On Wallace’s Philosophy Thesis

Levi Asher isn’t too hot on DFW’s “new” “book,” Fate Time and Language:

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.

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But talk about swatting at flies…this was DFW’s undergraduate thesis, written when he was 22…it’s an interesting document, in a completist sort of way, but it seems rather futile to engage with the text hermeneutically, or to dismiss it under the pretext that “other academic philosophers have also refuted Richard Taylor’s argument.”

The critical thumbs-up versus thumbs-down doesn’t really seem necessary here, when it’s rather obvious to everyone that the publishers are just trying to squeeze some more money out of the DFW estate.

Rather than being “disappointed” with the thesis, we should use it as an occasion to thank the stars that DFW became the best fiction writer of the last 50 years rather than pissing his talents away re-hashing the “philosophical dialectic” and refuting philosophical sophisms like the “Free Will Problem.”

Which, it pertains to add, has by no means been “kicked into oblivion” by some boring-ass American analytic philosophistry.

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