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The Philosophy of David Foster Wallace: "Knock Yourself Out," An Essay by Matt Bucher

David Foster WallaceKnock Yourself Out

Matt Bucher

Fans of David Foster Wallace’s fiction and essays have known about his undergraduate honors thesis on Richard Taylor’s “Fatalism,” but few, if any, have read it or understood its role in the philosophical literature. One fan, Jesse Hilson, requested permission to photocopy the thesis at Amherst. The librarian at Amherst forwarded the request to Wallace. Wallace approved the request and wrote: “Knock yourself out, dude.”

This new volume presents an unfiltered look at a deep, philosophical debate. From the outset, Steven Cahn tells us that, despite writing a paper titled “Fatalism,”  Richard Taylor was not actually a fatalist. In fact, Taylor is playing a bit of the devil’s advocate here. A refutation of his argument seems almost commonsensical: who really lives as though all their actions are predetermined? Does anyone really believe free will doesn’t exist? But then right away we are thrust into problems of language and the logic of Taylor’s presuppositions (several of which require complex logic to refute), and it’s possible for even amateur readers to follow the meticulous back-and-forth of these philosophers’ responses to one another, and even for the more dedicated/interested to continue the conversation online—eventually becoming an amateur expert in “Fatalism” studies: Knock yourself out.1

When I first picked up David Foster Wallace’s book on the idea of infinity, Everything and More, I thought my English-major/casual-interest in math and logic might be enough to carry me along. Around page 50, I realized I was wrong. Turns out, I needed Wallace’s hand-holding. Lots of it (especially in his IYI, if you’re interested, footnotes). The hand-holding in Fate, Time, and Language is minimal, but it comes in the form of James Ryerson’s comprehensive introduction, Taylor’s own straightforward style, and Wallace’s choice of down-to-earth examples (to wit: “For instance, in ‘It couldn’t rain last night; last night a high-pressure ridge was keeping all rain-clouds away,’ we are evaluating the modal character of rain-last-night in light of the conditions we know to have obtained last night. But in ‘It can’t have rained last night; there are no puddles on the sidewalk this morning,’ we are evaluating the modal character of rain-last-night quite obviously in light of the puddle-free conditions we know to obtain now.”)

Outside of some of the explicit connections in his fiction and essays, this paper constitutes Wallace’s primary contribution to the field of philosophy. Had Wallace devoted himself to the formal study of philosophy and finished his Ph.D. at Harvard, Jay Garfield said Wallace “would have been a major figure in our field.” The fact that Wallace’s undergraduate thesis is not only taken seriously by other major American philosophers and academics but, in fact, contributes to the field of modal logic brings to mind other math-science-literature polymaths such as Vladimir Nabokov and his real advances to the study of Lepidoptera, William Gass’s books on philosophy, and Umberto Eco’s contributions to semiotics.

Part of what attracted Wallace to the “Fatalism” paper was his firm belief that Taylor was trying to use semantics and logic to prove a metaphysical conclusion. This sense of injustice and trying to set right a wrong drove him to create a wholly new semantics for his “situational physical modality.” I’d posit that the thing that drives some late-2010 readers to step out of their comfortable vampire-and-courtroom fictional selves and into the arcane arena of physical modality and System J or Cantor’s infinite sets is the sense of injustice wrapped up in the simple statement that David Foster Wallace is no longer present. And since we are all fatalists about the past (we might be able to alter the future, but no one touches the past), then maybe the best way to understand the details of what motivated his heartlike brain is to read what he read and what he wrote in response, and to try to make sense of why it all matters so much.

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[1] Wallace says something similar about researching Roger Federer’s oh-so transparent backstory: “Anything you want to know about Mr. Roger N.M.I. [No Middle Initial] Federer — his background, his home town of Basel, Switzerland, his parents’ sane and unexploitative support of his talent, his junior tennis career, his early problems with fragility and temper, his beloved junior coach, how that coach’s accidental death in 2002 both shattered and annealed Federer and helped make him what he now is, Federer’s 39 career singles titles, his eight Grand Slams, his unusually steady and mature commitment to the girlfriend who travels with him (which on the men’s tour is rare) and handles his affairs (which on the men’s tour is unheard of), his old-school stoicism and mental toughness and good sportsmanship and evident overall decency and thoughtfulness and charitable largess — it’s all just a Google search away. Knock yourself out.”  (From Federer as Religious Experience, published in the New York Times, August 20, 2006)

Matt BucherMatt Bucher is the administrator of wallace-l, the David Foster Wallace listserv, and the publisher of two books on Wallace’s work. He is an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and lives in Austin, Texas.

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