This is why I’m disappointed in David Foster Wallace’s essay — not because it’s wrong (rather, it’s entirely correct) but because its ambition is misplaced. In this essay, David Foster Wallace swats a logical fly to death. It’s pleasant enough to watch him doing so, and readers who haven’t been exposed to philosophical dialectic will learn something from the process. Wallace is quoted admiring the “click” of symbolic logic in the book’s introduction, and he’s right that this “click” carries with it an aesthetic feeling of joy.
But the idea, suggested by the book’s introduction and supplementary material, that Wallace’s essay accomplishes something other philosophers have not been able to do, cannot be taken seriously. Other academic philosophers have also refuted Richard Taylor’s argument. More meaningfully, two major modern thinkers who predate Richard Taylor had already kicked the Free Will Problem into oblivion decades before Wallace wrote this piece.
The Financial Times also reviews it, to more or less the same conclusion:
After arguing that this distinction is the crux of the matter in Taylor’s Lazy Argument, Foster Wallace constructs some ingenious formal machinery to clarify the sorts of necessity involved. He uses techniques developed by Richard Montague, an American philosopher whose murder in 1971 was the subject of at least two novels. But he applies them in an original way.
It is a virtuoso performance. What is not clear is whether it is of any lasting significance. When TS Eliot published his own student philosophy thesis, 46 years after it was written, he confessed that he no longer understood it, and said it would be of interest only to students of the evolution of his prose style. It soon fell out of print. Foster Wallace’s is a superior work but will probably suffer the same fate.
For those who are still interested in reading this book, Levi quotes the thesis itself a few times, and it doesn’t seem quite that impossible to get through, provided you have a little free will and determination.