Fate, Time, and Language

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
STEVEN M. CAHN
MAUREEN ECKERT
INTRODUCTION BY JAMES RYERSON
EPILOGUE BY JAY GARFIELD
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/wall15156
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  • Book Info
    Fate, Time, and Language
    Book Description:

    In 1962, the philosopher Richard Taylor used six commonly accepted presuppositions to imply that human beings have no control over the future. David Foster Wallace not only took issue with Taylor's method, which, according to him, scrambled the relations of logic, language, and the physical world, but also noted a semantic trick at the heart of Taylor's argument.

    Fate, Time, and Language presents Wallace's brilliant critique of Taylor's work. Written long before the publication of his fiction and essays, Wallace's thesis reveals his great skepticism of abstract thinking made to function as a negation of something more genuine and real. He was especially suspicious of certain paradigms of thought-the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever gimmickry of postmodernism-that abandoned "the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community." As Wallace rises to meet the challenge to free will presented by Taylor, we witness the developing perspective of this major novelist, along with his struggle to establish solid logical ground for his convictions. This volume, edited by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert, reproduces Taylor's original article and other works on fatalism cited by Wallace. James Ryerson's introduction connects Wallace's early philosophical work to the themes and explorations of his later fiction, and Jay Garfield supplies a critical biographical epilogue.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52707-1
    Subjects: Philosophy, Linguistics, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-x)
    STEVEN M. CAHN and MAUREEN ECKERT
  4. INTRODUCTION: A HEAD THAT THROBBED HEARTLIKE: THE PHILOSOPHICAL MIND OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
    (pp. 1-34)
    JAMES RYERSON

    WITH THE death of David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, who took his own life on September 12, 2008, the world of contemporary American fiction lost its most intellectually ambitious writer. Like his forebears Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, Wallace wrote big, brainy novels that were encyclopedically packed with information and animated by arcane ideas. In nonfiction essays, he tackled a daunting range of highbrow topics, including lexicography, poststructuralist literary theory, and the science, ethics, and epistemology of invertebrate pain. He wrote a book, Everything and More, on the history and philosophy of the mathematics of infinity. Even...

  5. PART I THE BACKGROUND
    • INTRODUCTION
      (pp. 37-39)
      STEVEN M. CAHN

      IN 1962 Richard Taylor, already a highly regarded metaphysician and at that time the holder of a chair in philosophy at Brown University, published an article in the prestigious journal The Philosophical Review that astonished its readership. This short, lucid essay with nary a footnote was titled “Fatalism,” and in it Taylor argued that, when suitably connected, six presuppositions widely accepted by contemporary philosophers implied the fatalistic conclusion that we have no more control over future events than we have now over past ones.

      Soon after the article’s appearance, a spate of criticisms were offered, all maintaining that Taylor’s argument...

    • 1 FATALISM
      (pp. 41-52)
      RICHARD TAYLOR

      A FATALIST—IF there is any such—thinks he cannot do anything about the future. He thinks it is not up to him what is going to happen next year, tomorrow, or the very next moment. He thinks that even his own behavior is not in the least within his power, any more than the motions of the heavenly bodies, the events of remote history, or the political developments in China. It would, accordingly, be pointless for him to deliberate about what he is going to do, for a man deliberates only about such things as he believes are within...

    • 2 PROFESSOR TAYLOR ON FATALISM
      (pp. 53-56)
      JOHN TURK SAUNDERS

      IN A recent article¹ Richard Taylor presents us with a problem the solution to which, he suggests, requires either the acceptance of fatalism or the rejection of the traditional interpretation of the logical law of excluded middle. I wish to point out that the problem is solved when one notices an error in Taylor’s reasoning, and that once this error is uncovered it is clear that no reason has been provided on behalf of either fatalism or a reinterpretation of the law of excluded middle.

      The gist of the problem may be presented as follows. Suppose that I am a...

    • 3 FATALISM AND ABILITY
      (pp. 57-60)
      RICHARD TAYLOR

      IF THERE is an error in my defence of fatalism¹ I am sure John Turk Saunders has put his finger on it.² His rejoinder is so familiar that I have come to anticipate it every time I hear this discussed, but no one else has put it so well.

