Manny's Reviews > Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

Fate, Time, and Language by David Foster Wallace
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Sep 23, 14

bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy, pooh-dante
Recommended to Manny by: MyFleshSingsOut
Read from October 16 to 19, 2010

I haven't actually read this book, only the raw PDF of Wallace's thesis, which MyFleshSingsOut kindly mailed to me the other day. I just finished it. I'm seriously conflicted as to how to react.

On the one hand, I was astonished to find what a close emotional connection I had to it. DFW wrote his thesis in 1985. It’s clear to me that he was heavily influenced by Dowty, Wall and Peters’s Introduction to Montague Semantics. Well: I read that same book just about then, and I was also heavily influenced by it! It pretty much pushed me into doing formal semantics of natural language, a subject I’ve worked with, in one way or another, ever since. I found Wallace’s paper easy to read; I’ve thought a great deal about these issues, and the technical tricks he uses feel completely natural. I’ve used most of them myself, and I’ve written some similar papers.

The rest of this review is available elsewhere (the location cannot be given for Goodreads policy reasons)

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Reading Progress

10/16/2010 page 5
2.0% "MFSO kindly mailed me a copy. It's the best-written masters thesis I've ever seen :)"
10/17/2010 page 25
10.0% "Less than convinced - though the style is, even at this early age, very good."
10/18/2010 page 35
15.0% "Ah. It's all about the relative scopes of modal operators. Well, that certainly seems correct, but does he really need 80 pages to say it?"
10/19/2010 page 45
19.0% "And now he's going to use Kripke structures to justify his semantics..."

Comments (showing 1-30 of 30) (30 new)

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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Glad you like it, but I'm almost positive that it is actually an undergraduate thesis and not a master's (again, also written while writing a brilliant novel for his English thesis). I'm pretty sure he gave up on academic philosophy rather quickly after being accepted to Harvard's philosophy grad program and instead completed an MFA in literature or creative writing elsewhere while focusing on fiction writing. This makes it all the more impressive.


Manny MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Glad you like it, but I'm almost positive that it is actually an undergraduate thesis and not a master's"

Really? It was written in 1985, and he was born in 1962 - 23 is quite old to be writing an undergraduate thesis, no?


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Not if you take a year off due to genuinely crippling unipolar depression.


Manny Ah. I stand corrected. Poor DFW.


message 5: by notgettingenough (last edited Oct 20, 2010 01:37AM) (new)

notgettingenough I'm trying to discourage reviews that have too much gratuitous irrelevant sex in them, but I'm voting for this one anyway. That is sex, isn't it, these bits:

P¬◊O

If it isn't, then I don't get it.


message 6: by Manny (last edited Oct 20, 2010 08:43AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Manny I've just read Dominique de Saint Mars's excellent Max Ne Pense Qu'Au Zizi, and I can assure you that you were close. It's sublimated sex.


message 7: by Simon (new)

Simon Reminds me of a quote from Andrea Nye's _Words of Power_, a feminist take on philosophy of language and logic: "Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic."


message 8: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Manny wrote: "Ah. I stand corrected. Poor DFW."

Yeah, he said "I had kind of a midlife crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur well for my longevity." Poor DFW indeed.

And yeah, Broom was actually published while he was getting an M.F.A. at the University of Arizona. His profs at Amherst thought he was very talented: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/mag...


Manny Simon wrote: "Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic."

I LOVE that!

Moira wrote: "His profs at Amherst thought he was very talented"

A nice article, but I am still unconvinced by all the praise heaped on this paper. I do wonder if it would have received the same degree of attention if someone else had written it... there are a lot of modal logic papers out there which sound kind of similar.


message 10: by Geoff (new)

Geoff This was a pleasure to read, thanks Manny.

"I do wonder if it would have received the same degree of attention if someone else had written it... there are a lot of modal logic papers out there which sound kind of similar."

Probably not. But I think one of the lovely things about DFW is the fact that despite writing a not undifficult novel like IJ, he's really popular- he touched a lot of the right nerves in a broad spectrum of people at the right time, and now pretty much all the written work he's done is in demand. It says more about the range and appeal of his voice than the quality of the philosophical thesis.


Manny Thank you Geoff! And I quite agree about the appeal of DFW's unique voice - that is clearly what it's all about here. I'm just saying that we should recognize that it's about his voice, and not about his philosophical insights. A distinction, it now occurs to me, which is applicable to many other authors, though this was a remarkable clear example...


message 12: by Emir Never (new)

Emir Never Manny, I enjoyed both the original review and your postscript to it. Thanks, man!


message 13: by Emir Never (new)

Emir Never "We should leave the dead alone, and respect what we may reasonably believe to be their final wishes."

The name that immediately came to my mind reading this line: Franz Kafka.


