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David Foster Wallace on Fatalism
December 14, 2008 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Consider the Philosopher. The early metaphysical investigations of David Foster Wallace.
posted by homunculus (83 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fatalism
posted by homunculus at 9:06 AM on December 14, 2008


Meh. I read the quoted passage as generic substanceless undergraduate showing off. "I will now use Greek letters to refer to arbitrary concepts! Look at me!"
posted by norabarnacl3 at 9:33 AM on December 14, 2008


Still, 70 pages for an undergraduate paper on a single topic is no small accomplishment, assuming no wasted words.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:44 AM on December 14, 2008


Meh. I read the quoted passage as generic substanceless undergraduate showing off.

Are you sure this isn't because you don't understand it?
posted by nosila at 9:46 AM on December 14, 2008 [8 favorites]


Oh my god, a greek letter being used to refer to a mathematical/philosophical structure!

That certainly isn't common!
posted by kenko at 9:48 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nor is 70 pages on a single topic particularly noteworthy, for an undergrad thesis.
posted by kenko at 9:49 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


What, because it's written by an undergraduate? I've read more than a few undergrad papers that are just flat-out better than the majority of work that gets done at the graduate level. Or do you simply mean that lots of undergraduates are in the habit of writing 70 page papers?
posted by voltairemodern at 9:55 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mine was only 60.
posted by bardic at 10:03 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


This article prompts the following thought: modern philosophy is a bit of a mess. It seems to me any philosophy worth its salt would enable one who is very good at it--and everyone says DFW was--to save his own life. Philosophy apparently failed DFW.

Then again, maybe he was just sick and no philosophy (or spiritual program, or whatever) could have saved him. Sad.
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:03 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


As a graduated philosophy major, however, I have to say that in the long run DFW made the right decision to switch to writing over philosophy, because at this point, philosophy is so inbred that it can't begin to make the sort of impact, either on a personal or academic level, that his writing (particularly his journalism) did.

According to this article, his aim was to do a very narrow semantic splitting of words and use that to prove that a theory that none of us can seriously take for a worldview was - well, not wrong, but at least not fully fleshed out and in need of more work. That's a very bold statement, you know? The fact that even just on the surface of it, that brand of fatalism is basically unpracticable in the real world and thus completely unpragmatic is not relevant to the original paper or his response as far as I can tell.

However, a lot of his later works, especially his journalism, were very insightful about pragmatic things and did give people an insight into their worlds in ways that allowed them to make changes to their worldview or their behavior. For example, his essay on John McCain, which a lot of people read and which was so much more in depth than traditional media coverage of McCain, was something that impacted how people saw John McCain and thus affected their vote to greater and lesser degrees. In reality, I think things like that - the dissecting of the world in front of us and the attempt to understand its context and ramifications is what philosophy really should be.

In fact, I think writing a whole story about John McCain but then never including any interactions with him and instead focusing on the 24 hour media circus that followed him and meditating on the benefits and costs of such a circus is much more philosophically bold than debating fatalism, a topic which modern philosophy has been arguing about in circles at least since Descartes said that animals have no souls, therefore are just mechinical automatons who have no will or ability to feel pain several hundred years ago.
posted by Kiablokirk at 10:13 AM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Or do you simply mean that lots of undergraduates are in the habit of writing 70 page papers?

If you're talking to me, then because that's a reasonable length for an undergrad thesis.
posted by kenko at 10:20 AM on December 14, 2008


This article prompts the following thought: modern philosophy is a bit of a mess. It seems to me any philosophy worth its salt would enable one who is very good at it--and everyone says DFW was--to save his own life. Philosophy apparently failed DFW.

Philosophy does not exist to save lives. Perhaps to enrich them, but you can't blame an academic discipline for anybody's suicide. If you're looking to decry the inefficacy of an institution, you're looking in the wrong place. This is not to say that psychiatry, psychology, or pharmacology are fair targets for blame either. Ultimately, David Foster Wallace made his own choice, and though it was indeed a tragic one, it is unfair to blame anyone or anything else for his untimely demise.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:27 AM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


God, what a fucking terrible article. Just wank-wank-wanking about DFW in a repulsively hagiographic tone. He was a good writer and all, but have some respect for yourself.

According to this article, his aim was to do a very narrow semantic splitting of words and use that to prove that a theory that none of us can seriously take for a worldview was - well, not wrong, but at least not fully fleshed out and in need of more work. That's a very bold statement, you know? The fact that even just on the surface of it, that brand of fatalism is basically unpracticable in the real world and thus completely unpragmatic is not relevant to the original paper or his response as far as I can tell.

Naw, that's a bunch of horseshit. I'm a fatalist and I absolutely take it seriously for a worldview. There's not much boldness in saying "fatalism needs more work"--it's been one of philosophy's great punching bags since Parmenides, probably. Not to mention the fact that philosophy that doesn't go against common sense is not really philosophy at all.

And if this article's summary of DFW's argument is correct, all he was really doing was ripping off Aristotle's objection to fatalism and tweaking it a bit. Which is fine and good, but hardly the OMG GROUNDBREAKING shit this piece presents it as.

My favorite argument for fatalism is very simple:

1. If determinism is true, free will is false.
(i.e. all things have causes, no room for choice.)

2. If determinism is false, free will is false.
(you can make a choice, but because there are no causal links between choosing and anything else, you're not really acting at all--it's just random.)

.: Free will is false.
posted by nasreddin at 10:32 AM on December 14, 2008


Oh, I'm not blaming anyone. I just think that thinking deeply about something--which is what philosophy requires you to do--ought to help you. Isn't the idea still to learn how to live the good life? If it isn't, then all I'm suggesting is that philosophy has gone off the rails.

