varying definitions of terms involving time and causality. Instead, the purpose of philosophy is to help us discuss how we should live, what it means to exist, what we do when we think, how we can better relate to and understand each other.

Since the attitudes expressed by William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein towards questions like the free will problem are widely accepted among philosophers today, Richard Taylor’s and David Foster Wallace’s attempts to resurrect the free will problem as a serious philosophical concern are really acts of nostalgia, like singing in a barbershop quartet or taking photos with Polaroid film. Anybody who still worries about whether or not human beings have free will after reading James and Wittgenstein, in my opinion, has missed the bus.

I don’t know how David Foster Wallace felt about the work of William James, but no essay of this kind can avoid Wittgenstein’s looming presence, and there is a significant passage in James Ryerson’s introduction to Fate, Time and Language where he deals with Wittgenstein directly. Here he exposes a surprising new angle on Fate, Time and Language, an angle that recalls the expose of paternal tension and Oedipal rebellion in Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy:

… [David Foster Wallace] found Philosophical Investigations, the crowning statement of [Ludwig Wittgenstein’s] late philosophy, to be “silly”.

As Wallace would later admit, his intellectual leanings in these years may have been influenced by a wish to differentiate himself from his father. James Wallace received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1963 from Cornell University, writing his dissertation (on the topic of pleasure) under the direction of Norman Malcolm, a close friend and disciple of Wittgenstein’s. James Wallace, like Malcolm, was an admirer of Wittgenstein’s late work, and less receptive to the kind of philosophy that David would come to embrace. “I am not interested in logic, et cetera,” James Wallace explained to me.

This adds a lot of helpful perspective, and the perspective doesn’t help David Foster Wallace’s case at all. Certainly we do not all have to worship Wittgenstein, but we ignore him at the risk of our own reputations. David Foster Wallace found Wittgenstein’s late work “silly”? This is, I’m sorry to say, the philosophical equivalent of creationism. David Foster Wallace was apparently an unabashed Rationalist, a proud throwback to philosophy’s quaint past. It’s certainly likely that a desire to differentiate himself from his father must have motivated him in taking this archaic position. I can’t think of any other explanation.

I’m glad Fate, Time and Language was published, because it’s an impressive exercise in symbolic logic and may turn many of Wallace’s enthusiastic readers on to a new way of thinking. But is it in any way a meaningful or innovative work of modern philosophy? Not even close. I bet Wallace would have written a much better essay later in his life.

Does the posthumous publication help in any way to illuminate David Foster Wallace’s trajectory in life? Maybe, but not because it clears up the free will problem. I’m afraid the main takeaway here is this: whatever could have made David Foster Wallace decide that life was worth living, he didn’t find it at Amherst College in the 1980s.

21 Responses

  1. “inexplicable suicide”? It’s
    “inexplicable suicide”? It’s pretty documented what happened in the last few years of his life. He went off the meds he’d been on since college because they were causing all kinds of physical side affects and then couldn’t get any new anti-depressant to work (including when he went back on his old meds.) It’s heartbreaking.

  2. Hi Ryann — well, I read the
    Hi Ryann — well, I read the parts of David Lipsky’s book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace” which explained his suicide in exactly the terms you describe: he was taking anti-depressant medications, he stopped taking them, he started again but they no longer worked correctly, so he killed himself. I found this explanation very unsatisfying.

    Things this book doesn’t explain: why was a healthy, wealthy, successful and well-loved person so completely reliant on anti-depressant medications in the first place? Why couldn’t he have found a non-pharmaceutical replacement (meditation, long vacations in pleasant places, smoke a joint, find religion, change everything about his life) instead of killing himself? Why, if he really was so backed into a corner that he had to kill himself, did he choose a risky, painful and demonstrative method like hanging?

    Were you really satisfied by Lipsky’s explanation, or others like it? Among other things, I really object to Lipsky’s complete compliance with the notion of pharmaceutical correction. According to this explanation, if he had simply taken the medicines he was supposed to take, he would have never have had to kill himself. Seems very mechanistic and inhuman to me. You were satisfied by this explanation? I continue to call his suicide inexplicable.

  3. Levi, you really shine in the
    Levi, you really shine in the philosophical arena. It’s probably my favorite subject for you to write about.

