Fatalism and the Metaphysics of Contingency

In Steven M. Cahn & Maureen Eckert (eds.), Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 57-92 (2015)
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Contingency is the presence of non-actualized possibility in the world. Fatalism is a view of reality on which there is no contingency. Since it is contingency that permits agency, there has traditionally been much interest in contingency. This interest has long been embarrassed by the contention that simple and plausible assumptions about the world lead to fatalism. I begin with an Aristotelian argument as presented by Richard Taylor. Appreciation of this argument has been stultified by a question pertaining to the source of necessity and possibility and a closely related one regarding the nature of metaphysics itself. Answering these questions reveals the crucial issue here, to wit, necessity and possibility in a temporal world. This issue is investigated through an important later criticism of Taylor by David Foster Wallace. Wallace’s critique is significant because it brings to the fore the pivotal notion for understanding contingency in a temporal world, that of synchronic possibility, the idea that incompatible states of affairs are possible at a single moment. This notion provides the basis of distinguishing two systematic accounts of truth, modality and time: two metaphysics of contingency. On one account, Taylor’s Aristotelian argument is straightforwardly valid and compelling; on the other, it is fallacious. In closing, I present reasons why the former account, supporting the Aristotelian views of time and truth, is correct and make some comments to ameliorate this conclusion.



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M. Oreste Fiocco
University of California, Irvine

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