As for making his own choices, I suppose. But he was an addict, and if he wasn't in treatment then he certainly wasn't thinking straight. Don't know whether he was still using, but if he was that couldnt' have helped. And as a general rule, people who think killing themselves is a good way out of pretty cushy situations (and DFW's was pretty cushy) are best categorized as "in need of help."
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:35 AM on December 14, 2008


people who think killing themselves is a good way out of pretty cushy situations (and DFW's was pretty cushy) are best categorized as "in need of help."

I don't know if I call suffering from a severe mental illness "cushy," but yes, he did need help.

generic substanceless ... showing off

That is how I read all of his work, including the part of "Infinite Jest" I could get through. I made it to the part where he appropriated the "toothbrushes in the butt" urban legend as his own. At this point I concluded I was dealing with something of a fraud and quit.

I am sorry for his death and sorry to everyone who lost a writer whose work they genuinely loved. But at some point, art is art, and everyone's work should be subject to open, honest criticism and discussion, no matter how tragic their life may have been.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:43 AM on December 14, 2008


nasreddin, Wallace's paper isn't even critiquing fatalism. The posted article states that Wallace's paper has nothing to say about Taylor's fatalist metaphysic— merely that Taylor's argument doesn't work, because it's built on obfuscating semantics rather than solid metaphysics.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:44 AM on December 14, 2008


1. If determinism is true, free will is false.
(i.e. all things have causes, no room for choice.)


It's a good thing no one has ever advanced a compatabilist argument or you might be in some trouble here.

I made it to the part where he appropriated the "toothbrushes in the butt" urban legend as his own.

How could you tell it was "as his own"?
posted by kenko at 10:46 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


1. If determinism is true, free will is false.
(i.e. all things have causes, no room for choice.)


Unless of course my choices are caused you know by my valuations, desires, impulses, e.g., me.

Oh, sorry. Let Φ span the subset of possible choice-intentional structures that are distinguished by the property of belong to an individual Q, where Q is understood as a superset, Lm, spanning all possible-worlds instantiations of Φ's life-causal chains of events (denoted by γ) which in the Kripkean sense designate just those events ζ, which necessarily are the purported event-types in question.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 10:48 AM on December 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Oh, I'm not blaming anyone. I just think that thinking deeply about something--which is what philosophy requires you to do--ought to help you. Isn't the idea still to learn how to live the good life? If it isn't, then all I'm suggesting is that philosophy has gone off the rails.

There are many possible conceptions of what philosophy is. Some philosophers think their goal is just to solve puzzles, which is totally fine. The problem with good-life philosophy is that most of the interesting things to be said in that area were said by various Greeks and Chinese thousands of years ago; the possibilities for research topics are rather limited. Today the self-help books are mostly responsible for that kind of thing, and whenever philosophers attempt it it's hard to escape the stench of arrogance--"I'm a very smart philosopher and I am qualified to tell you how to live your life."

For me, philosophy's purpose is largely therapeutic; that is, we have all sorts of metaphysical bogeymen like Free Will and The Subject lying around in our heads, and philosophy's job is to take them apart and help us be less troubled by things we can't directly experience. This is more or less what Wittgenstein thought.

And as a general rule, people who think killing themselves is a good way out of pretty cushy situations (and DFW's was pretty cushy) are best categorized as "in need of help."


Medicalizing suicide tout court is a really bad thing for human agency. Even setting aside Camus, existential despair is just as "real" and "healthy" a thing as mindless optimism, and may constitute a necessary and sufficient condition for killing oneself. There's not necessarily any disease there at all.
posted by nasreddin at 10:49 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a good thing no one has ever advanced a compatabilist argument or you might be in some trouble here.

Unless of course my choices are caused you know by my valuations, desires, impulses, e.g., me.


No, I'm aware of all that. But compatibilist theories (that I know of) rely on getting us to say various forms of "free will doesn't imply uncaused causation." If that's the price you're willing to pay, fine. I have no objections to "free will" in that form.
posted by nasreddin at 10:55 AM on December 14, 2008


Nasreddin, I respect what you are saying, really. But having dealt with these issues in real life for decades, I've concluded that suicidal thoughts/actions--at least in our context--are almost always symptoms of some underlying psychological problem, and that many of these problems can be treated. DFW was a addict. That's often treatable. He was depressed. That's often treatable. He was clearly having suicidal thoughts before he did himself in. That should have been a red flag for him to seek treatment immediately. I have trouble believing he made a "rational" decision (in the philosophical sense). He was impaired.

His philosophy should have been this: "I'm a sick puppy. If I feel bad or do bad things I really ought to talk to someone quick." That would have saved his life, and a lot of pain for those who loved him.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:03 AM on December 14, 2008


I just think that thinking deeply about something--which is what philosophy requires you to do--ought to help you. Isn't the idea still to learn how to live the good life? If it isn't, then all I'm suggesting is that philosophy has gone off the rails.

Wallace made it to 50 suffering from a depression more severe than most of us can contemplate being able to contemplate. If he'd lived to the age of 50 with cystic fibrosis, would you say pulmonology had gone off the rails?
posted by escabeche at 11:04 AM on December 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Actually he only made it to 46.
posted by jonmc at 11:08 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Marshall, reading your other comments, I do see that you more or less agree with what I said above. Some things can't be fixed. But, at least on my reading of DFW, it seems clear that his philosophical temperament -- that is, his habit of trying to be as precise as possible about the large majority of the world that resists precise description -- was helping him stay out of the hole, not driving him in.