    As for depression, I think there are chemical causes in the brain of a clinically depressed person that non-afflicted persons cannot fully understand.

  4. Wow, I didn’t know you was so
    Wow, I didn’t know you was so intellectual. You probably read Sartre and understand him. According to the essence of the TAO, one necessitates the other, if indeed those two things are oppositional–fate and determinism. Me? I’m determined to discover my fate in an effort to avoid it. Thank you.

  5. Seems as depression is
    Seems as depression is becoming a larger subject that takes blame for far more than it deserves. We are not all qualified to determine whether one takes their own lives is depressed or simply had enough of life, too much stress, too many unnecessary responsibilities or money problems or even love problems…. or perhaps a sense of guilt that drives one to take their lives.

    These few examples should not be lumped into the pot of depression to find reason for such a human act. If they were many more of us could be found guilty of being depressed by smoking or over-indulging in alcohol or even food… these are slow suicide acts that we dismiss as being anything but suicidal but deep down we know better when our health begins failing and we are constantly reminded by our slow deterioration of that precious health that we are solely responsible for taking our own lives… but please don’t say we are committing suicide! We lie to ourselves for our own failures to take care of our health, mental or physical and it is not always depression to blame, is it?

  6. I don’t think Lipsky’s book
    I don’t think Lipsky’s book was in any way intended to “explain” the reasoning behind David Foster Wallace’s choice to end his life. The author offered up what he considered to be contributing factors to the final depression, and this is material I found compelling.

    As I understand what I’ve read on this subject, Mr. Wallace had taken a specific drug for many, many years to manage what were, for him, unmanageable bouts of depression. This specific drug brought with it an array of physically uncomfortable side effects that Mr. Wallace endured throughout his adult life. When new pharmacological choices were eventually presented to him he agreed to abandon his original medication in favor of another, less physically problematic, drug. As sometimes sadly happens, the new medications did not work – and when he attempted to return to his original medication he found it no longer effective. As I recall, he took several difficult steps to resolve what must have proven to be a fresh nightmare of a psychological situation – up to and including twelve courses of ECT (once referred to as electroshock therapy). Frankly, I cannot begin to imagine the level of his desperation at that stage of the game. To suggest, even facetiously, that a long vacation or a joint might have made all the difference? Is facile, and not a little offensive.

    While I appreciate your points regarding this latest release of Mr. Wallace’s work, and agree with a fair number of them, I find myself wishing quite earnestly that – prior to speaking on the subject – you’d devote an equal amount of intellectual investment to the true nature and depth of the psychological struggle Mr. Wallace grappled with throughout his life…a conflict I think it’s safe to say, by the end, he found unendurable.

  7. If my statements sounded
    If my statements sounded unsympathetic, I withdraw them — that wasn’t what I meant to express.

    If DFW were actually mentally ill or emotionally disabled in some way, then I can understand the urgent reliance on medication. I’ve seen the terrible ravages of mental illness. One person very close to me in my family was a severe schizophrenic — and I’m very glad that she has managed to find some solace in medications. I know medications are sometimes very important, though I also think they are often over-prescribed.

    I have been paying attention to DFW’s career for a long time (though, strangely, I tend to like his non-fiction like “Consider the Lobster” more than his novels). I have total respect for his intellect. One reason I found his suicide so shocking was that he showed no signs, at least not in his public persona, of a mental illness. Based on what I knew of him, I really thought of him as a writer who had his stuff together.

    What I was trying to say in my comment is more of a general statement then a statement specifically about David Foster Wallace. As Ash says, I don’t think it’s a sufficient “explanation” for a person’s sudden suicide that his anti-depressant medications ceased to work. I wrote my comment to explain why I called Wallace’s suicide “inexplicable” even though David Lipsky seemed to be trying to explain it in his book. When I think about it, I still consider it completely and totally inexplicable. I cannot come up with any possible notion of what could have been running through his mind. And believe me, I am no stranger to the feeling of depression.

    But I don’t think I’m in any position to judge him, nor would I want to judge him. He was obviously suffering very much.

  8. I’m a writer, not a
    I’m a writer, not a philosopher, so this discussion is above my pay grade; however, I do know that suicide has nothing to do with rational thought or even thought processes.

