Steven Cahn on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace
Matt Bucher, the administrator of wallace-l, the David Foster Wallace listserv, and the publisher of two books on Wallace’s work interviews Steven Cahn, a student of Richard Taylor, a voice in the debate on fatalism, and a coeditor of Fate, Time, and Language.

The interview is part of our special feature, The Philosophy of David Foster Wallace: Context and Conversation.

Matt Bucher: When did you first become aware of Wallace’s thesis?

Steven Cahn: I became aware of Wallace’s paper in 2008, when Maureen Eckert told me about it.

MB:  How often do undergraduates produce work that ends up being read by contemporary philosophers, even in—or especially in—an area like modal logic?

SC:  Such an occurrence is highly unusual although not unprecedented.

MB: Do you personally believe Wallace’s system was inconclusive in disproving some of “Fatalism’s” presuppositions?

SC: I find it provocative but inconclusive.

MB:  How effective do you believe Wallace was at refuting your defense of Taylor’s presuppositions? Did you or Taylor or someone else refute Wallace’s overall argument later?

SC: I am not persuaded by Wallace’s attack on Taylor. No one to my knowledge has ever replied to Wallace because his work has not been widely known.

MB: You point out that Taylor was not in fact a fatalist and that his paper was actually a reductio ad absurdum argument against fatalism. Wallace seems to take Taylor’s paper on its face, purely as a logic problem. In your view, was Taylor ultimately effective in pointing up the logical possibility of fatalism or is his viewpoint doomed to being misunderstood? 

SC: Taylor’s earlier paper [“The Problem of Future Contingencies,” included as the appendix in Fate, Time, and Language] makes his position clear, but to those who are not familiar with that article the fatalism essay can be misunderstood as a defense of fatalism.

MB: Was Wallace’s conclusion off-base in your view? Had he not been aware of Taylor’s earlier paper, “The Problem of Future Contingencies”?

SC: I consider off-base his conclusion that Taylor should engage in metaphysics, not semantics, because Taylor was a metaphysician, and his views are metaphysical, a point he states explicitly in his earlier paper. I have seen no evidence that Wallace was aware of Taylor’s earlier paper, and Wallace’s teachers do not seem to have alerted Wallace to it.

MB: Wallace’s paper seems both highly specialized and incredibly ambitious. How do you rate it as a work of philosophy?

SC: I consider it the most detailed of all responses to Taylor’s argument, and I believe Wallace’s work is now required reading for any philosopher who undertakes a study of fatalism.

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