And the sentiment that "thinking deeply about something....ought to help you" feels profoundly weird to me. But maybe that's because I think deeply about math all day long.
posted by escabeche at 11:09 AM on December 14, 2008


But perhaps chronology has gone off the rails.
posted by jonmc at 11:10 AM on December 14, 2008


"2. If determinism is false, free will is false.
(you can make a choice, but because there are no causal links between choosing and anything else, you're not really acting at all--it's just random.)
"

Um... for this claim to be true determinism would have to mean something like "causal links exist." This is not what determinism is normally taken to mean in philosophy, when discussing free will. In fact it seems very likely that you equivocate in your use of determinism in the first and second claims (i.e. the numbered claims).

Perhaps what you meant to say is that indeterminism is incompatible with free will. If so, many would agree with you. However, indeterminism does not deny the existence of causal chains. It merely argues that there is no way to determine what will be the result of any particular action. Though, of course, every effect has a cause. (Actually this formulation is probably too strong, most indeterminists would probably agree that while we can predict a range of effects we cannot predict a specific outcome. Thus precluding the obviously bizarre notion that any outcome is feasibly the result of any action, which would entail that a perfect, conscious clone of me could appear at any time that I snap my fingers.)
posted by oddman at 11:11 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


You have no choice but to have free will.

It's really that easy.
posted by flyinghamster at 11:12 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


escabeche: I know what you mean--my wife is a mathematician. I ask her sometimes: "Um, honey, does that stuff you're doing there have any practical application?" She just smiles and a thought bubble appears above her head: "I've married an idiot."
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:15 AM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


MarshallPoe: strange you think I wouldn't know that about your wife given that I just published a paper with her.

It has enriched both of our spiritual, moral, and aesthetic lives immeasurably, but it would be a bit too technical to explain. Lots of Dynkin diagrams.
posted by escabeche at 11:18 AM on December 14, 2008


eschebeche: Yes, I see. Didn't recognize you! She's laughing at me right now....
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:23 AM on December 14, 2008


I made it to the part where he appropriated the "toothbrushes in the butt" urban legend as his own. At this point I concluded I was dealing with something of a fraud and quit.

Of all the quibbles with this book people have, this is by far the silliest I've ever heard. What sort of rare and original epic fiction do you read that doesn't reappropriate and recontextualize known myths and legends? The rest of us heathens would love a reading list.
posted by hermitosis at 11:34 AM on December 14, 2008 [4 favorites]


OK, now that's funny.

Seriously, Dynkin diagrams? Now I'm curious.
posted by gleuschk at 11:39 AM on December 14, 2008


I ask her sometimes: "Um, honey, does that stuff you're doing there have any practical application?"
In fact, most other sciences really just exist to provide an environment in which we can comfortably set about the truly practical business in life which is of course mathematics.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:40 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


But having dealt with these issues in real life for decades, I've concluded that suicidal thoughts/actions--at least in our context--are almost always symptoms of some underlying psychological problem, and that many of these problems can be treated. DFW was a addict. That's often treatable. He was depressed. That's often treatable. He was clearly having suicidal thoughts before he did himself in. That should have been a red flag for him to seek treatment immediately.

I'm guessing you missed the post on this a couple of months ago, but he'd been on treatment for decades and the meds he was on were old-fashioned and full of reprehensible side effects so his doctors decided to wean him off and put him on something new and it was during that weaning period that he died.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:40 AM on December 14, 2008


I just think that thinking deeply about something--which is what philosophy requires you to do--ought to help you. Isn't the idea still to learn how to live the good life? If it isn't, then all I'm suggesting is that philosophy has gone off the rails.

Of course, there's always the chance that the best answer philosophical insight can give is that there isn't such a thing as a good life to live. We're always spending a considerable amount of energy just trying to justify the assumption you've made.

That's my Deep Thought for the day. Now I'm going to actually go do the stuff that makes life worth it, like make blackberry ice cream and play Mariokart.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:57 AM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Yeah, if electroshock therapy is not desperately seeking help and treatment, what the hell is?
I just finished IJ this morning, and would read his grocery shopping lists right now if someone published them.
posted by obloquy at 11:59 AM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


God, what a fucking terrible article. Just wank-wank-wanking about DFW in a repulsively hagiographic tone.

I have to agree. DFW is an amazing writer, and like obloquoy, I would happily read his grocery lists, but this particular article defies the laws of physics by both sucking and blowing at the same time. It's obtuse and doesn't actually come to any point other than "DFW liked philosophy! ZOMG!" It would have been better had they summarized his senior thesis or at least presented this as somehow newsworthy - the only context for which I can see at this point being that he killed himself so that everything he has ever done is now newsworthy. Were he still alive, no one would be discussing his senior thesis - not that it makes it any more or less brilliant, just not particularly *newsworthy.*

I get that DFW has been all but canonized by the majority of MeFites, but this particular article is a steaming turd.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:31 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]



Um... for this claim to be true determinism would have to mean something like "causal links exist." This is not what determinism is normally taken to mean in philosophy, when discussing free will. In fact it seems very likely that you equivocate in your use of determinism in the first and second claims (i.e. the numbered claims).

Perhaps what you meant to say is that indeterminism is incompatible with free will. If so, many would agree with you. However, indeterminism does not deny the existence of causal chains. It merely argues that there is no way to determine what will be the result of any particular action. Though, of course, every effect has a cause. (Actually this formulation is probably too strong, most indeterminists would probably agree that while we can predict a range of effects we cannot predict a specific outcome. Thus precluding the obviously bizarre notion that any outcome is feasibly the result of any action, which would entail that a perfect, conscious clone of me could appear at any time that I snap my fingers.)


