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Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will Paperback – December 10, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A progression of ordinary-seeming premises that would obliterate free will is challenged on its own grounds by the late, celebrated author of Infinite Jest. Written in the mid-1980s as one of Wallace's two undergraduate theses at Amherst College (his first novel, The Broom of the System, was the other), it addresses a "logical slippage"--as James Ryerson puts it--in Richard Taylor's six famous presuppositions that contend that man has no control over his fate. The paper, a survey of Taylor's argument and its influence on late-20th-century philosophy, is reprinted in its entirety, and the language of modal logic can be heavy going at times--be prepared for pages of highly specialized discussion on logic that necessitate accompanying diagrams. Still, as an early glimpse at the preoccupations of one of the 20th century's most compelling and philosophical authors, it is invaluable, and Wallace's conclusion--"if Taylor and the fatalists want to force upon us a metaphysical conclusion, they must do metaphysics, not semantics"--is simply elegant. (Dec.)
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Fatalism, the sorrowful erasure of possibilities, is the philosophical problem at the heart of this book. To witness the intellectual exuberance and bravado with which the young Wallace attacks this problem, the ambition and elegance of the solution he works out so that possibility might be resurrected, is to mourn, once again, the possibilities that have been lost.

(Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction)

As an early glimpse at the preoccupations of one of the 20th century's most compelling and philosophical authors, it is invaluable, and Wallace's conclusion... is simply elegant.

(Publishers Weekly)

This book is for any reader who has enjoyed the works of Wallace and for philosophy students specializing in fatalism.

(Library Journal)

[A] tough and impressive book.Financial Times

(Anthony Gottlieb Financial Times)

an excellent summary of Wallace's thought and writing which shows how his philosophical interests were not purely cerebral, but arose from, and fed into, his emotional and ethical concerns.

(Robert Potts Times Literary Supplement)

Fate, Time, and Laguage contains a great deal of first-rate philosophy throughout, and not least in Wallace's extraordinarily professional and ambitious essay....

(Daniel Speak Notre Dame Philosophical Review)

Valuable and interesting.

(James Ley Australian Literary Review)

A philosophical argument that deserves a place in any college-level library interested in modern philosophical debate. A lively, debative tone keeps this accessible to newcomers.

(Midwest Book Review)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (December 10, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231151578
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231151573
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #266,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steven M. Cahn a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By tony mancill on January 26, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book centers around David Foster Wallace's undergraduate honors thesis in philosophy. It begins with a very well-written and interesting introduction to the philosophical argument DFW takes to task in his thesis, an argument by Taylor that takes a set of commonly accepted philosophical presuppositions and entails fatalism. The book then presents Taylor's article, originally published in the early 1960s, and a flurry of (sometimes heated) responses by other philosophers. All of this serves as the background for Wallace's work, which extends (seemingly substantially) upon those other responses.

I'm not a philosopher by either trade or background, and so I won't claim to have followed every nuance of all of the arguments, and as a reader, I found the back-and-forth regarding Taylor's original argument less interesting than either the introduction or DFW's contribution. However, the thesis itself is lucid (and I think easier to follow than several of the other arguments, even if it is not particularly light reading), and in a word, satisfying. It seems to me that David Foster Wallace was an exceptionally gifted person, and so I am glad that the editors and contributors put forth the effort to make it available. It was also enjoyable to detect elements of his literary style even at this early stage of his writing.

Based on this book alone, I'm not convinced that David Foster Wallace found the question of free will (as the subtitle might suggest) all that vexing or in need of defense - it seems as likely that he was concerned about the imprecise use of language and the confusion it may lead to - that doesn't detract from the book in any way. Very enjoyable for fans of DFW or, say, modal semantics.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Randal Samstag on July 1, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
David Foster Wallace (DFW) was a certified "genius" (a MacArthur grant recipient) who became famous as "one of the most talented fiction writers of his generation" in the words of philosopher Jay Garfield. Garfield contributes an appreciation of DFW in the posthumous book; Fate, Time, and Language. Garfield thought that DFW missed his calling. Instead of becoming a novelist, famous for manic novels like Infinite Jest and The Pale King, Garfield suggests that he could have been an even better philosopher. Garfield says that DFW's essay contained in Fate, Time, and Language; `Richard Taylor's "Fatalism" and the Semantics of Physical Modality'; which was one of DFW's senior theses at Amherst, proves that ". . . had he lived, he would have been a major figure in our field." The other senior thesis became The Broom of the System, which started DFW onto his career in literary fiction in 1985.

DFW's philosophy thesis is directed against the modern philosopher Richard Taylor, whose article `Fatalism' (The Philosophical Review, Vol. 71, No. 1, 1962) made the claim that six "presuppositions", commonly accepted by modern day philosophers, lead to the conclusion that fatalism is true. The presuppositions:

1) Any proposition whatever is either true or, if not true, false.

2) If any state of affairs is sufficient for, though logically unrelated to, the occurrence of some further condition at the same or any other time, then the former cannot occur without the latter occurring.

3) If the occurrence of any condition is necessary for, but logically unrelated to, the occurrence of some other condition at the same or any other time, then the latter cannot occur without the former occurring also.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By mark jabbour on June 21, 2011
Format: Paperback
This book is really two books, and the title is misleading. First, it is a philosophical inquiry into the concept/idea of Fatalism (an argument that what happens is all that can possibly happen. This argument subsumes Determinism and Predestination.) by Philosophy professors and then, the then student Wallace's critique of their arguments in his unpublished senior thesis: "Richard Taylor's `Fatalism' and the Semantics of Physical Modality." (1984-1985.) Second, it is an incomplete, biographical look into the life and mind and death of David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008.

I took Logic in college some 40+ years ago and, believe it or not, was able to follow the "Fatalist" discussion. On page 97 of the book I wrote in the margin "Idiots All." I think that was Wallace's position, too, but he was too nice a person to say that right out. AND, his father was a Philosophy professor and his mother an English Prof. I did get lost midway through Wallace's paper when he got into "A FORMAL DEVICE FOE REPRESENTING AND EXPLAINING THE TAYLOR INEQUIVALENCE: FEATURES AND IMPLICATIONS OF THE INTENSIONAL-PHYSICAL-MODALITY SYSTEM J." A device Wallace devised to question the professional Philosophy professors position's. In his (DFW) paper he combines his parents' two Fields, English & Philosophy, to pretty much prove the esteemed professors - fools. He shows how they bloviate to excess under the guise of learn-ed discourse and misuse words to try to show how smart they are (and justify their salaries, life's, etc. and so on.) Ironically, something some readers and critics of his accuse him of, and a self-criticism he struggled with himself. I think he was mocking his professors. And maybe unconsciously, or not unconsciously, going after Mom and Dad.
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