Ordinary Unhappiness
The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace
Jon Baskin



Habits of Mind

THE VERY FIRST philosophical challenge to the arts remains the most daunting. Considering the role of art in their ideal city, Socrates and his interlocutors in Plato’s Republic settle on two options: censorship or exile. Poets and painters can either abide by the “models” philosophers have established for educating good citizens—limiting themselves to “hymns to the gods of the city” and the like—or they can take their leave.1

The argument against artists unfolds in two stages. In books 2 and 3 Socrates deals with art predominantly in terms of the kind of activity it promotes—for example, deception and imitation—and when he returns to it in book 10, he begins by summarizing and adding to his earlier account of the inherent dangers of poetic imagery. But later in the same book, he clarifies that his argument against artists, or “image makers,” does not rest primarily on a suspicion of their tools. Philosophers, as Socrates himself has demonstrated in his allegory of the cave, also use poetic imagery. What distinguishes the image maker is that she does not know what the images she uses are for. When Socrates says that poets are imitators in the “highest possible degree,” he means not that they are the most skilled at making images but rather that, absent any higher criteria of value, their use of images can answer only to the low logic of the marketplace—that is, to what is popular or pleasing to their audience.2 That is why those “praisers of Homer who say that this poet educated Greece” are mistaken: Homer could not have educated Greece because Homer’s poetry prioritizes “pleasure and pain” over “that argument which in each instance is best in the opinion of the community.”3

Having completed his case against poets, Socrates pauses to consider what a shame it will be to live without them. He finds great pleasure in tragic theater, and he reflects that he will regret having to give up that pleasure for the sake of justice. With this in mind he asks defenders of art for an “apology” that would convince him to allow Homer and the tragedians back into his ideal city.

Beginning with Aristotle’s idea of catharsis—according to which citizens purged their unproductive emotions at the theater so that they could become more virtuous and rational citizens outside of it—many such apologies have been attempted over the years, by philosophers, by literary critics, and sometimes by philosophically inclined artists like Tolstoy. Yet contemporary philosophers are even more dismissive than Plato was of the idea that the imaginative arts can contribute to philosophy. Plato had at least acknowledged the need to argue, repeatedly and at length, for the banishment of the artists. Since Descartes, the main tradition of Western philosophy—with the notable exceptions of Nietzsche and Heidegger, who both sought to overturn Plato’s hierarchy and thus put the artists in charge—has trusted that poetry can either be safely ignored or presented as an ornamental accompaniment to an education in theoretical reason. In The Cognitive Value of Philosophical Fiction the philosopher Jukka Mikkonen lays out the various positions taken by today’s professional philosophers in the “perennial debate” about whether literary works “may provide knowledge of a significant kind.” According to Mikkonen, the majority of philosophers today believe either that fiction does not provide significant philosophical knowledge or that it is capable of doing so only by offering philosophical propositions—as in a Dostoyevsky or Thomas Mann novel, where characters who may be presumed to speak for the author advance explicitly theoretical views. In other words, most of today’s philosophers believe fiction can contribute to philosophy only by becoming it.

Mikkonen does mention a small group of philosophers—Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Cavell, Robert Pippin, and Cora Diamond among them—who have maintained that literature can provide philosophical knowledge nonpropositionally by, as Mikkonen puts it, elevating our ethical understanding, educating our emotions, stimulating our imagination, or calling our moral views into question.4 This group falls mostly into a semicontiguous progression of moral philosophers—stretching back to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his English-language translator G. E. M. Anscombe—that is considered heterodox, if not entirely alien, to the broader Anglo-American tradition. One of their distinguishing features is that they turn to literature not to find case studies that confirm their philosophical theses but rather to challenge what they take to be the dominant mode of doing philosophy. This means the mode of philosophy that takes its cues from the sciences rather than the arts. When, famously, at the end of his book The Claim of Reason, Stanley Cavell asks whether philosophy, if it were to accept poets back into its vision of the just city, could “still know itself,” the question implies that mainstream philosophy’s self-identification has become inextricable from its refusal of the literary.5

