David foster wallace undergrad thesis

It's easy to see how an unblinkered sense of the self could be an asset to a novelist. And Wallace appears to have adopted, by choice or chance, demanding standards both in literature and life, and these standards seem not to have been unreasonable.

David Foster Wallace's Depression: Neurodiversity and Flourishing

He could, sometimes, live up to them. But a foible of neurology that keeps us from meeting our own high standards consistently can put us in a terrible bind. Our options are to a try, fail, and struggle to avoid becoming utterly defeated; b fail to try and struggle with self-loathing; c try with every ounce of effort we can summon, succeed, and leave ourselves too exhausted to succeed again, or to want to try; d lower our standards and meet them, but struggle with the thought that we have cheated ourselves and the world of our best.

There are, in fact, other choices, though they are hard to see or accept. We can e come to see the seemingly disordered aspects of our psychologies as part of a bundle of assets and liabilities that make each of us unique -- as an expression of our neuro-individuality -- and to see our reconciliation with the limits our brains impose upon us not as defeat, or a lowering of our standards, but as practical wisdom in aligning our aims with our inevitably idiosyncratic constitution.

But it's hard, hard, hard, hard not to see this as d. Our deepest desires for life precede significant self-knowledge. To arrive early at the ambition to achieve some kind of greatness or the social recognition of greatness may be an adolescent point from which we cannot as adults convince ourselves to return. It is less pleasant to die trying, than to survive healthily.

I just sort of drifted onto this from the subject of Wallace's depression. I'm not sure there's much here to illuminate his life and death. I don't know that he flamed out reaching for the sun. I think he wanted to be healthy so he could be and do good, but the profundity of his depression finally made it impossible to live. If I were to speculate, I would speculate that Infinite Jest is the product of exhausting option c. This left Wallace somewhat depleted, but he could not resist the social and personal imperative to outdo himself.

He tried for c again and may have hit a. That is, we have the makings of an argument for the conclusion that, appearances notwithstanding, none of us ever enjoys the sort of genuine two-way power we ordinarily associate with free will. If Q is true, then it is not within my power to do O' for in case Q is true, then there is, or will be, lacking a condition essential for my doing O' , the condition, namely, of there being no naval battle tomorrow. But if Q' is true, then it is not within my power to do O for a similar reason. But either Q is true or Q' is true.

Either it is not within my power to do O , or it is not within my power to do O'. In sketching Wallace's distinctive response to Taylor's argument it is worth noting first what seems most to have drawn and kept his attention here. More than one of Wallace's teachers recount that he appeared to have been sincerely disturbed by something like the form of the argument. Reflecting back on his initial discussions with Wallace about the thesis project, Garfield recalls that the young Wallace "was outraged that Taylor sought, and claimed to have derived, an explicitly metaphysical conclusion from purely logical or semantic premises; and he was genuinely offended by the failure of professional philosophers to have put things right" p.


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Not only does this reveal a sophisticated philosophical sensibility, it also allows us to see both why Wallace was not satisfied with many of the responses to Taylor's argument that had already appeared in the literature and what was unique in his own approach. Showing that the Taylor argument is unsound simply would not be enough for Wallace, since this would leave the structure of the argument and its aspirations essentially intact.

What needed to be vindicated was the thought that a metaphysical conclusion cannot follow from purely semantic premises.

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Therefore, what needed to be shown was that the Taylor argument is invalid -- that the conclusion does not follow from the premises and the assumptions underlying them. For this reason, Wallace makes every effort to maintain Taylor's six assumptions.

Wallace's strategy for revealing the invalidity in the Taylor argument is to demonstrate the logical nonequivalence of two propositions that the argument runs together. Notice that premises 1' and 2' of Taylor's argument are derived, by the application of something like contraposition, from the stipulations that the occurrence of O will ensure that Q is true and the occurrence of O' will ensure that Q' is true. Given these physical modalities, we can conclude that the falsity of Q would physically necessitate the absence of O and the falsity of Q' would physically necessitate the absence of O'.

Having taken these points into consideration, there are still two different ways to understand the claim expressed in 1' and the same point could be made, obviously, with respect to 2' :.


