David Foster Wallace's college essay

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Philosophy

FATE, TIME, AND LANGUAGE

An Essay on Free WillBy David Foster Wallace

Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert

Columbia Univ. 252 pp. Paperback, $19.95

Not every college student gets senioritis. Case in point: About a decade after he failed to become a professional tennis player and a decade before he published his novel "Infinite Jest," the late, great David Foster Wallace, then a 23-year-old English-philosophy double major at Amherst, took on the subject of fatalism in an undergraduate thesis. "The fatalist thinks of himself and his role in the world in a curious sort of metaphysical way," Wallace wrote in "Richard Taylor's 'Fatalism' and the Semantics of Physical Modality," now published for the first time with explanatory notes in the thoughtfully edited "Fate, Time and Language." "Everything that does and will happen must happen, and . . . persons as agents can do nothing but go with the flow."

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. "There was a palpable strain for Wallace between engagement with the world, in all its overwhelming fullness, and withdrawal to one's head, in all its loneliness," writes James Ryerson in his introduction. "The world was too much, the mind alone too little." For an author who devoted thousands of pages to dramatizing that crisis before he killed himself at 46, what could have been a dry intellectual exercise becomes an unexpectedly affecting obituary.

-Justin Moyer


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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