I'm not very good with analytic philosophy, to be honest. But to my understanding the "determinism is false" prong of the dilemma is targeted at people who want to ground free will in something like quantum mechanics, in some kind of fundamental randomness. This line of argument is very old and goes back to the Epicurean notion of an atomic swerve, which is why I think it must be addressed or accounted for in some way in any argument about free will. (The Epicureans were total atomists and materialists, and the only real way they could justify free will in that context was by claiming that once in a while an atom nondeterministically "swerves." The problem, of course, is that there isn't any clear relationship between nondeterministic swerving and free will, which is what that prong of my argument was supposed to address.)
posted by nasreddin at 12:32 PM on December 14, 2008


Perhaps what you meant to say is that indeterminism is incompatible with free will. If so, many would agree with you.

Free will as involving determination and inconceivable without it.
posted by kenko at 12:50 PM on December 14, 2008


This article prompts the following thought: modern philosophy is a bit of a mess. It seems to me any philosophy worth its salt would enable one who is very good at it--and everyone says DFW was--to save his own life. Philosophy apparently failed DFW.

We no longer make a distinction between philosophy and philosophical discourse.

Isn't the idea still to learn how to live the good life? If it isn't, then all I'm suggesting is that philosophy has gone off the rails.

Philosophy has gone off the rails. Philosophy began as a way of life, now it's an academic department. Originally, the interested would go to learn principles that would shape the direction of their lives. Arguments were supplied to persuade and convince the students that these principles were indeed true. But ultimately, the truth of these principles was found in the effect on the lives of those holding them. The arguments themselves were merely rhetoric.

Obviously, holding a degree has nothing to do with being able to guide others. But academics can criticize the arguments of the ancients and thus, appear to be at a higher, more evolved level. But they really aren't participating in the same conversation. Philosophy, in the ancient sense, could never be learned by completing academic requirements. It isn't in the arguments, it's in recognizing that not all ways of life are equal and then pursuing those implications.
posted by BigSky at 12:55 PM on December 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Yes, the apotheosis of DFW is getting surreal (although I'm surely as guilty as anyone of fostering it), and this article is pretty weak: I'd just like to read the actual thesis. My philosophy minor leaves me likely inadequate to the task, but I feel like I grok what drew him to the field, which is what I think the article is unsuccessfully trying to convey.
posted by obloquy at 1:00 PM on December 14, 2008


Free will is false.
Medicalizing suicide tout court is a really bad thing for human agency.

Well at least we know cognitive dissonance is alive and well.
posted by one_bean at 1:05 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well at least we know cognitive dissonance is alive and well.

I think those are distinct issues. Within the horizon established by fatalism, there are all sorts of real-life things we confront on a daily basis that have to do with not-strictly-philosophical notions of agency. For instance, I don't think being a fatalist means I can't oppose totalitarianism.
posted by nasreddin at 1:09 PM on December 14, 2008


I was fated to post this otherwise meaningless comment.
posted by dontoine at 1:33 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Philosophy has gone off the rails. Philosophy began as a way of life, now it's an academic department.

This seems like an odd complaint to me.

Nobody gets upset that their computer science professor isn't a great moral leader, or that the psych department can't explain the origins of the cosmos, or that their class on accounting methods didn't tell them how to live a full and satisfying life. We give most academic disciplines permission to work on the technical issues they're interested in, regardless of whether they bear on the Big Questions or not.

But philosophy... well, philosophy had better be all Big Questions, all the time. After all, Socrates was a philosopher. Why can't modern philosophers be more like Socrates?

Somewhere out there, there's an alternate universe where we call Socrates and his ilk "physicists." (That is, after all, what many of them called themselves: they studied φύσις, the nature of things.) And in that universe, I suppose there's an angry thread on bizarro-MetaFilter complaining about those wankers building the Large Hadron Collider. How dare they work on narrow technical questions about the composition of matter? They should be telling us how to live good lives! After all, Socrates studied physics. Why can't modern physicists be more like Socrates?....
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:04 PM on December 14, 2008 [7 favorites]


Nasreddin, I respect what you are saying, really. But having dealt with these issues in real life for decades, I've concluded that suicidal thoughts/actions--at least in our context--are almost always symptoms of some underlying psychological problem, and that many of these problems can be treated. DFW was a addict. That's often treatable. He was depressed. That's often treatable. He was clearly having suicidal thoughts before he did himself in. That should have been a red flag for him to seek treatment immediately. I have trouble believing he made a "rational" decision (in the philosophical sense). He was impaired.

His philosophy should have been this: "I'm a sick puppy. If I feel bad or do bad things I really ought to talk to someone quick." That would have saved his life, and a lot of pain for those who loved him.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:03 AM on December 14


Since my other, meaner comment was deleted, let me instead say that Wallace had been treated for depression by medical professionals for over twenty years up to and including the last days of his life, you have no idea what you're talking about, and it is embarrassing to see such frank ignorance so proudly displayed.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:58 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, to the matter at hand, where is the thesis in question? Locked away in a drawer somewhere? Illegal to distribute without consent of the estate? I know that my university makes its honours theses available in the hightec database of a large cardboard box in the student's lounge, surely somehow somewhere someone has access to this sort of thing.
posted by kaspen at 3:38 PM on December 14, 2008


Also, didn't he simultaneously do a double honours in English as well? What of that, where is the reverent and awe-filled NYT write-up? I want to read that too.
posted by kaspen at 4:00 PM on December 14, 2008


I knew the DFW studied philosophy, but that could have meant that he just majored in it without taking it very seriously. His thesis sounds very advanced and impressive. This adds to my previous evidence that DFW was scary-smart.

