Consider the Moron: NYT Essay On David Foster Wallace

I have nothing against Wallace.  Not yet.  The one essay of his to come my way, a piece on talk radio in the Atlantic, was largely forgettable.  The most memorable aspect was the Atlantic’s feeble attempt to accommodate Wallace’s penchant for footnotes by placing these passing remarks in generous margins with Romper Room color coding.  Completely distracting, totally unreadable.  But since Wallace’s suicide, we should expect glowing eulogies.  And we should also expect hagiography.  There is none so embarrassingly doltish as the essay in the today’s Times Magazine on Wallace’s early work in academic philosophy.  It is reminiscent of literary critics’ attempts to extrapolate insights from T.S. Eliot’s incomplete Harvard dissertation on F. H. Bradley into a reading of the Wasteland.  Pedantic and worse, boring.  

But the Times essay doesn’t even attain those anthill heights.  Consider the Philosopher, the headline reads.  Not “a” philosopher.  But “the” philosopher.  Let us consider this philosopher then.  Ryerson writes: 

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 argues that this topsy-turvy doctrine can be established by mere reflection on the simple logic of propositions about the future. If I fire my handgun, one second from now its barrel will be hot; if I do not fire, one second from now the barrel will not be hot; but the proposition one second from now the barrel will be hot is right now either true or false. If the proposition is true, then it is the case that I will fire the gun; if it’s false, then it is the case that I won’t. Either way, it’s the state of affairs in the future that dictates what I will or won’t do now.

Obviously, there is something fishy going on here. But Taylor’s highly sophisticated version of this argument makes it extremely hard to pinpoint what exactly is amiss…

In other words, Taylor’s argument is patently moronic, or my interpretation of it is, but you just have to trust me that there’s some heavy stuff going on here.  And Wallace was troubled by it.  Metaphysics baby!  But let’s get pedantic for a second.  Ryerson  says the proposition “one second from now the barrel will be hot” is right now, at this very moment, either true or false.  But why must this statement have a truth-value?  Many statements have no truth-value and yet still have meaning.  Consider an imperative, “Close the door.”  At any rate, it doesn’t take a MacArthur Genius award to pinpoint the patent weakness in the argument.  Our actions are truth-makers for future tense statements we have made in the past.  The proposition “one second from now the barrel will be hot” is made true depending upon how we act (or how a system like a gun functions).  Causality doesn’t run backwards from the truth-value of statements written in the future tense.  If Taylor made an argument to the contrary, then I’m surprised someone let the man teach. 

Anyhow, it’s an old philosophic chestnut: are questions about meaning and logic different from questions about causality and metaphysics?  Wittgenstein answered no, of course, as have many pragmatists.  Nevertheless, Ryerson continues on and on in the article as if Wallace was the first to complain that pragmatism suffers from an explanatory cop out.  That’s not an original complaint.  And Wallace’s use of logical notation along with a definition of terms is standard fare for academic philosophy.  Let’s just see Wallace’s Amherst thesis for what it is: a competent but unoriginal criticism of an old philosophical position in the orthodox academic style.  Nothing more, nothing less.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Consider the Moron: NYT Essay On David Foster Wallace

  1. There is a much more fundamental flaw in David Foster Wallace’s metaphysical arguments: His statements about the future are “Expressions” not “Propositions,” in other words, they CANNOT be proven true or false – they are merely verbal behavior, not provable either true or false.
    Also the whole business of in effect, making Time run backward, of using some verbal formulation of the future to prove the existence of something in the present, is something only possible with words not with physical reality.

  2. The Drunken Priest

    Well said.

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