  9. Suicide is a very well
    Suicide is a very well thought and sometimes even brave decision (Yukio Mishima comes to mind).

  10. I’m not sure where Wallace is
    I’m not sure where Wallace is cited as having called Wittgenstein “silly” (do the editors of the essay provide any clues?), but surely Wallace didn’t ignore him — his other work of the period, viz. ‘The Broom of the System’, is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein. Perhaps it’s all meant satirically, I haven’t done a close enough reading of that aspect to know, but that Wallace was seriously pondering Wittgenstein in some way or another is certain.

  11. Allen, I think the difference
    Allen, I think the difference has to do with early Wittgenstein vs. late Wittgenstein. The introductory essay does mention this. Wittgenstein’s early works are in the more traditional vein of formal logic, while his later works look past logic to a more intuitive approach to thinking. It’s the later Wittgenstein that many people (including me, and James Wallace) get excited about today, and that DFW referred to as silly, according to the introduction.

  12. Levi, I haven’t read James
    Levi, I haven’t read James Ryerson’s introduction, but calling Wittgenstein’s later work “silly” doesn’t sound very David Foster Wallace-y, and directly contradicts with what he’s said in interviews. Perhaps his opinion changed?

    “One of the things that makes Wittgenstein a real artist to me is that he realized that no conclusion could be more horrible than solipsism. And so he trashed everything he’d been lauded for in the “Tractatus” and wrote the” Investigations,” which is the single most comprehensive and beautiful argument against solipsism that’s ever been made.”

  13. That’s interesting, Josh.
    That’s interesting, Josh. And, yes, I also think that DFW’s ideas about late Wittgenstein are likely to have changed from his college days. That’s why I say I bet he would have written a better essay later in his life. I guess you could say this essay is a prototypically “sophomoric” (though he was a senior) work.

    This essay you point to is definitely relevant. I didn’t realize that Wittgenstein was so much on Wallace’s mind. I guess I’d better read “Broom of the System”. I get the feeling from this interview that he is wrestling with late Wittgenstein, that he has divided feelings about it. He says:

    ‘I saw Wittgenstein as the real architect of the postmodern trap. He died right on the edge of explicitly treating reality as linguistic instead of ontological. This eliminated solipsism, but not the horror. Because we’re still stuck.”

    I’m starting to sense that it became DFW’s literary/philosophical mission, or one of his missions, to free us from (late) Wittgenstein’s finality. And that he hadn’t yet even reached this point at the time he wrote “Fate, Time and Language”.

    And, of course, it’s impossible not to consider this in light of the fact that Wallace’s father was a Wittgenstein scholar.

    Anyway, I just checked the introduction, and the context of the quote is that Wallace said it to Lance Olsen in a letter written in 1992. He says that “at the time” — that is, I think, at the time he wrote “Fate, Time and Language” he found late Wittgenstein “silly”.

  14. I will probably have more to
    I will probably have more to say after finishing the book, but I find your review a tad dismissive, and furthermore, since I am currently reading the book and it is fresh in my mind, the things you find to dismiss appear to show that you either skipped over chunks or read it so fast as to not completely assimilate the information.

    Two general points, since I do not, sadly, have a lot of time for specifics right now:

    1) Just because you say that all philosophical thought and argument wrt Free Will ends with James and Wittgenstein does not make it true. Therefore, Taylor’s and Wallace’s attempts at it are not absurd on their face. What, according to the people who helped put the book together, makes his thesis a worthwhile piece to publish is his creation of additional analytical logical system to break down Taylor’s claims to their roots and build it back up using a tighter proof based on claims that refute (rather than lazily reject, as you seem to be doing, and others have done) Taylor’s starting points.