Meh. I read the quoted passage as generic substanceless undergraduate showing off.

It looks like a sentence in some strengthened form of Kripke semantics to me. He's not just making things up out of whole cloth -- he's developing his ideas in an established formalism.
posted by painquale at 4:05 PM on December 14, 2008


Optimus Chyme. As per the MF guidelines and simple decorum, I'll disregard the silly ad hominem stuff. The point, I pray you will agree, is that DFW obviously wasn't getting the treatment he needed, or he wasn't taking it as seriously as he should have been. I've seen depressives and addicts do both. The minute he thought "I think I should kill myself" he should have picked up the phone or gone to the hospital. If he had, he'd probably still be alive.
posted by MarshallPoe at 4:18 PM on December 14, 2008


MarshallPoe, he was taking it seriously. He'd been in and out of hospitals, had himself placed on suicide watch, and submitted himself to electroshock treatment (which had been, apparently, his absolute worst nightmare w/r/t psychiatric treatment)— the reason he was in such a bad way at the time of his death is not because he wasn't taking it seriously enough, but because he was taking it seriously, and his doctors were attempting to switch his meds to better stuff. It was during the switch that he died.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:30 PM on December 14, 2008


assuming no wasted words.

It's David Foster Wallace.
posted by DU at 4:43 PM on December 14, 2008


Optimus Chyme. As per the MF guidelines and simple decorum, I'll disregard the silly ad hominem stuff. The point, I pray you will agree, is that DFW obviously wasn't getting the treatment he needed, or he wasn't taking it as seriously as he should have been. I've seen depressives and addicts do both. The minute he thought "I think I should kill myself" he should have picked up the phone or gone to the hospital. If he had, he'd probably still be alive.
posted by MarshallPoe at 4:18 PM on December 14


hey cool it's almost like you have done no research whatsoever about the last six months of his life yet you continue to post things that are demonstrably false
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:18 PM on December 14, 2008


MarshallPoe: You ought to read this article from Rolling Stone about his last days. DFW was a lot of things, but ignorant / stupid / unwilling to act about his depression just wasn't one of them. He tried electroshock therapy, multiple times. Your talking about him as "an addict" shows that you have spent zero time actually researching why he killed himself. Until you have, you should probably just stop.

kaspen: Also, didn't he simultaneously do a double honours in English as well? What of that, where is the reverent and awe-filled NYT write-up? I want to read that too. Sorry if I'm missing some sarcasm in this quesiton, but uh, yeah, he did write an English thesis. You can read the NY Times' review of it here. They called it a "a manic, human, flawed extravaganza."
posted by one_bean at 5:20 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nobody gets upset that their computer science professor isn't a great moral leader, or that the psych department can't explain the origins of the cosmos, or that their class on accounting methods didn't tell them how to live a full and satisfying life. We give most academic disciplines permission to work on the technical issues they're interested in, regardless of whether they bear on the Big Questions or not.

Who is denying academic philosophers "permission" to work on whatever technical issue strikes their fancy? I certainly don't get upset that philosophy PhDs don't have any greater insight to offer on how to live than your average Joe. But yes, I do think that the current state of affairs shows that in a very fundamental way, philosophy has indeed, "gone off the rails".

Your comment about physics is disingenuous. There were never any early schools of physics where the like minded would gather and share an approach to life. Early philosophers may have talked about physics but it was subordinate to their interest on how to live. More relevantly, philosophy considers the discussions of the early philosophical schools and their concerns to be within the scope of the subject. Physics, unlike philosophy, is classified as a science. Lucretius may merit a sentence in an introductory textbook but modern physics doesn't present itself as the same sort of project. Discovering and increasing our understanding of the laws governing matter and motion is not subordinate to anything, that's the whole subject right there.
posted by BigSky at 5:26 PM on December 14, 2008


kaspen: "Also, didn't he simultaneously do a double honours in English as well? What of that, where is the reverent and awe-filled NYT write-up? I want to read that too."

Sorry if I'm missing some sarcasm in this quesiton, but uh, yeah, he did write an English thesis. You can read the NY Times' review of it here. They called it a "a manic, human, flawed extravaganza."
posted by one_bean at 5:20 PM on December 14


This is seriously the funniest thread - I have not read so much uneducated, misinformed bloviating since the "plane on a treadmill" debate. Thanks to one-bean, shakespeherian, and nosila for being voices of reason. Boo to MarshallPoe for not knowing anything about Wallace or philosophy, apparently, and to kaspen for hilariously not realizing that Wallace's undergraduate English thesis was in fact his first novel The Broom of the System. Would that all our juvenilia be so brilliant.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:29 PM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Early philosophers may have talked about physics but it was subordinate to their interest on how to live.

Which early philosophers? Certainly not all of them. Indeed, for many of them (many of the Stoics, for instance), highfalutin ethical principles just served as an excuse to do some pretty high-level investigations of logic and physics.

Physics, unlike philosophy, is classified as a science. Lucretius may merit a sentence in an introductory textbook but modern physics doesn't present itself as the same sort of project.

And modern philosophy doesn't either.
posted by nasreddin at 5:31 PM on December 14, 2008


This is seriously the funniest thread - I have not read so much uneducated, misinformed bloviating since the "plane on a treadmill" debate. Thanks to one-bean, shakespeherian, and nosila for being voices of reason. Boo to MarshallPoe for not knowing anything about Wallace or philosophy, apparently, and to kaspen for hilariously not realizing that Wallace's undergraduate English thesis was in fact his first novel The Broom of the System. Would that all our juvenilia be so brilliant.

