Undergraduate musings

Dan, you asked about David Foster Wallace's undergraduate philosophical work. I don't have time to read the whole article, as I'm currently dealing with the end-of-semester crush of papers and excuses of my undergraduates. Who, I am sure, are less philosophically inclined than Wallace (whose father was a phil prof, and who started the PhD program at Harvard).

However, a bit of the article was posted on The Plank. Here it is:

Sometime in his later college years, Wallace became troubled by a paper called “Fatalism,” first published in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. The fatalist contends, quite radically, that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future. Your behavior today no more shapes events tomorrow than it shapes events yesterday. Instead, in a seemingly backward way, the fatalist says it is how things are in the future that uniquely constrains what happens right now. What might seem like an open possibility subject to human choice — say, whether you fire your handgun — is already either impossible or absolutely necessary. You are merely going with some cosmic flow.


Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

As for the philosophical merits, I obviously can't evaluate. It's certainly not a stupid argument. It seems sophisticated for an undergraduate. However, the fact that words such as "can," "cannot," "possible," "impossible," or "necessary" have multiple meanings has been used as an argument against fatalism or determinism since Hume put it forth in his argument for compatibilism (with contributions by A.J. Ayer and David Lewis, among many others). So it's not like Wallace is the first person to notice something like that, as this bit seems to imply (although he may well have an original take on the matter or a specific response to Taylor that's not evident in the snippet above). It's a common, although controversial, move in philosophy to draw metaphysical conclusions from linguistic concepts, which is what Wallace seems to be doing. Such a move is one with which I'm not particularly sympathetic, for reasons far too boring to go into here.

But whatever. I haven't read it. What strikes me as hilarious, however, is just how overwritten this thing is. It takes something we (i.e., philosophers) do every day and makes it sound extremely dramatic. One does not write a philosophy paper without pointing out flaws in previous works, implicitly or explicitly. I suppose it's possible not to do so, but it is a part of every paper I've written and every presentation I've made, and I think almost every paper that I've read. Starts with Socrates, after all.

So it's just taking this quotidian action and making it seem brilliant. I think the equivalent for Dan's job would be reading something like, "Summers proposed that there was a flaw in the patient's ear, an infection that was the hidden defect... An extremely sensitive observer of ear canals, Summers noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our ears: the fine differentiation in fluid levels between infected ears and healthy ears."


  1. First of all, I am TOTALLY going to start documenting ear infections that way.

    Secondly, I may be mistaken, but I think Wallace was arguing against using semantics as a basis for metaphysical conclusions. True, he did it using the same kind of (from my perspective) mumbo-jumbo as Taylor, but he did it for the purpose of exposing the weakness in the latter's thinking.

    I think.

  2. This snippet seems to imply that he was arguing in favor, but like I said, I didn't read the whole article. So take any comments with, like, 16 grains of salt.