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  • MT1: If there will be no sea battle tomorrow, then today it is not physically possible for the commander to issue the order. MT2: If there will be no sea battle tomorrow, then tomorrow it will not be physically possible for the commander to issue the order today. To bring out the nonequivalence, Wallace develops a sophisticated semantics for the physical modality he takes to be at work in Taylor's argument the "not within my power" locution of Taylor's argument should be understood in terms of physical -- rather than logical or metaphysical -- impossibility.

    With the semantics worked out, Wallace is able to offer a formal argument for his claim that while the properly formalized expression of MT1 entails the properly formalized expression of MT2, the converse is false. Furthermore, Wallace argues that, while it is only MT1 that can get us to fatalism, Taylor's argument can, at best, establish only MT2.

    This is, of course, far too quick an explication of Wallace's argument and it does little justice to the insight and rigor of his work. In particular, what I have said above may have slipped past you without commanding your recognition. He really does develop, essentially from scratch, a sophisticated semantics for an intuitive brand of physical modality that he titles "system J" modeled on the work in logical modality of Kripke and Montague.

    And he really does deploy this system to reveal the formal nonequivalence between MT1 and MT2 in this system. Thus, what Wallace takes himself to have shown is that accepting the validity of the fatalist argument would require rejecting his system J. It turns out to be very difficult to see how one would go about rejecting system J.

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    It is, therefore, not as surprising as you might have anticipated that Jay Garfield reports: "I regarded his argument as decisive then, and I still do. Whether or not Garfield's judgment can ultimately be vindicated, the judgment itself gives the readers of this review a forceful reason to take Wallace's argument seriously.

    If there is a clear shortcoming in Wallace's thesis, it is that Wallace has misunderstood certain aspects of Taylor's argument and motivations. This possibility is brought out gently by Steven Cahn both in his very brief introduction to the background essays and in his epigraph to the appendix included, one thinks, to help emphasize just the point Cahn makes in his introduction. It is true that for all Wallace says in his essay he may indeed have thought that Richard Taylor was a fatalist; which would have been a mistake -- a mistake that, Cahn reports, has been quite widely made even by professional philosophers.

    Taylor's infamous fatalism paper was intended, it seems, not as a defense of its title position but rather as a reductio ad absurdum of the six presuppositions on which his argument depends. As the appendix paper makes clear, Taylor followed Aristotle in rejecting presuppositions 1 and 6.

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    That is, Taylor believed that the truth-value of future contingent propositions is indeterminate and that the passage of time alone could make the determining difference thereby affecting the powers of agents. On a related note, recall Wallace's resistance to the idea that a metaphysical thesis could be established by appeal to purely semantic premises. Upon reflection and, again, Cahn makes this point , the sixth presupposition does not appear to be a purely semantic claim. It seems, instead, to be a full-blooded metaphysical claim about the relationship between time and power.

    But even if Wallace was mislead about Taylor's wider aims and motivated by a misunderstanding an explanation of which I can't quite reconstruct of the status of the fatalist argument's premises, his essay is impressive philosophy. It is possible that its most important contribution will be to return some contemporary attention to the ancient problem and to the worthy work of Richard Taylor.

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    Having read Infinite Jest alongside the collection under review here, I cannot ignore the parallels between Hal Incandenza the novel's intellectually precocious teen-aged central character and the collegiate David Foster Wallace -- who feverishly wrote his thesis in the Amherst philosophy department during his senior year while also penning a complete novel for a second thesis in the English department.

    Perhaps more tellingly, we find Incandenza late in the novel, trying to come to terms with his own almost involuntary intellectual precision, noticing that "The dedication and sustained energy that go into true perspicacity and expertise were exhausting even to think about. I find it hard to disagree with Garfield in his conclusion that had Wallace stuck with philosophy, and had he lived, he would have been a major figure in our field. There is also no denying the strange excitement of looking in on the development of a young and uniquely powerful intellect.

    Those who have read John Rawls' undergraduate thesis will, I think, have a similar experience in reading Wallace's. The story, inspired by Aristotle, goes like this: Let us now imagine that I am a naval commander, about to issue my order of the day to the fleet.