Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

David Foster Wallace, Philosopher

dfwEven readers who appreciated the brainiest subtleties of David Foster Wallace’s work might find his college thesis about the philosophy of fatalism rough sledding. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Requirements for the accessibility obtaining between worlds can be strengthened or weakened to yield different modal systems and models. A reflexive and transitive relation R yields the modal system S4, a stipulation that R be reflexive, symmetric and transitive yields the different system S5, and so on. For a simple and intuitive representation of Kripke’s device, we can assume that every member of K (with K of course being nondenumerably infinite) is accessible from every other member.

Of course.

The thesis — “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” — was recently published by Columbia University in a book called Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. The thesis itself takes up only a bit more than 70 pages of the book, which also features Taylor’s original essay and several academic responses to it, and a terrific 33-page introduction by James Ryerson, a friend of mine.

Ryerson’s intro was featured, at length, over at Slate. The excerpt starts like this:

When the future novelist David Foster Wallace was about 14 years old, he asked his father, the University of Illinois philosophy professor James D. Wallace, to explain to him what philosophy is, so that when people would ask him exactly what it was that his father did, he could give them an answer. James had the two of them read Plato’s Phaedo dialogue together, an experience that turned out to be pivotal in his understanding of his son. “I had never had an undergraduate student who caught on so quickly or who responded with such maturity and sophistication,” James recalls. “This was this first time I realized what a phenomenal mind David had.”

The experience seems to have made an impression on David as well. Not long after he arrived at Amherst College in the early 1980s, he developed a reputation among his professors as a rare philosophical talent, an exceptional student who combined raw analytical horsepower with an indefatigable work ethic. He was thought, by himself and by others, to be headed toward a career as a professor of philosophy. Even after he began writing fiction, a pursuit he undertook midway through college, philosophy remained the source of his academic identity. “I knew him as a philosopher with a fiction hobby,” Jay Garfield, a professor now at Smith College who worked with Wallace at the time, remembers. “I didn’t realize he was one of the great fiction writers of his generation with a philosophy hobby.”

Ryerson goes on to very sharply — but accessibly — describe the influence of Wittgenstein on Wallace’s work, and particularly on his first novel, The Broom of the System. In the essay, Ryerson also has a way with details that bring Wallace back to life — in a letter to someone with whom he consulted about his thesis, he referred to Descartes as “Monsieur D,” and to Kant as “the Big K.”

Even if Wallace’s thesis requires a specialized reader, parts of it convey the voice everyone misses, and the rest of the book makes it well worth owning for Wallace completists — of which, I’m sure, there are many.