David Foster Wallace on Free Will

David Foster Wallace “Had [David Foster] Wallace stuck with philosophy, and had he lived, he would have been a major figure in our field.”

In his review of David Foster Wallace’s Fate Time and Language: An Essay in Free Will in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Daniel Speak admits to an initial skepticism about the book. He was suspicious that the publication of Wallace’s undergraduate thesis might have been an opportunistic effort in the wake of his death. Instead, Speak found that “Fate, Time, and Language contains a great deal of first-rate philosophy throughout, and not least in Wallace’s extraordinarily professional and ambitious essay.”

The review lauds Wallace’s efforts to grapple with Richard Taylor’s famous views on fatalism. It also praises the accompanying essays in the book which look both at the philosophical contexts that shaped Wallace’s essay as well as the relationship between Wallace as writer and philosopher. Speak writes, “The addition of Wallace’s essay, together with the various bits of reflection on his life as a student and writer, make it both intellectually rich and psychologically illuminating.”

The essay concludes with Speak’s reflection on the possible similarities between David Foster Wallace and Hal Incandenza, a character in Infinite Jest.

Having read Infinite Jest alongside the collection under review here, I cannot ignore the parallels between Hal Incandenza (the novel’s intellectually precocious teen-aged central character) and the collegiate David Foster Wallace — who feverishly wrote his thesis in the Amherst philosophy department during his senior year while also penning a complete novel for a second thesis in the English department. In a gesture we are now in position to appreciate, Wallace has Hal Incandenza submit an essay for his college applications entitled “Montague Grammar and the Semantics of Physical Modality”. Perhaps more tellingly, we find Incandenza late in the novel, trying to come to terms with his own almost involuntary intellectual precision, noticing that “The dedication and sustained energy that go into true perspicacity and expertise were exhausting even to think about.” Whatever this kind of dedication and sustained energy ultimately exacted from Wallace himself, reading his careful and fulsome response to Taylor’s fatalism argument reveals that it did contribute to his being an enormously promising philosopher. I find it hard to disagree with Garfield in his conclusion that had Wallace stuck with philosophy, and had he lived, he would have been a major figure in our field. There is also no denying the strange excitement of looking in on the development of a young and uniquely powerful intellect. Those who have read John Rawls’ undergraduate thesis will, I think, have a similar experience in reading Wallace’s.

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