I CAN HAZ CONDESCENSION?
posted by nasreddin at 5:34 PM on December 14, 2008


I CAN HAZ CONDESCENSION?
posted by nasreddin at 5:34 PM on December 14


I think it's fair to be condescending when people write things that are factually incorrect. Criticizing Wallace for not treating his depression is like criticizing Jim Fixx for being sedentary.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:37 PM on December 14, 2008


Sorry, OC, but you're coming off like a 15-year-old nerd who's offended that people can't name every officer on the original USS Enterprise.
posted by nasreddin at 5:40 PM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm an admitted Wallace nerd, nasreddin, having read all of his published works and most of the scholarly commentary I can get my hands on. I think he was a rare treasure and that we owe him a great debt.

That said, I understand that he's not everyone's favorite. That's fine and I'm happy to hear reasonable, educated critiques. But instead what we have here in this thread is a fairly large contingent who a) don't understand even the basics of formal logic and/or b) don't know anything about his personal history and make the boneheaded assumption that he did nothing to treat his depression and/or c) make weird comments about his English undergrad thesis not realizing that it was actually a terrific novel which you can, right now, go purchase at just about any bookstore.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:47 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think it's fair to be condescending when people write things that are factually incorrect.

Assuming that you are the one checking the facts, of course. Nothing you've said in this thread has been actually wrong... it's just like in the Big Lebowski: "No, you're not wrong, Walter, you're just an asshole."

b) don't know anything about his personal history and make the boneheaded assumption that he did nothing to treat his depression

Quite a lot of people know nothing of what it feels like to be depressed. Even fewer know what it feels like to actively *want* to kill yourself. I'm not talking "suicidal ideation" - I'm talking the kind of pain that DFW and others have felt where every single day is an unbearable hell and death honestly feels like the only reasonable option. I know that the best understanding I've had of what it feels like to want to kill yourself is from reading Infinite Jest. However, I understand that absent this kind of understanding - which, as I said, most people don't have - it's a common mistake to think that all suicide can be prevented and all depression can be adequately treated.

I don't think anyone in this thread is trying to do DFW any disservice and I think that people who have little enough experience with severe depression not to understand that even the best treatments don't work sometimes, and when they don't, suicide often follows due to the extremely terrible nature of the disease, should count themselves lucky that they clearly have never felt the kind of pain that this man experienced. With Major Depressive Disorder (a disease that I myself have been diagnosed with and treated for - thankfully thus far medication has been successful), 15% of patients complete suicide. Far, far more attempt it. To live with the disease is to experience your worst nightmare every waking moment of every day. I can't emphasize that enough. Death honestly feels like it would be a *relief* from the kind of depression that DFW fought.

Again, that said, I honestly envy anyone who hasn't had to deal with this - either personally or via a friend/loved one/relative/whatever - your lives are truly blessed. It's an awful, awful disease that eats you alive from the inside out. I don't think anyone should be judged harshly for misunderstanding it, it's totally incomprehensible from a logical level - how could anyone really think that death is a better option? No sane person would. And sane people have a tremendously hard time groking what it is to lose that precious sanity.

Advocating that people educate themselves about ANYTHING isn't going to be done best by condescension, which just puts the condescendee immediately on the defensive. I know that I really enjoy being told that my mis-reading of a situation is "boneheaded." It's my favorite.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:14 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


. . . this . . . this isn't 'Nam?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:21 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I know that I really enjoy being told that my mis-reading of a situation is "boneheaded."

so you're hurt because a spade got called a spade?

you're right to feel foolish for opining upon something whereof you knew not. don't blame Optimus Chyme for correctly pointing out that this thread is full of others doing same.
posted by Hat Maui at 9:33 PM on December 14, 2008


One can allow free will even in a deterministic reality of 3-dimensional phenomenal space (plus time) by allowing consciousness to subsist in some nouemenal quantum nth dimension. That is a stern departure from modern Dennett-esque physicalism, and sounds a lot like science fiction, but so does theoretical physics.
posted by ageispolis at 11:39 PM on December 14, 2008


But yes, I do think that the current state of affairs shows that in a very fundamental way, philosophy has indeed, "gone off the rails".

BigSky, this is because your assumption of philosophy is something that teaches us how to 'live well', to figure out principles on how to approach life. That's as accurate as saying that modern science is all about teaching us how to live a better life. Sure, progresses in science have lead to better healthcare, technology, convenience, etc. It's led to a lot of bad things as well; the end result of science may often be positive, but it's a side effect of science, not the motive. Science is, generally speaking, about figuring out empirical truths; it's very often motivated by scientists trying to 'do good', yes, but that doesn't mean that the entire discipline is so. The same goes for philosophy.

You wouldn't say "The atomic bomb blew people up? Science has gone off the rails!" Or wait -- we did. But that's when a general notion of science and Enlightenment rationality as universally positive was rethought, retooled to be something other than "zomg great".
posted by suedehead at 12:32 AM on December 15, 2008


you're right to feel foolish for opining upon something whereof you knew not. don't blame Optimus Chyme for correctly pointing out that this thread is full of others doing same.

Uh, Hat Maui, did you READ my comment? I never opined about anything I wasn't intimately familiar with and far as I know, the boneheaded comment wasn't directed towards me as my previous criticism was of the article and not of anything pertaining to DFW's life. I was making the point that this was not an effective way to make an argument. Clearly, I was right because dropping the word "bonehead" into my own comment made the rest of disappear entirely! Sheesh.