      The thing at issue is my presupposition that no agent can perform any given act in the absence of some condition necessary for its accomplishment. Saunders says this means only that it is impossible, as a matter of logic, both that an agent should perform a certain act y, and that...

    • 4 FATALISM AND ABILITY II
      (pp. 61-64)
      PETER MAKEPEACE

      TAYLOR’S REPLY to Saunders is to make the following points.

      (1) There is a sense of “cannot” which is both

      (i) consistent with “having the ability” in the sense of skill, strength, etc., and

      (ii) equivalent in meaning to “not having within one’s power”;

      (2) If Saunders’s argument against Taylor’s fatalism is valid, it proves that we can alter the past, which is absurd.

      Taylor is wrong on both counts.

      (1) This is the sense of “cannot” which, according to Saunders, is merely a matter of logic. Taylor has not denied this, but has just repeated his claim that I...

    • 5 FATALISM AND LINGUISTIC REFORM
      (pp. 65-68)
      JOHN TURK SAUNDERS

      IN HIS article, “Fatalism,” Richard Taylor took the position that (1) no agent has within his power an act for which a necessary condition is lacking. And he argued that if an event, e, is a necessary condition for an earlier act, a, so that a is a sufficient condition for e, then if e does not occur it was not in one’s power to do a—given the usual interpretation of the law of excluded middle. Thus he maintained, in effect, that (2) if an event does not occur then it was not within one’s power to bring it...

    • 6 FATALISM AND PROFESSOR TAYLOR
      (pp. 69-78)
      BRUCE AUNE

      IN A recent paper appearing in this journal Professor Richard Taylor sought to derive fatalistic conclusions from ostensibly innocent premises.¹ Not all of his premises were as innocent as he took them to be, however; and if, in what follows, I can show that some of them ought clearly to be rejected, new light can be cast, I think, on a surprisingly vigorous ancient problem.

      The assumptions on which Taylor based his conclusions were these. First, the law of excluded middle, “(p)(p v -p),” is indeed a law, a necessary truth. Second, “if any state of affairs is sufficient for,...

    • 7 TAYLOR’S FATAL FALLACY
      (pp. 79-84)
      RAZIEL ABELSON

      RICHARD TAYLOR has argued that we must either become fatalists or abandon the law of excluded middle and/or the inefficacy of time. In his ingenious essay “Fatalism,” Taylor formulates six plausible “presuppositions” and deduces from them a fatalistic theorem to the effect that, for a given act, either it is not in one’s power to perform the act or it is not in one’s power to refrain from the act.¹ Taylor concludes that the only way to avoid this fatalistic consequence is to jettison his first presupposition (the law of excluded middle) and possibly also his sixth (the inefficacy of...

    • 8 A NOTE ON FATALISM
      (pp. 85-88)
      RICHARD TAYLOR

      MY QUALIFIED argument for fatalism drew some impassioned protest.¹ Such arguments have disturbed philosophers since the days of St. Augustine and Boethius; since, in fact, men first took seriously the idea of divine omniscience and, with this, the idea that all truth is timeless. Few nowadays consider divine omniscience the cornerstone of all that we cherish, but the suggestion that some propositions about the future may be as yet not true and as yet not false, but will in time be made true or made false by men’s acts, is generally received as though it were an attack upon reason...

    • 9 TAUTOLOGY AND FATALISM
      (pp. 89-92)
      RICHARD SHARVY

      RICHARD TAYLOR has given an argument for fatalism¹ which I shall summarize briefly. (a) No agent has the power to perform an act if a necessary condition for the performance of that act is lacking; (b) if X is a sufficient condition for Y, then Y is a necessary condition for X, and vice versa. Then, on the hypothesis that my performing an act O is a sufficient condition for the occurrence of an event Q, and that my performing an act O’ is a sufficient condition for the nonoccurrence of this event (call this nonoccurrence the event Q’), Taylor...

    • 10 FATALISTIC ARGUMENTS
      (pp. 93-106)
      STEVEN CAHN

      OVER THE past several years much controversial literature has appeared on the subject of fatalism. Richard Taylor’s fatalistic arguments,¹ in particular, have drawn critical comment from many quarters,² and A. J. Ayer in his latest book has added new fuel to the controversy.³

      In what follows I shall concentrate on the crucial points in Taylor’s argument and on replies that have been made to it. In part I I shall show that these replies are inconclusive. Indeed, some of them amount to nothing more than pointing out that Taylor’s premises have fatalistic implications, which was precisely what Taylor was suggesting....

