A Research Guide by Alan Rhoda, Ph.D.

Philosophical concerns over fatalism focus mainly on the relation between truth, time, causation, and future contingency. Future contingents are causally possible future events that are not causally necessary. In other words, they occur in some causally possible futures and not others. Fatalism, as I shall here understand it, is simply the doctrine that there are no future contingents. (Note: Some philosophers prefer to reserve the term "fatalism" for the much stronger claim that it is metaphysically necessary that there are no future contingents.)

In antiquity, both Aristotle (384–322 BC) and Diodorus Chronos (died c. 284 BC) questioned whether there could be a complete true story of the future if the future were not determined. Most scholars interpret them as having argued for the negative, namely, that there can be no truth of the matter about whether a future contingent event—Aristotle's famous example was of a sea battle—occurs in the future. Their arguments, especially Aristotle's, ignited centuries of controversy, which abated only after the rise of Christianity in the West and Islam in the East shifted attention onto more theological matters. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the philosophical controversy over fatalism was reignited by the work of Richard Taylor (1919–2003) and by the development of multi-valued and temporal logics.

A second philosophical issue related to fatalism concerns the metaphysics of time. A popular theory in contemporary metaphysics is the "static block" theory of time according to which all events—past, present, and future—are always eternally there. Hence, on this theory, the passage of time is merely subjective. This raises a fatalistic worry: If the future, i.e., what we think of as the future, is always eternally there, then how can we avoid it?

A third philosophical issue with obvious fatalistic ramifications is causal determinism. According to determinism, only one future—only one extension of the past and present—is causally possible. If so, then that future is unavoidable and there are no future contingents.

Because there is a very large philosophical literature on fatalism, I have tried to select the most informative, influential, and relevant sources. I have divided them into three categories:

I. General Overviews (to top)

This section contains sources that attempt to provide a more-or-less general overview of philosophical arguments for fatalism, frequently under the rubric of "logical fatalism," "logical determinism," or "metaphysical fatalism."

An influential and generally very readable work that contains reconstructions and sympathetic discussions of Aristotle's, Diodorus Chronos's, and Taylor's arguments for fatalism, as well as a chapter on Pike's (1965) argument for theological fatalism. Cahn argues that the only way to defeat such arguments is by distinguishing between two versions of the law of excluded middle. A must-read for scholars interested in fatalistic arguments.

Sections 1–4 of this article contain a good overview of arguments concerning "logical fatalism." Arguments from Aristotle, Diodorus Chronos, and Taylor are discussed. The article is in the Stanford Enclyclopedia of Philosophy (ISSN 1095-5054), a free, online, authoritative reference source covering a vast array of philosophical topics. It is peer-reviewed, updated frequently, and all articles contain significant bibliographies.

II. Pre-20th Century Sources (to top)

Besides Aristotle and Diodorus Chronos, many influential figures of antiquity contributed to philosophical discussions of fatalism. Figures of note include Cicero (106–43 BC), Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. 200 AD), Ammonius (c. 435/445–517/526 AD), and Boethius (c. 475–524 AD).

From the 6th through 19th centuries nearly all material on fatalism is dominantly theological in focus, and thus is covered on the Theological Sources page. I divide philosophical sources in this section into primary and secondary sources. Some primary sources include substantial commentary, and so can also double as secondary sources.

  1. Primary Sources (to top)

Included here are English translations (some including commentaries) of the key texts on fatalism by Aristotle, Cicero, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Ammonius, and Boethius. The latter three were influential Aristotelian commentators. No primary source for Diodorus Chronos is listed because only fragments of his writings have survived. When searching for additional materials it should be noted that these works are commonly referred to under their Latin or Greek titles. Thus, Aristotle's On Interpretation is also often referred to by either its Latin name (De interpretatione) or its Greek name (Peri hermeneias). Similarly, Cicero's On Fate is often designated by its Latin name (De fato).

