David Fos­ter Wal­lace: Fate, Time, and Language

The philosopher Richard Taylor began his argument in favor of fatalism utilizing six presuppositions commonly accepted at the time. Fatalism, the notion supporting the theory that human beings have no control over the future, was not a new idea in the 1960s. Hell, even Aristotle argued about the existence of free will.

Anyone who remembers 11th grade American history class recalls the smug predestination philosophy of the Puritans. And then there’s the idea of God’s will, which one can substitute for fate in any argument. Simply put, your choices are not YOUR choices because you have no power to determine the future. It is what it will be. Stand back and watch the waterfall flow uphill. Fatalism supports the notion of the inevitability of actions. Some religions see it more as God’s Master Plan, the universal purpose of man. But however it’s discussed, it comes down to predestination vs. free will and the topic is fascinating.

An Essay on Free Will

That David Foster Wallace found fatal flaws in Taylor’s argument while in college. His monograph against Richard Taylor’s philosophical journey through abstract thinking is presented in a new volume just off the press from Columbia University Press . The work seems significant because it opens up discussion. If we don’t talk about an idea, consider the object, we stagnate. Right?

The notion of free will confounds us all. It’s everywhere, this discussion, even in Quantum Mechanics.

Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert (with intro by James Ryerson and epilogue by Jay Garfield), Fate, Time, and Language contains Taylor’s original work and other philosopher’s responses to the work. Reyerson’ opening essay discusses how Wallace’s philosophical bent affected his later fiction writing.

This is not a quick read. When discussing the book with my husband recently I said, “It will take me a year to read and understand this book.” Surprised, he responded, “But you read The Da Vinci Code in one evening.” It is one thing to read a book and another to comprehend it. This book must be savored and taken in slow small bites with each thought chewed thoroughly before swallowing. It’s a fairly short book, just over 250 pages but length does not determine thought. Before I delve into Taylor and other philosophers, I want to remind my mind (!) how to construct symbolic arguments. I enjoyed symbolic logic classes at ECU. Constructing page after page of proofs – it makes me understand why Caroline loves math… The thrill of the equation? The joy of proof?

As 2011 progresses onward ever forward, I will construct a weekly dialog about Wallace’s “great skepticism of abstract thinking made to function as a negation of something more genuine and real.” Apparently, according to the book’s press release, Wallace was “especially suspicious of certain paradigms of thought – the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever gimmickry of postmodernism – that abandoned the very old traditional verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.”

Is it just me or can you see a real opportunity to explore free will and the arts? Does free will demand art? Is art the product of free will and on thusly to a wondrous series of internal dialogs.

To seek to reproduce and/or discuss the relationship and influence of logic, language, and the physical world to art “movements” — fluXus, synthetism, futurism, lyrical abstraction — the myriad opportunities for discussion daunt and inspire. Does a particular work or movement reflect the passionate precision of the artist? Or does it merely contain an exterior dialog in which one (the artist/s) acts in response to some irrefutable fatalistic logic of destiny?

The semantic tricks which lie at the base of Taylor’s argument bring Wallace’s work into the foreground of discussion of the absence or existence of free will. I see myself spending a lot of quality time in personal reflection – considering whether or not my handiwork is my own or is subject to some predetermined force.

It’s a parallel synchronized random thought integrating itself into my creative demeanor. What does logic dictate? Where does my (or for that matter, your) art originate? If one does not have to power to influence the future or to direct one’s own actions, what purpose is art?

Meanwhile, it’s time to re-read Infinite Jest with new eyes and consider how Wallace’s essay influenced his fiction. It’s a very cerebral future for me — but is the outcome predetermined? If it is — then you already know if you’ll come back and read more about my journey in David Foster Wallace’s refutation of the argument in favor of fatalism. This volume of essays must truly confound those who loved Wallace and mourn his death… perhaps his suicide was the ultimate expression of free will?

Stay tuned for more…

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

by David Foster Wallace,
Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert; Introduction by James Ryerson and Epilogue by Jay Garfield

Paper, 264 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-15157-3
$19.95 / £13.95

December, 2010
Cloth, 264 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-15156-6

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