    • 11 COMMENT
      (pp. 107-110)
      RICHARD TAYLOR

      THESE EXCELLENT critics make several points, all of them good and perceptive. Sharvy’s remarks seem to me answerable within the framework of my assumptions, but the difficulties raised by Cahn, in the second part of his discussion, are admittedly hard.

      Both Sharvy and Cahn note that it is hardly a criticism of my argument for fatalism that it has fatalistic implications—a type of criticism that has now become fairly familiar. Indeed, a fatalist could well be described as someone who believes that those actions which are within his power are coextensive with those he performs, i.e., that he is...

    • 12 FATALISM AND ORDINARY LANGUAGE
      (pp. 111-126)
      JOHN TURK SAUNDERS

      RICHARD TAYLOR’S ideas about fatalism have caused quite a stir.* Numerous objections to his thesis have not led him to abandon it. Indeed, the writing of Steven Cahn, who defends Taylor and who has attempted to state the case for fatalism even more strongly than Taylor does, has convinced Taylor that even the modification of the law of excluded middle may not save us from fatalism.¹ Since Taylor comments upon Cahn’s article and in no way repudiates Cahn’s replies to Taylor’s critics, I shall feel free, in this paper, to attribute the contents of these replies to Taylor himself. I...

    • 13 FALLACIES IN TAYLOR’S “FATALISM”
      (pp. 127-132)
      CHARLES D. BROWN

      RICHARD TAYLOR has presented two versions of his cunning argument on fatalism—one in Philosophical Review¹ and an expanded version in his Metaphysics;² but they are essentially the same argument, and they are equally fallacious. Because of the wide attention this argument has already received, I will not present yet another summary of it; rather I refer the reader to Taylor’s presentations and to Steven Cahn’s defense and elaboration of Taylor’s argument.³ In spite of Cahn’s vigorous defense of the “fatalistic argument,” two smirking defects remain: (1) an equivocation on ‘necessary condition’ and (2) a confusion of the reciprocity of...

  6. PART II THE ESSAY
    • 14 RENEWING THE FATALIST CONVERSATION
      (pp. 135-140)
      MAUREEN ECKERT

      AFTER THE publication in 1967 of Steven M. Cahn’s Fate, Logic, and Time,¹ the philosophical debate on fatalism that had raged in the leading professional journals for five years faded from view. Nearly two decades later, however, developments in logic enabled a talented, ambitious undergraduate named David Foster Wallace to revisit the issue and offer a new analysis of its central argument.

      The year 1970 was critical. Saul Kripke presented his “Naming and Necessity” lectures at Princeton University,² David Lewis published his papers “Anselm and Actuality” and “General Semantics,”³ and Richard Montague wrote “Pragmatics and Intensional Logics”.⁴ Fifteen years later,...

    • 15 RICHARD TAYLOR’S “FATALISM” AND THE SEMANTICS OF PHYSICAL MODALITY
      (pp. 141-216)
      DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

      The famous and infamous Taylor argument is without doubt a classic modern contribution to the philosophical problem of future contingents. This problem, in a nutshell, is whether we can allow contingent future-tensed propositions to take standard truth-values without doing violence to our belief that parts of the universe enjoy at least some degree of causal contingency and that persons enjoy at least some control over what does and will happen to them. The problem is at least as old as Aristotle and has received the attention of many famous philosophers and theologians.¹

      Probably the most important and influential twentieth-century work...

  7. PART III EPILOGUE
    • 16 DAVID FOSTER WALLACE AS STUDENT: A MEMOIR
      (pp. 219-222)
      JAY GARFIELD

      THIS WAS all a long time ago, and I cannot be sure that my memory is entirely accurate, especially regarding details; but David was memorable enough that I think that most of our time together is burned into my brain. I was teaching then at Hampshire College. My close friend and colleague Bill de Vries, then teaching at Amherst College phoned (e-mail was still a rarity) late in the fall semester to ask me if I would be willing to talk with an honors student he was advising. Much of my work at the time was on natural language semantics...

  8. APPENDIX: THE PROBLEM OF FUTURE CONTINGENCIES
    (pp. 223-252)
    RICHARD TAYLOR