This paper concerns two differing attitudes to the relationship between reasoning and living. It will consider and compare the piece ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch’ and the piece ‘This is Water.’ The latter is a closing graduation address given by David Foster-Wallace for liberal art students at Kenyon College in 2005 and focuses on the supposed value of a liberal arts education and on the relationship between an individual and their world. The former is a lecture delivered by the terminally ill Pausch in which he describes how he has set about attempting to achieve his childhood dreams and reflects on the way in which his life and abilities to reason have enabled this. Both of these pieces consider the individual as being at the centre of the world in which they take part and as having the capacity to manipulate it towards their own goals. This paper will consider this similarity alongside the crucial difference of engagement and instrumentality which emerge when the pieces are considered together.

You're lucky! Use promo "samples20"
and get a custom paper on
"Contrasting Attitudes to Life and Reason"
with 20% discount!
Order Now

Foster’s presentation is focused around the notion that different phenomena may be responded to in different ways by different people. He cites an example of an atheist and a religious person who would necessarily respond to a life saving chance encounter in an entirely different way and assign an entirely different meaning to it. The former would see something simply contingent, whereas the latter would likely see a manifestation of a higher power. Foster- Wallace accepts that it is likely that the individual will view all events as if they were the centre of the universe, however he argues that one of the merits of education is that it can enable someone to learn to think outside of this, literal, self-centredness. He states that this kind of thinking is ‘a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard- wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centred and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.’ (Foster-Wallace, 2008.)

Foster-Wallace then proceeds to give a long example of the monotony of everyday life which student will face when they finish college. He writes that their routine will be dull and repetitive and that they will often face tiredness, fatigue and extreme boredom as a part of their everyday lives. Foster-Wallace then states that the point of thinking is to understand these miserable events and routines which will inevitably befall the graduates to whom he is speaking as something which does not refer explicitly to themselves. He then claims that this lack of self-centredness will enable the graduates to view the world around them as full of alternative possibilities and the people who around them as multi-faceted and as possessing complex personal histories. The ability to choose to assign meaning to different aspects of life is then described as the explicit benefit of education: ‘You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.’ (Foster-Wallace, 2008.) Foster- Wallace concludes the speech with affirmation that the task of education and of an enlightened life is to stay aware throughout one’s life and to constantly engage one’s thinking and reasoning faculty in order to maintain the possibility of thinking differently in the face of the seeming banality of the world. His argument could therefore be summarised as stating that reasoning is not capable of changing the world, but that it is capable of enabling an individual to make a choice about how they relate to it, and how they assign events and objects within it a meaning.

Pausch’s lecture also presents an idea of an individual confronting the world and assigning different events a meaning. Several times he states that he believes in ‘karma’ and at one point states that ‘if life is lived ‘rightly’ then good things will happen.’ He also talks at length about the need to ‘respect and care for everyone around you and to make sure that you don’t do harm to people that you know or don’t know.’ In this sense it seems that his argument is similar to Foster-Wallace’s. He actively encourages an openness to the world and to the people who inhabit it, as well as consistently preaching a humility in the face of events and in the face of other people. However, it is clear in Pausch’s presentation that his attitude is geared towards the achievement of personal goals, rather than reflection or a contemplative mode of living. The lecture focuses on how ‘childhood dreams’ are achieved and actualised, rather than simply on how it is possible to relate to the world on an intellectual and emotional level. In one particular moment he describes how he considers his job a professor to be a way in which he is able to make ‘other people’s childhood dreams come true.’ By this he means that he is able to inspire people and to allow to see the world as something which is capable of giving them what they want. He tells a story of how a former student of his told him that he wanted to work on the new ‘Star Wars’ films and that as a result of Pausch’s teaching he was able to do so. There is no mention of ideas of ‘worship’ or political commitment Pausch’s speech, rather he focuses explicitly on an instrumentalised idea of reason’s relationship to the world. Reasoning should be employed in order to actualise happiness and to have fun. This involves making sure that one relates to the world as something which can be acted upon and which one can be creative within.

In conclusion, David Foster-Wallace and Randy Pausch both present an argument which places the individual at the centre of the world and assigns that individual a degree of freedom as to how they move within and relate to it. For Foster-Wallace, the primary aim of reasoning is to allow one to relate to the world in a way which allows for the complex and multi-faceted nature of the world and the people within it to come into view. For Pausch, this openness and free thinking is also present, however it is geared towards an actualisation of wants and dreams and therefore an instrumentalisation of this intellectual freedom for the sake of material and emotional well being.

  • Foster-Wallace, David. “David Foster-Wallace in His Own Words.” Intelligent Life. 19th September, 2008. Retrieved from: