David Foster Wallace as Philosopher

David Foster Wallace“I was just awfully good at technical philosophy, and it was the first thing I’d ever been really good at, and so everybody, including me, anticipated I’d make it a career. But it sort of emptied out for me somewhere around age twenty.”—David Foster Wallace

Fate, Time and Language: An Essay in Free Will is David Foster Wallace’s now-famous undergraduate thesis in philosophy. Written while at Amherst, the work challenges the philosopher Richard Taylor’s logical argument regarding human beings’ control over the future.

As James Ryerson points out in his introduction (read an excerpt here), for a period Wallace considered both fiction and philosophy as possible future careers. After receiving his MFA, Wallace was accepted and enrolled in the PhD. program in philosophy at Harvard. Realizing that pursuing philosophy would not allow him to continue writing and grappling with depression, Wallace abandoned his formal pursuit of philosophy.

However, as Ryerson points out in his introduction, philosophy would “forever loom large in his life” and work. Ryerson writes,

In addition to having been formative for his cast of mind, philosophy would repeatedly crop up in the subject matter of his writing. His essay “Authority and American Usage,” about the so-called prescriptivist/descriptivist debate among linguists and lexicographers, features an exegesis of Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language. In Everything and More, his book about the history of mathematical ideas of infinity, his guiding insight is that the disputes over mathematical procedures were ultimately debates about metaphysics—about “the ontological status of math entities.” His article “Consider the Lobster” begins as a journalistic report from the annual Maine Lobster Festival but soon becomes a philosophical meditation on the question, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” This question leads Wallace into discussions about the distinction between pain and suffering; about the relation between ethics and (culinary) aesthetics; about how we might understand cross-species moral obligations; and about the “hard-core philosophy”—the “metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics”—required to determine the principles that allow us to conclude even that other humans feel pain and have a legitimate interest in not doing so.

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