The present study is not an apology for literature so much as an attempt to help philosophy know itself in the fiction of David Foster Wallace—a writer who in both his biography and his fiction exhibited an unusual blend of philosophical and literary motivations. The point of this attempt is twofold. First, and mainly, I hope it will contribute to a better understanding of Wallace’s fiction. Currently, the consensus among commentators is that Wallace was an uncommonly “philosophical” fiction writer, but there is no consensus regarding what it means to say this. Aside from certain aspects of his biography,6 the agreement is based mostly on the observation that Wallace’s books are dotted with allusions to figures in the Western philosophical tradition, that his characters occasionally engage in philosophical discussions a la The Brothers Karamazov, and that reading some philosophy is helpful for fully appreciating what is going on in certain of his passages. These are all ways in which Wallace’s fiction engages with philosophical concepts or language. The argument of this book, however, will be that Wallace’s fiction is not just sporadically or instrumentally philosophical but that his project as a whole is structured by an encounter among habits of thought he considers to emanate from different modes or ways of doing philosophy.

A second claim of the book will be that the “therapeutic”—which is the name I give, following Wittgenstein and Cavell, to the mode of philosophy Wallace privileges in his fiction—offers a fertile ground on which philosophy and literature can, so to speak, do something together. I do not see this potential cooperation as a matter of merely academic interest. When Cavell questioned whether philosophy’s exile of the poets had come at too high a cost, he was suggesting that the Platonic separation of philosophy from literature, reinstituted in the Enlightenment under the aegis of Cartesian rationalism, had limited our ability to address the particularity of our modern social and moral experience. He was writing, primarily, with his fellow professional philosophers in mind. But the plays of Shakespeare and Beckett that Cavell himself would analyze, the novels of Proust and James whose philosophical thinking has been presented by Robert Pippin, and the fiction I discuss in this book, by David Foster Wallace, give ample indication of why the estrangement of art from philosophy is a problem for more than philosophers.

Often, Wallace correlates the concrete suffering of his characters with their bewitchment by a picture that features, among other things, a conflation of thinking in general with the form of skeptical, analytical thinking that modern philosophy valorizes above all others, including and especially the form of nonthinking it associates with art. For Wallace, the separation of philosophy from literature—and the crude dichotomies often correlated with that separation: mind/body, theoretical/practical, intellectual/emotional—are both a cause and a symptom of a “dis-ease,” as he calls it in Infinite Jest, at the heart of modern and postmodern self-consciousness. Bringing philosophy and literature together becomes the precondition for even being able to see—much less to address or “treat”—the many symptoms of this dis-ease in our everyday lives and in ourselves.


The word therapy comes from the Latin therapia, and from the Greek therapeia, meaning “curing, healing, service done to the sick.” It can be proper to speak of almost any medicine or course of treatment for a health problem as a “therapy,” and health professionals will often speak of “gene therapy,” “hormone therapy,” and so forth, in just this way. In common speech, however, we tend to use the word therapy, especially in reference to the kind of “talking cure” that has been popularized since Freud: this is usually what we mean when we ask someone if they have “been to therapy.” The relevant difference, for our purposes, has to do with the patient’s level of participation in, and awareness of, the treatment. When the therapy is purely physiological, the patient will not be able to give any nonscientific account of how it has improved her health. The ideal of Freudian therapy—to make the unconscious conscious—however, links a cessation of suffering to the achievement of self-understanding, which is what makes it so potentially congenial to philosophy. It is also why Freudian therapy originally and for many of its inheritors still focuses predominantly on etiology and diagnosis, under the presumption that these are the fastest routes to self-knowledge and, thereby, health.

The later Freud would, however, deemphasize the importance of diagnosis and etiology in favor of procedures by which the psychoanalyst, especially through the process of transference, could compel analysands to recognize how they were applying (or “projecting”) habitual or inherited frames of understanding onto a new situation. No matter how well analysands understood the distant causes of their current suffering, the thought went, it was only through being able to recognize its operation in situ that they could begin to free themselves from it. The later Freud thus prefigures in various ways Wittgenstein’s methodological—or “metaphilosophical” in Paul Horwich’s formulation7—commitment to philosophy being therapeutic rather than theoretical. This commitment meant seeing philosophy less as a method for exposing logical fallacies than for catching philosophers “in the act” of reflexively applying a frame—for instance, a “metaphysical frame” or a “positivistic frame.”8 What was required to correct the problem the philosopher was working on was not a better theory, or a more salient understanding of the phenomenon in question, but rather the therapeutic insight that came from seeing how the problem emerged out of the frame. The key passage for understanding Wittgenstein’s notion of philosophy as therapy comes in Philosophical Investigations:

The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.—Instead, we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off.—Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem.

