FATE, TIME, AND LAN­GUAGE An Es­say on FreeWill

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOKWORLD - —Justin Moyer moy­erj@wash­post.com

By David Fos­ter Wal­lace Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Mau­reen Eck­ert Columbia Univ. 252 pp. Pa­per­back, $19.95

Not ev­ery col­lege stu­dent gets se­niori­tis. Case in point: About a decade af­ter he failed to be­come a pro­fes­sional ten­nis player and a decade be­fore he pub­lished his novel “In­fi­nite Jest,” the late, great David Fos­ter Wal­lace, then a 23-year-old English-phi­los­o­phy dou­ble ma­jor at Amherst, took on the sub­ject of fa­tal­ism in an un­der­grad­u­ate the­sis. “The fa­tal­ist thinks of him­self and his role in the world in a cu­ri­ous sort of meta­phys­i­cal way,” Wal­lace wrote in “Richard Tay­lor’s ‘Fa­tal­ism’ and the Se­man­tics of Phys­i­cal Modal­ity,” now pub­lished for the first time with ex­plana­tory notes in the thought­fully edited “ Fate, Time and

Lan­guage.” “Ev­ery­thing that does and will hap­pen must hap­pen, and . . . per­sons as agents can do noth­ing but go with the flow.”

The par­tic­u­lars of Wal­lace’s ar­gu­ment will elude lay read­ers un­fa­mil­iar with phi­los­o­phy’s “con­tin­gent fu­ture-tensed propo­si­tions” and “law of the ex­cluded mid­dle.” Still, fic­tion lovers with even a min­i­mal knowl­edge of

Aris­to­tle and Wittgen­stein will un­der­stand that the core propo­si­tion of fa­tal­ism — we have no say in what we do — haunted Wal­lace’s writ­ing. “There was a pal­pa­ble strain for Wal­lace be­tween en­gage­ment with the world, in all its over­whelm­ing full­ness, and with­drawal to one’s head, in all its lone­li­ness,” writes James Ry­er­son in his in­tro­duc­tion. “The world was too much, the mind alone too lit­tle.” For an author who de­voted thou­sands of pages to dra­ma­tiz­ing that cri­sis be­fore he killed him­self at 46, what could have been a dry in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise be­comes an un­ex­pect­edly af­fect­ing obituary.

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