Fate, Time and Language

Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will, by David Foster Wallace, Columbia University Press, RRP$19.95, 252 pages

“Fate keeps on happening,” observed Lorelei Lee, the archetypal faux-dumb blonde, in one of Anita Loos’ sunny stories.

Lorelei always managed to be an innocent bystander as circumstances miraculously fell into place around her. For philosophers, however, fatalism is the idea that logic dictates that events unfold of their own accord, so that there is no point in trying to do anything about them. Futilism might be a better name for it.

Philosophers have long enjoyed trying to work out what exactly is wrong with fatalism. In the first century BC, Cicero reported a riddle, nicknamed “the Lazy Argument”, which goes as follows. If you are ill, there is no point in calling a doctor, because either you are going to recover or you are not. If you are, then calling a doctor is superfluous, and if you are not, it is bound to be ineffective. It is a modern version of the Lazy Argument that the late David Foster Wallace tackles in this tough and impressive book.

Foster Wallace received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1997, a year after publishing Infinite Jest, his 1,100-page dystopian novel. He hanged himself in 2008, aged 46, when treatments for his depression stopped working. At university, he oscillated between philosophy and creative writing and in 1985 submitted undergraduate senior theses in both English and philosophy. The English thesis became his first novel, The Broom of the System; another, unfinished, novel is due out next year. His literary fans should be warned that the philosophy thesis, now published for the first time here, is formidably technical. Foster Wallace was captivated by the formal methods of mathematical logic, fashionable in philosophy in the 1970s and 1980s, and which his philosopher-father regarded as “kind of gibberish”.

In 1962, American philosopher Richard Taylor published a short paper that ingeniously restated the Lazy Argument. Foster Wallace believed that Taylor had, in effect, confused two different things we might mean if we say that something “must have happened”. Sometimes we infer from present circumstances that a particular event must have taken place beforehand. (From the fact that there is presently a lottery ticket in a man’s pocket, we infer that he must have bought a ticket.) Sometimes, on the other hand, we infer from our knowledge of past circumstances that an event was inevitable. In the latter case, what happened could not have happened otherwise. But in the former, it could. Although we’re sure that the man happened to buy a ticket, it does not follow that he could not, at the time, have chosen not to.

After arguing that this distinction is the crux of the matter in Taylor’s Lazy Argument, Foster Wallace constructs some ingenious formal machinery to clarify the sorts of necessity involved. He uses techniques developed by Richard Montague, an American philosopher whose murder in 1971 was the subject of at least two novels. But he applies them in an original way.

It is a virtuoso performance. What is not clear is whether it is of any lasting significance. When TS Eliot published his own student philosophy thesis, 46 years after it was written, he confessed that he no longer understood it, and said it would be of interest only to students of the evolution of his prose style. It soon fell out of print. Foster Wallace’s is a superior work but will probably suffer the same fate.

Anthony Gottlieb is the author of ‘The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance’ (Penguin)

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