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Consider the Philosopher - David Foster Wallace
Here is a short piece from the NYT magazine about David Foster Wallace's first college thesis. While he wrote a second thesis for English, his writing and lifestyle was defined by philosophy. "With the death of David Foster Wallace, the author of “Infinite Jest,” who took his own life on Sept. 12, the world of contemporary American fiction lost its most intellectually ambitious writer. Like his peers Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann, Wallace wrote big, brainy novels that were encyclopedically packed with information and animated by arcane ideas. In nonfiction essays, he tackled a daunting range of highbrow topics, including lexicography, poststructuralist literary theory and the science, ethics and epistemology of lobster pain. He wrote a book on the history and philosophy of the mathematics of infinity. Even his signature stylistic device — the extensive use of footnotes and endnotes — was a kind of scholarly homage. But Wallace was also wary of ideas. He was perpetually on guard against the ways in which abstract thinking (especially thinking about your own thinking) can draw you away from something more genuine and real. To read his acutely self-conscious, dialectically fevered writing was often to witness the agony of cognition: how the twists and turns of thought can both hold out the promise of true understanding and become a danger to it. Wallace was especially concerned that certain theoretical paradigms — the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever trickery of postmodernism — too casually dispense with what he once called “the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.” He called for a more forthright, engaged treatment of these basic truths. Yet he himself attended to them with his own fractured, often-esoteric methods. It was a defining tension: the very conceptual tools with which he pursued life’s most desperate questions threatened to keep him forever at a distance from the connections he struggled to make. Given his considerable intellectual gifts and large cult following, it may come as a surprise to learn that Wallace’s one formal, systematic contribution to the world of ideas was never published and remains almost completely unknown. This is his undergraduate honors thesis in philosophy — “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” — which he submitted for a degree at Amherst College in 1985. Its obscurity is easy enough to understand. A highly specialized, 76-page work of semantics and metaphysics, it is not for the philosophically faint of heart. Brace yourself for a sample sentence: “Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs {t, w} ({time, world situation}), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.” There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a boat. For all its inscrutability, though, the thesis represents an important phase in Wallace’s development. Once its goals and ambitions are understood, the paper casts a revealing light on the early stages of his struggle to use the powers of his formidable mind for the higher good: to protect against the seductions of the intellect, and to find solid ground for his most urgent and heartfelt convictions. At Amherst in the early ’80s,Wallace, himself the son of a distinguished philosopher, was considered by his professors to be a rare philosophical talent, a genius in the making. (He later entered graduate school in philosophy at Harvard, though he didn’t stay long.) Even after he began writing fiction in college — he simultaneously completed a second undergraduate thesis, in English, that ultimately became his 1987 novel, “The Broom of the System” — it was still philosophy that defined him academically. “I knew him as a philosopher with a fiction hobby,” Jay Garfield, an adviser on Wallace’s thesis and now a professor at Smith College, told me recently. “I didn’t realize he was one of the great fiction writers of his generation with a philosophy hobby.” Sometime in his later college years, Wallace became troubled by a paper called “Fatalism,” first published in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. The fatalist contends, quite radically, that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future. Your behavior today no more shapes events tomorrow than it shapes events yesterday. Instead, in a seemingly backward way, the fatalist says it is how things are in the future that uniquely constrains what happens right now. What might seem like an open possibility subject to human choice — say, whether you fire your handgun — is already either impossible or absolutely necessary. You are merely going with some cosmic flow. Perhaps most counterintuitively, the fatalist argues that this topsy-turvy doctrine can be established by mere reflection on the simple 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. Obviously, there is something fishy going on here. But Taylor’s highly sophisticated version of this argument makes it extremely hard to pinpoint what exactly is amiss, not least because he makes his case for this controversial doctrine using only a handful of uncontroversial assumptions about logic and language (for instance, that any statement is either true or false). What most bothered Wallace about Taylor’s paper was not the despair-inducing worldview of fatalism itself (though that was indeed worrisome); it was, as Jay Garfield recalled, that “this metaphysically troubling conclusion followed from these ordinary-seeming premises.” Taylor seemed to have scrambled the normal relations among logic, language and the physical world, detaching them from their proper spheres. There was a kind of anguish for Wallace in the prospect of a world so out of whack. “He was very level-headed in so many ways,” Willem deVries, a philosopher now at the University of New Hampshire and the principal adviser on Wallace’s thesis, told me. “He wasn’t attracted to philosophy because you could construct these weird, mind-bending arguments. He was quite wary of the mind-bending. Maybe because his own mind could bend so easily.” But how to straighten out Taylor’s fatalism? Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.” Armed with this small but powerful insight, Wallace was able to pick apart the machinery of Taylor’s argument. All the things about the “Fatalism” paper that appeared maddeningly simple started to look complex and thorny. By the time Wallace worked out all the details — the precise interactions among elements of meaning, time and possibility — it was clear that he had defused Taylor’s argument. (The formal apparatus that Wallace developed in the thesis, a so-called intensional-physical-modality system, would have been a novel contribution to the philosophical literature; deVries and Garfield each expressed to me their regret that Wallace never published the paper.) Perhaps our actions are indeed fated, Wallace acknowledged — he had nothing to say either way about the metaphysical substance of the doctrine. But if fatalism is true, he demonstrated, we are going to learn that fact only through an argument that draws on something richer and more substantive than the arid, purely logical moves Taylor made. If Taylor were to overthrow our worldview, he would have to roll up his intellectual sleeves and delve into reflection on meatier issues like cosmology or entropy or the like. The real accomplishment of Wallace’s thesis, however, was not technical or argumentative but more like a moral victory. His demonic attention to detail in language and logic, and his seemingly limitless cognitive abilities, had set aright a world momentarily upended by a conceptual sleight of hand. “In light of what we’ve seen about the semantics of physical modality,” Wallace wrote in the closing passage, “I hold that Taylor’s semantic argument does not in fact yield his metaphysical conclusion.” He then ventured modestly that his own analysis of the problem “seems to warrant the following conclusion of our own: if Taylor and the fatalists want to force upon us a metaphysical conclusion, they must do metaphysics, not semantics. And this seems entirely appropriate.” Things, for the moment, were as they should be." James Ryerson, an editor at the magazine, is writing a book about the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser.
ryantadman clipped in 1 collections
@nokcha Yes he did. The title of this article is a play on that title :) @pipeline He really loved working with words, It would be nice if we could all find a passion like his.