By December 23, 2008 1 Comments Read More →

David Foster Wallace's "Richard Taylor's 'Fatalism'"

In the New York Times Magazine (“Consider the Philosopher“), James Ryerson reviews David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis, which remains unpublished and largely unknown. There is, however, a reason that it may never receive wide readership, as you’ll see below:

Given his considerable intellectual gifts and large cult following, it may come as a surprise to learn that Wallace’s one formal, systematic contribution to the world of ideas was never published and remains almost completely unknown. This is his undergraduate honors thesis in philosophy — “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” — which he submitted for a degree at Amherst College in 1985. Its obscurity is easy enough to understand. A highly specialized, 76-page work of semantics and metaphysics, it is not for the philosophically faint of heart. Brace yourself for a sample sentence: “Let ? (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs {t, w} ({time, world situation}), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.” There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a boat.

Although “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” is not coming to bookstores soon, a commencement address that Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, “This Is Water,” will be published by Little, Brown in April 2009 (“Little, Brown Plans Wallace Book for Spring,” Publishers Weekly).

But then, as we know, commencement addresses have a much wider readership than theses.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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  1. Consider the Philosopher | Library Stuff | June 28, 2009

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