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February 22nd, 2012 at 11:25 am

The Philosophy of David Foster Wallace Revisited

David Foster Wallace, Yesterday would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday and on this occasion, we wanted to look back at our recent publication of his, Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. For a more in-depth discussion of David Foster Wallace’s work in philosophy, visit our special page The Philosophy of David Foster Wallace: Context and Conversation.

In his short afterword to David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis Fate, Time, and Language, Jay Garfield, Wallace’s thesis advisor, describes Wallace as “a philosopher with a fiction hobby.” Wallace is famous today as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, but his philosophical background shines through in all his writing, from his shorter pieces—notably his analysis of the aesthetics of athletics in his essay on Roger Federer and his reflection on the morality of eating lobster—to the frequent allusions to Wittgenstein in his most explicitly philosophical novel, The Broom of the System.

While Wallace was writing The Broom of the System as his undergraduate honors thesis in creative writing during his senior year at Amherst College, he was also working on Fate, Time, and Language, his attempt to overcome Richard Taylor’s argument for fatalism. Wallace took issue with “Taylor’s central claim, … that just a few basic logical and semantic presuppositions … lead directly to the metaphysical conclusion that human beings, agents, have no control over what is going to happen.” The idea that human decision-making has no impact on the future deeply disturbed Wallace. Years later, Jay Garfield remembers being “struck by the fact that David’s reaction to Taylor’s argument and to the failure of so many philosophers to have solved it was righteous indignation.” In Fate, Time, and Language, as in his other less academic but no less philosophical works, Wallace used his understanding of logic and argument as a way to reinforce his very human instincts and feelings.

In his introduction to Fate, Time, and Language, James Ryerson claims that, as a novelist, Wallace strove for “a kind of writing that blended scholarly command and poetic reimagining.” However, while Wallace was a master of the technical aspects of style and argumentation, his career as a writer was defined by his ongoing effort to make personal connections with his readers. It is this human element in Wallace’s thought, present even in his undergraduate philosophy thesis, that is in great part responsible for Wallace’s continued fame three years after his death.

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