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Dfw And The 'agony Of Cognition'

If you haven't already seen it, Jamie Ryerson has a wonderful essay in the current New York Times Magazine that examines David Foster Wallace's undergraduate honors thesis in philosophy from Amherst. As someone who always preferred DFW's essays about cruise ships and state fairs to the ones he wrote about stuff like the mathematics of infinity, I was grateful to read something that explained Wallace's higher-order thinking--in this case, his thoughts on the semantics of physical modality--in such a way that I actually understood it (or at least most of it). A quick sample:

Sometime in his later college years, Wallace became troubled by a paper called “Fatalism,” first published in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. The fatalist contends, quite radically, that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future. Your behavior today no more shapes events tomorrow than it shapes events yesterday. Instead, in a seemingly backward way, the fatalist says it is how things are in the future that uniquely constrains what happens right now. What might seem like an open possibility subject to human choice — say, whether you fire your handgun — is already either impossible or absolutely necessary. You are merely going with some cosmic flow.


Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

Since Wallace committed suicide last September, I think people have largely read his work in one of two ways. There are those who regrettably (if understandably) read it with an eye toward finding clues of the inner torment that ultimately drove Wallace to kill himself. (Added bonus points for actual suicide references.) And then there are those who read Wallace's work in search of insights and beauty that have nothing to do with their creator's tragic end--save for the fact that, now that he's gone, the supply of such insights and beauty is sadly finite. I think Jamie's piece--which includes the apt description of reading Wallace as being akin to "witness[ing] the agony of cognition"--is a fine example of the latter.

--Jason Zengerle