Alexander of Aphrodisias defends a broadly Aristotelian position against Stoic fatalism. This text includes an accessible, 34-page historical introduction by Sharples, a translation of Alexander's De fato (On fate) and a few other relevant passages from Alexander's corpus, a 54-page commentary on the text, and the Greek text with copious notes on variant readings. A select bibliography, index of citations, and a general index are also provided.

Contains English translations of Ammonius's and Boethius's commentaries on Aristotle's On interpretation, book 9, where Aristotle famous discussion of whether it could be true today that a sea battle will occur tomorrow if its occurring was now undetermined. (Aristotle answers in the negative.) The translations are prefaced by four introductory essays by three highly regarded scholars: Sorabji, Kretzmann, and Mignucci. The work also includes a select bibliography, English–Greek and English–Latin glossaries, and Greek–English and Latin–English indexes.

Aristotle's On Interpretation, book 9, is the key text for his discussion of fatalism. Many translations of this work are available, but the Loeb Classical Library volume has the Greek text and English translation on facing pages.

Cicero's On fate is one of the best surviving ancient sources on Stoic fatalism, of which Cicero is critical. Many translations of this work are available, but the Loeb Classical Library volume has the Latin text and English translation on facing pages.

  1. Secondary Sources (to top)

Here are some secondary sources on ancient discussions of fatalism. I have aimed to provide a fair range of materials, covering relevant contributions of the Stoics (who accepted fatalism) and Epicureans (who rejected it) and modern attempts to analyze and reconstruct the arguments of Aristotle and Diodorus Chronos. The sources range from dense scholarly tomes (Bobzien, 1998; Gaskin, 1995) to more accessible works (Barnes, 2007; Bobzien, 2011; O'Keefe, 2005).

The first chapter of this work is a fairly accessible, 92-page essay on ancient debates over fatalism, with particular attention to the contributions of Chrysippus, an important Stoic philosopher.

A comprehensive, scholarly study of Stoic views on fatalism, with copious quotations from primary sources and close textual commentary. Has a detailed bibliography and name, subject, and loci indices.

A comprehensive reconstruction, analysis, and critique of Aristotle's and Diodorus Chronos's discussions of fatalism, with very close attention to primary sources.

Attempts to offer an exhaustive classification of responses to the argument from foretruth to fatalism. In other words, they are concerned with the question of how we should assign truth-values to statements about future contingents. Contains discussion of Ockham, Leibniz, Prior, Łukasiewicz, supervaluationism, and other contemporary proposals.

A very accessible study of Epicurus's critical response to Stoic fatalism and an exposition of his positive views on indeterminism and human freedom.

III. Contemporary Sources (to top)

The mid-twentieth century witnessed a revival of interest in fatalism spurred by the emergence of new fatalistic arguments (in particular, those of Richard Taylor); new developments in logic, particularly the development of multi-valued logic and tense logic; and an increasing interest in the metaphysics of time. I have included two oft-cited works, Lucas (1989) and Ryle (1966), and five more recent works that collectively give a good sense of the current state of the discussion. Of particular note is Wallace (2011), which contains all of the most important articles pertaining to Taylor's influential arguments for fatalism.

An analysis and critique of "metaphysical fatalism," a notion Bernstein takes to be implicit in discussions of fatalism from Aristotle on. Bernstein also discusses the bearing of fatalism upon moral responsibility.

A fairly accessible and balanced discussion of whether fatalism follows from a "static block" theory of time.

An up-to-date, fairly accessible overview of past and current thinking about causal determinism in both philosophy and physics.

An original work that draws heavily upon tense logic and modal logic to illuminate the relation of truth and temporality. Extensive treatment of logical fatalism. Also includes a chapter on theological fatalism.

Chapter two, "It Was to Be," contains a very accessible and influential critique of Aristotle's treatment of fatalism.

A highly technical, but illuminating discussion of logical fatalism, two paradoxes of prediction (Newcomb's problem and the journey to Samarra problem), determinism and free will, and divine omniscience.

A collection of thirteen previously published papers on Richard Taylor's argument for fatalism, along with a long critical essay by Wallace. Includes a 30-page introduction. Most of the papers are very accessible. A must-read for scholars interested in fatalistic arguments. (to top)