(And no, my feelings were not hurt. I'm just anti people in threads making a perfectly logical argument and lousing it up by insulting the other posters. It detracts from what's actually being discussed REALLY FAST. Though it can lead to a good flame out, which is always fun.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:48 AM on December 15, 2008


Grapefruitmoon, I'm surprised you didn't find MarshallPoe's comments disrespectful not just to the dead, but to those living with severe depression as well. He posits that if someone commits suicide due to depression, that they aren't "taking it seriously" enough.

Would he say that someone who died of cancer after undergoing chemotherapy and surgery for twenty years didn't "take it seriously"?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:05 AM on December 15, 2008


Grapefruitmoon, I'm surprised you didn't find MarshallPoe's comments disrespectful not just to the dead, but to those living with severe depression as well.

Well, yeah, I do take a bit of offense at that, but as I mentioned upthread, I try to give people who don't grok severe depression a bit of a break. It's a really alien thing to wrap your head around if you haven't dealt with it. But yes, have a little respect for mental illness, definitely. It's 100% as valid as physical illness.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:47 AM on December 15, 2008


Somewhere out there, there's an alternate universe where we call Socrates and his ilk "physicists." (That is, after all, what many of them called themselves: they studied φύσις, the nature of things.)

It's the pre-socratics that really studied physis - Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Democritus, & those guys. Aristotle refers to them as the physicists or naturalists. Socrates/Plato coined "philo-sophia", the love of wisdom, and were very much interested in the question of justice and "the good" and "living a good life" and so forth..

That was really Socrates' main question. He was not especially interested in questions of physics, although Plato wrote some dialogues that didn't star Socrates that are focused on physics (like the Timaeus).
posted by mdn at 11:01 AM on December 15, 2008


Aristotle also had a book titled Physics.
posted by ageispolis at 1:04 PM on December 15, 2008


(or a collection of writings grouped and titled as such which is confirmed to be attributed to him, as opposed to his Metaphysics which some argue was not written by Aristotle at all)
posted by ageispolis at 1:05 PM on December 15, 2008


Ooh is this where we make statements about Philosophy?

* Socrates thought that ideas are the only Real things and that our physical reality was an illusion but it turned out that he was a made up character so that either proves his point or disproves it, QED!
--> Important: Despite prescribing self-medication, Not a Real Doctor

* Plato, inventor of the Play, made Socrates say a bunch of stuff that only really smart people could understand in smart people code that said "Kill all the effeminate barbarians and burn down Mesopotamia," but Plato himself was actually ironically critiquing these statements by being a gay poetry-loving hipster with a faux-hawk!
--> Note: Appears in NO period film footage, possibly made up by

* Aristotle, a thinking-about-things-just-as-they-are type of thinker instead of a considering-what-things-might-be-like-if-they-were-just-as-they-should-be-in-their-perfection type of guy.
--> Item: The only subject he didn't write about was comedy because he refused to see what was so funny about hiding somebody's glasses and if somebody didn't return them somebody is going to get a spanking even if they are a prince.

* Everybody else: Less fictional, therefore less right.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:56 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


One can allow free will even in a deterministic reality of 3-dimensional phenomenal space (plus time) by allowing consciousness to subsist in some nouemenal quantum nth dimension. That is a stern departure from modern Dennett-esque physicalism, and sounds a lot like science fiction, but so does theoretical physics.

One could, but why would one want to? We can make invisible pink unicornness subsist in a handwavy quantum thingamajig too. In the meantime, physicalism does a pretty adequate job of accounting for consciousness already.
posted by nasreddin at 6:00 PM on December 15, 2008


One could, but why would one want to?

Free will
posted by ageispolis at 9:29 PM on December 18, 2008


nas: physicalism does a pretty adequate job of accounting for consciousness already.

HA! Only if you suffer from a fully radicalized lack of imagination. See Wallace, IJ, the sequence regarding Gately's talking at the "Tough Shit But You Still Can't Drink" AA chapter about how he can't connect with AA's Higher Power steps and requirements. A biker AA guy after the meeting rides up and says:

This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, 'What the fuck is water?' and swim away.
posted by n9 at 5:50 AM on January 10, 2009


What the hell is that story supposed to prove? Some kind of New Age bullshit? I think it's you that lacks imagination, since you can't think your way out of your petty little horizon where your particular variety of walking meat is endowed with magical spiritual powers.
posted by nasreddin at 8:25 AM on January 10, 2009


deep lulz. where do you get magic? unless magic is everything in the world that you personally don't know about, in which case basically *everything* is magic. human beings don't know shit about shit. it is an odd inversion that brings someone contenting to be a "physicalist" [sic] pushing their ideology as something that needs to be accepted unchallenged as dogma strawman-ing a strict and powerful rationalism as "magic meat" spiritualism.

the water is everything that is *real* that you don't know about because your mind/senses/imagination/meatbrain is too limited.

i was feeling fat and old yesterday and wishing that I could drink all night like my 21 year old self. little interactions like this make me realize that getting the thinness and the hotness wouldn't be worth the trade, brainwise. Also: what we have here is an argument for why higher level philosophy education is actually worth it.

on p. 772 of IJ... my fifth reading and I swear I'm getting more out of this time through then the others put together. Love and love, DFW. Wish you were here.
posted by n9 at 10:14 AM on January 10, 2009



deep lulz. where do you get magic? unless magic is everything in the world that you personally don't know about, in which case basically *everything* is magic. human beings don't know shit about shit. it is an odd inversion that brings someone contenting to be a "physicalist" [sic] pushing their ideology as something that needs to be accepted unchallenged as dogma strawman-ing a strict and powerful rationalism as "magic meat" spiritualism.


