Novelist David Foster Wallace on Free Will v. Fatalism (Determinism)

For those a bit obsessed (as I am) about the implications that underlie the free will v. determinism/fatalism debate, it might be comforting to know that the now deceased author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, was also enamored of the topic. The evidence for this comes from the following book, just put out by Columbia University Press, titled Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will (December 14, 2010). The book reprints David Foster Wallace’s philosophy thesis from his undergraduate days at Amherst in the 1980s, and it is accompanied by an extensive apparatus of academic background materials and reflection (including James Ryerson’s New York Times Magazine piece on Wallace that appeared shortly after his suicide in 2008).

At Salon, you can read a review of the book by Daniel Menaker, which includes the following:

[The fatalist/determinist] position bothered young David Foster Wallace when he was an undergraduate at Amherst, in the 1980s, with a double major in philosophy and creative writing. In fact, he was beginning his general transition from the one professional field to the other, maybe in part Oedipally, as his father was a well-known philosopher. And his opposition to fatalism coincided with his burgeoning interest in fiction, whose very nature might be said to demand some semblance of free will, as it nearly always concerns dramatic choices. It is almost as if the young genius were defying his own fated future in philosophy by becoming a literary writer . . . [Wallace arrived at] the conclusion that right now there are indeed many possible futures, and that what we decide to do today — this, that or the other decision — will determine which future we will have. That, for instance, when someone on a train to St. Louis says, “I could just as easily be on a train to Chicago,” it actually means something. [Philosopher Richard] Taylor would say that it means only what the words mean and has nothing to do with any real possibility in the world, even in the past, for in fact the person is on the train to Chicago and was always going to be.

Philosopher Richard Taylor’s 1962 essay on fatalism is also included in the apparatus of the text (for it was Taylor’s essay that Wallace was responding to). Daniel Menaker explains:

In 1962, a philosopher (and world-famous beekeeper) named Richard Taylor published a soon-to-be-notorious essay called “Fatalism” in the Philosophical Review. As the title indicates, it concerned a subject that, as a matter of human intellectual concern, surely dates back to the minute Homo became sapiens. That is the subject of the future and how it is determined: by the gods or God; solely by the past and the present; or (in circumstances that appear to be within our control), by our own agency — free will. Taylor’s argument, which he himself found distasteful, was that certain logical and seemingly unarguable premises lead to the conclusion that even in matters of human choice, the future is as set in stone as the past. We may think we can affect it, but we can’t. When we try to change it, we simply put ourselves deeper into its stony hands. To quote Doris Day, “Que sera, sera” and that’s all there is to it.

And Menaker further observes:

Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy presents a perfect dramatization of this exact philosophical problem, with the Greek gods thrown in to complicate matters a little. Oedipus is, after all, told his fate by the Delphic oracle. In order to try to avoid it, he does nothing but make sure it happens. But there are stops along the way to his tragedy where the playwright seems to be saying that Oedipus could indeed have not slain his father and stayed out of bed with his mother — for example, simply by not marrying a much older woman.

If you love philosophy and literature (are they ever really separated?), this new book on Wallace sounds like something worth locating.

And if you watch this YouTube, try not to cry.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Novelist David Foster Wallace on Free Will v. Fatalism (Determinism)

  1. Melissa says:

    Wallace killed himself. All his philosophising didn’t do squat for him.

  2. One might argue that David Foster Wallace’s suicide is the ultimate example of freewill… of volition. Man is the only life form we know of that is capable of suicide. One never happens upon a deer hanging from a limb in the forest, a noose about its neck.

    One might. But I won’t. From the moment of the Big Bang, the path of every iota and spark was set. There are no possibilities. And we make the choices we were always bound to make… and it seems for all the world like free will… just as it was always bound to seem. For every neuron that fires had its path set in stone 15 billion years ago.

    Or not. 🙂

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