Manny Thank you Emir!

Yes, I also thought of Kafka. I guess it's partly a question of how great the work in question is. I'm not sure I could bring myself to burn The Trial either. But Fate, Time and Language just isn't in that category. It's nice, but it's never going to change the face of philosophy or literature, so I think it's on the other side of the line...


message 15: by Emir Never (last edited Feb 15, 2012 11:01PM) (new)

Emir Never Manny wrote: "Yes, I also thought of Kafka. I guess it's partly a question of how great the work in question is. I'm not sure I could bring myself to burn The Trial either. But Fate, Time and Language just isn't in that category. It's nice, but it's never going to change the face of philosophy or literature, so I think it's on the other side of the line..."

I understand your point, Manny. I just find it interesting to carry that earlier thought to an absolute degree, since determining the greatness of a work would entail judgment, which could be varied and is definitely subjective. Maybe the writers themselves should destroy works they don't intend to circulate or attach their names to.


Manny Here, it wouldn't have been a question of destroying it, since the thesis was already published. It's more whether DFW wanted it widely circulated, and the evidence suggests that he didn't.

The really scandalous case is Nabokov's The Original of Laura. I still feel kind of angry when I think about that.


message 17: by Emir Never (last edited Feb 15, 2012 11:28PM) (new)

Emir Never It's a thorny subject. I personally believe that an author's final wish regarding his own unfinished/unpublished work(s) should be held legally and morally binding.


message 18: by Manny (last edited Feb 15, 2012 11:33PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Manny I wonder if there's any country where that is the legal position? Would be interesting to know. Also, authors who felt strongly about these issues could try and get citizenship.


message 19: by Emir Never (new)

Emir Never Manny wrote: "I wonder if there's any country where that is the legal position? Would be interesting to know. Also, authors who felt strongly about these issues could try and get citizenship."

I don't know. But to make it legally binding would be difficult. There will be circumstances to consider: Was the author, in making his final wish, influenced by certain things like drugs, extreme pain, psychological problem, etc., and was therefore not in the right frame of mind? The legal tangle and gobbledygook could be depressing.

The appeal to moral obligation by the literary executors to heed the author's final wish is perhaps more direct. But nothing is as simple as it seems.


Manny There will be circumstances to consider: Was the author, in making his final wish, influenced by certain things like drugs, extreme pain, psychological problem, etc., and was therefore not in the right frame of mind?

Those kind of issues are already considered when evaluating people's wills. I think it would basically be a question of extending the relevant laws to cover literary works, so in fact not so far-fetched.


message 21: by Paul (new)

Paul great stuff, even for us non-semanticians (there are a lot of us about). Your review is the ironest of fists in the velvetiest glove.


message 22: by Riku (new) - added it

Riku Sayuj Wow. I am not sure if reading the book is even required after this review!. Thanks!


message 23: by Manny (last edited Feb 17, 2012 02:09AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Manny Thank you Paul! I have never understood where non-semanticians come from. What do you do with all the time you save not studying modal logic?


Manny And thank you Riku! But I think Geoff is right in #10: if you like DFW, you'll find it worthwhile just to hear more of his voice. It's already quite recognizable.


message 25: by Riku (new) - added it

Riku Sayuj All I have of DFW is the 'supposedly fun thing', I honestly did not even know of his work in semantics or linguistics. Could you suggest some other entertaining books in the field other than Pinker etc?


message 26: by Paul (last edited Feb 17, 2012 02:18AM) (new)

Paul Well, I can't speak for all us non-semanticians, but I listen to a lot of doo wop music and of course I have to take to dogs Schopenhauer and Elvis for regular walks, even in this weather. So I manage to fill my time quite nicely.


Manny Paul: well, yes, but you could easily think about modal logic while listening to music or walking the dogs. You could do all three at the same time! I still don't get it.

Riku: as far as I'm aware, this is the only thing DFW ever wrote on the subject. Though there are oblique references elsewhere. In particular, there is a scene in Infinite Jest where someone finds a copy of Dowty, Wall and Peters open on a desk. I mentioned this to Peters once, and was astonished to find that he didn't know.


message 28: by Paul (last edited Feb 17, 2012 04:09AM) (new)

Paul sorry Manny, this stuff melts rational thought

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyLQVi...


message 29: by Albert (new) - added it

Albert I'm surprised no one mentioned here that there is an additional article by Richard Taylor (written before "Fatalism") in the appendix that pretty much covers DFW's argument (and then some) with much greater concision. It seems to me that it's there to give some academic context. I think, as you say, what's remarkable here is the voice that is already evident, and his wrestling with modal logic can only have helped him in keeping his plot lines clear.


Manny I didn't know about the Taylor article - as I said, I only read a PDF of the actual dissertation. Interesting!


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