I don't consider myself to be a "physicalist [sic]." I don't believe in anything, and I don't think it is possible to make a dogmatic claim like "consciousness is solely physical." I do think there are certain sense-impressions that I have that seem pretty convincing, though I have no idea whether they reflect an underlying reality or not. The impressions I currently possess conform much better to the physicalist model than they do to the magic meat one. You're free to challenge it; what you've currently done is blundered about like a blind kitten in a fog and thrown around a couple of personal attacks. Forgive me if I'm not convinced.

Here's the kicker, though. If you're gonna go all "more things in heaven and on earth" on me, then the burden is on you to demonstrate why your understanding of the "everything you personally don't know about" is any better than mine. What are the particular phenomenological data underlying your claim that consciousness exists? How come they are better than the physicalists' alternative explanations? Blind faith? OK, if that's your thing, that's fine--you can believe in it, just don't pretend to argue for it. The problem with the fish anecdote is that there's no way the old fish would have discovered water by himself.

"Strict and powerful rationalism" is a meaningless term. You can slap a fancy label on any old smelly pile of metaphysical bullshit. The real task is for you to demonstrate or attempt to demonstrate how you're right. Then we'll talk.


i was feeling fat and old yesterday and wishing that I could drink all night like my 21 year old self. little interactions like this make me realize that getting the thinness and the hotness wouldn't be worth the trade, brainwise. Also: what we have here is an argument for why higher level philosophy education is actually worth it.
Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
(and I would add that if the old are also pompous and condescending dullards, they demonstrate that their advice is harmful and not just meaningless.)

I have a honors BA in history and philosophy, by the way, so whatever problems you think I suffer from are not the result of my education.
posted by nasreddin at 11:19 AM on January 10, 2009


Plato, inventor of the Play, made Socrates say a bunch of stuff...

I'm not going to get into a pseudo-discussion about philosophy here, but this is so far off I have to address it - I think Aeschylus is usually attributed with inventing 'the play', but if you said Sophocles or Euripides, that'd be understandable. But Plato came after or alongside the actual tragedians - he didn't do something that inspired them, and he wasn't trying for theatre. He wanted to express rational thought, not catharsis.

And Aristotle is rumored to have written on comedy - umberto eco isn't the only one who's written about what he must have said... And yes, aristotle wrote on physics, but he did also write on meta-physics (even if that book is just a collection of various notes or whatever -) the point is, he was a meta-naturalist, in that he wanted to understand nature not as these beetles or those rocks, but as, this holistic system of time and place.
posted by mdn at 12:56 PM on January 10, 2009


The problem with the fish anecdote is that there's no way the old fish would have discovered water by himself.

Things are clearly better if the word 'water' is replaced with 'discourse'. I don't see how this problem that you mention is actually a problem, because nobody's arguing that the old fish actually has discovered water _by himself_.
posted by suedehead at 7:41 AM on January 11, 2009


BigSky, this is because your assumption of philosophy is something that teaches us how to 'live well', to figure out principles on how to approach life. That's as accurate as saying that modern science is all about teaching us how to live a better life. Sure, progresses in science have lead to better healthcare, technology, convenience, etc. It's led to a lot of bad things as well; the end result of science may often be positive, but it's a side effect of science, not the motive. Science is, generally speaking, about figuring out empirical truths; it's very often motivated by scientists trying to 'do good', yes, but that doesn't mean that the entire discipline is so. The same goes for philosophy.

suedehead,

I didn't see your post until a couple of weeks after you wrote it. Since this thread just got a little attention, I suppose it isn't too late to reply.

The analogy between science and philosophy is misleading. Science proceeds under the questionable assumption that a distinction can be made between fact and value, and so is frequently called 'value-neutral'. This isn't the case with philosophy. In very loose terms, Socrates' project can be described as an inquiry into what participates in the Good and the role of persuasion with respect to that. The therapeutic aspect is a fundamental aspect of how philosophy was conceived in the ancient world and not just the motivation to participate in philosophical discourse. Someone was called a philosopher because of how they lived, they didn't need to write a word. And since philosophy promoted a certain way of being in the world, it was necessarily about values.

Pierre Hadot's 'Philosophy as a Way of Life' covers this in some detail, and while its been a number of years since I looked at it, I believe that Martha Nussbaum's 'Therapy of Desire' does as well.

Without question some ancient philosophers would speculate on matters that seem quite far from moral instruction. Chrysippus for one, is recorded as having written treatises on a vast range of subjects. But this was out of desire to present a systematic view of the world, that once accepted would constantly encourage the student to put the principles of the school into practice. Hadot even brings into question whether the ancients themselves necessarily believed their claims or if they simply pushed them as a way to get the student to live the principles.

Ancient philosophy was a practice, an approach towards the world. It has gone from that to a genre of discourse. I do know that philosophy in the contemporary university is not about teaching people to 'live well'. However, people come across a quote like "the unexamined life is not worth living", and they think there is some connection to how one should live. Perhaps it isn't the most unreasonable assumption, even if it is wrong.
posted by BigSky at 11:10 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pierre Hadot's 'Philosophy as a Way of Life' covers this in some detail, and while its been a number of years since I looked at it, I believe that Martha Nussbaum's 'Therapy of Desire' does as well.

Seconded. Those are both excellent books.
posted by homunculus at 12:01 AM on January 13, 2009


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