There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.9

Commentators who have addressed the philosophical content of Wallace’s fiction have acknowledged and occasionally focused on Wallace’s explicit references to Wittgensteinian arguments and themes, such as solipsism, or meaning-as-use—the latter of which is the subject of a monologue in Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System. I intend to build on this commentary but also to make the further argument that Wallace’s fiction as a whole can be viewed as a continuation of Wittgenstein’s philosophical project by other means. In calling Wallace’s mature fiction therapeutic, I mean to imply that it is best looked at as a “series of examples,” intended to therapeutically expose and treat not only a set of problems but also a point of view, or what Wittgenstein would have called a “picture.”


1. Allan Bloom, trans., The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 379a; 607a.

2. “As it seems, whatever looks to be fair to the many who don’t know anything—that he will imitate.” Bloom, 602b.

3. Bloom, 607a.

4. Jukka Mikkonen, The Cognitive Value of Philosophical Fiction (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 9–10.

5. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 496.

6. In the introduction to Wallace’s undergraduate thesis on the concept of free will in the philosophy of Richard Taylor—published in 2010 as Fate, Time and Language—James Ryerson offers an excellent overview of Wallace’s biographical experience with, and comments about, philosophy. Briefly, Wallace seemed headed for a career in analytic philosophy before a “midlife crisis” (14) about the meaningfulness of logic encouraged him to swerve to fiction during his junior year at Amherst. So, alongside his thesis on Taylor, Wallace completed a fiction thesis that would later become his first novel The Broom of the System (1987), whose protagonist was the granddaughter of a famous Wittgenstein scholar. After completing an MFA at the University of Arizona and publishing his first two works of fiction, Wallace enrolled at Harvard to do graduate work in philosophy; he studied there with Stanley Cavell, among others, but left the program when he decided that he “didn’t want to be an academic philosopher anymore” (17). In his nonfiction Wallace has covered philosophical topics such as Wittgenstein’s private language argument and the afterlife of Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author”; his essays and fiction are studded with references to Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Emerson, and Cavell, among others (Schopenhauer’s “The Vanity of Life” was discovered on his desk with the fragments collected in his posthumous novel). He was the author of a book about infinity, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (New York: Norton, 2010) and a short story named for Richard Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.” In his book Understanding David Foster Wallace (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), Marshall Boswell argues that Wittgenstein’s theory of language is “the key” to unraveling the mysteries of The Broom. More recently, Stephen Mulhall has offered an interpretation of that novel in a similar vein. See Stephen Mulhall, “Quartet: Wallace’s Wittgenstein, Moran’s Amis,” in The Self and Its Shadows: A Book of Essays on Individuality as Negation in Philosophy and the Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 283–320. Wallace’s father was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois and remembers reading Plato’s Phaedo with his son when David was fourteen years old.

7. Paul Horwich, Wittgenstein’s Metaphilosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), esp. 6–7.

8. I’m thankful to my colleague Ben Jeffery for sharing a paper on Wittgenstein and Freud that helped me think through this relationship.

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations [1953], trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973), §133. The importance of Wittgenstein’s notion of a philosophy as a form of therapy has been a source of controversy in Wittgenstein scholarship. The passage quoted here is still ignored by many contemporary philosophers interested in Wittgenstein, but it has received increasing attention in recent decades thanks largely to philosophers like Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond. In her introduction to a collection of essays entitled The New Wittgenstein (New York: Routledge, 2000) Alice Crary describes the selections as agreeing in “suggesting that Wittgenstein’s primary aim in philosophy is—to use a word he himself employs in characterizing his later philosophical procedures—a therapeutic one” (1). In the New York Times blog series The Stone, Paul Horwich presents the keystone of Wittgenstein’s “notorious doctrine” as being that “a decent approach to [philosophy] must avoid theory-construction and instead be merely ‘therapeutic,’ confined to exposing the irrational assumptions on which theory-oriented investigations are based and the irrational conclusions to which they lead.” Paul Horwich, “Was Wittgenstein Right?” New York Times, March 3, 2013, Throughout this study I will refer to Diamond’s, Horwich’s, and especially Cavell’s glosses on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy when they help illuminate how that philosophy resembled what Wallace attempted to do in his fiction.