    2) WRT Wallace’s relation to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the first sections of the book do indeed go into Wallace’s grappling with Wittgenstein and his later experience of coming to an appreciation of the late philosophy. They also go into his respect for a fictional work (by a gentleman named Markson) that he believed better married philosophy and fiction. Dismissing analytical philosophy, or anyone’s respect for it, because it is clearly not associated with the world of experience is the same as dismissing Taylor’s argument by rejection: it begs the question. You cannot claim the world is certifiably experiential (which it appears you claim) based on your own experience of it, so you undermine your claim, at least as it appears here. Wallace, based on what I’ve read by him and about him, here and elsewhere, was attracted to and fascinated by the mathematical and theoretical side of philosophy, and drawn to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus because of beautiful, possibly true implications of those analytical claims over and above human beings. But he was horrified by the implications of it for human beings and human relationships. This is what, according to the editors (and evidenced by some referenced letters) sparked his writing of fiction. Therefore, it is an interesting look into the psychology of his writing: his insistence on pressing upon the question of the ideal versus the day to day schlepping, as he so fondly put it, and all that can be unpacked from each of those and both of them combined when one keeps pushing. To claim it is Sysiphean, and easily dismissed here, because he was an undegrad at the time is cynical.

    a) A third point since it tacks onto the end of this last part: since most of the previous commentors seemed to only latch on to this book in relation to his suicide, note the above point. It (his suicide and depression) is not surprising–at least I do not find it to be completely unbelievable, though very sad–given the task he put before himself and with which he seemed to not want to quit, that of pressing upon the ideal, accepting that it is true, while living within the very human world of experience; the marriage of philosophy and fiction, as he seems to have seen it. The world does often feel like it demands that people ultimately take one side or the other in this, and it is a tiring thing to pursue. One doesn’t have to be a madman to pursue, or want to pursue, such a thing, though, nor a psychiatrist to see how much Wallace expected of himself and how often he felt he failed.

  15. Thanks for the thoughtful
    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, sps.

    You are correct that my review was dismissive and that I could have gone much further, if I were more sympathetic to the philosophical mission DFW put himself on in writing this paper, in appreciating his argument on its own terms.

    Please understand, though, that I wrote this piece as the book’s publicity campaign was taking place, and was responding directly to the hype that this was a “groundbreaking” work of philosophy, and furthermore a groundbreaking work of wide general interest for anybody who cares about philosophy. My point in writing this article was to debunk the publisher’s hype, which I think misrepresents the book by overestimating it.

  16. thanks Levi, another
    thanks Levi, another excellent, thought provoking article. the point about his suicide being inexplicable, i”d agree with, but say that it was only inexplicable to some. given his history of depression, his suicide was probably not complicated. for example, in the non-fiction book “shadow divers,” a young man has a diving accident, stays down too long and shoots up to the surface without decompressing. on the back of the boat, suffering from the bends, he screams out for someone to kill him. he alternates between screaming and pleading for someone to shoot him.

    so if the above example is not inexplicable, simply transfer the physical to mental, and that’s probably why he did it. imo

  17. I’m not sure we can say with
    I’m not sure we can say with certainty that future actions don’t control past events. Possibly, other understandings of space/time could prove that future and past events are not causally linked only from past to future. It sounds strange, but the future might cause present or past events. No I can’t prove it. But we all know propositional logic has it’s limits as well.

  18. Hi Rob its seems this thread
    Hi Rob its seems this thread has been sleeping for some time now but you have reawakened it. In response to your interesting comment,for me its always been experience that is most important. What is the experience of time and space I ask myself? These words of course are ones we are born into and of course on a rational/relative level we know what they are. Time is about hours and seconds. Space is about here and there and what is in between and beyond and how far and how deep. But consider that some report experiencing the whole universe as being within themselves. What would time and causality mean for such persons? Do their feet and hands exist simultaneously? And if my body is somehow expanded to the size of the universe would it be meaningful to talk about how long it would take to travel from my head to my feet? And what would be the causal relationship between my head and my feet? My point is that time and space are not as clear as they might seem when we think of them in different ways. And all the more so with causality and sequentiality.

  19. As a clinical psychologist
    As a clinical psychologist with over 30 000 hours of direct clinical work with adolescent and adult males, I think what is often forgotten in the etiology of depression is the role of early attachment experiences. These early attachment experiences are often forgotten, the only witnesses being the parents, who rarely have the insight and honesty to say things are they really were. And these attachment experiences form the basic template for how we relate to ourselves, others and the world. This piece of the puzzle in DFW’s suicide will forever remain unknown. However, reading his body of work from an attachment perspective does reveal partial shadow glimpses into what his early attachment experiences were. And the all-in brain hypothesis, the solipsism of the pharmacological argument for depression and suicide, just doesn’t cut it.

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