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Why David Foster Wallace is INFJ

By Venti Mation

“My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.”[1]

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” [2]

“I didn’t really understand emotionally that there are people around who didn’t have enough to eat, who weren’t warm enough, who didn’t have a place to live, whose parents beat the hell out of them regularly. The sadness isn’t in seeing it, the sadness is in realizing how phenomenally lucky I am, not only to have never been hungry or cold, but to be educated, to have access to books. Never before in history has a country been so blessed, materially and intellectually, and yet we’re miserable.”[3]

These quotes, along with his famous Kenyon college commencement speech which highlighted the lack of awareness for other people’s possible problems (as well as the fault in thinking ‘I’ am the most important person in ‘my’ universe), point towards extroverted feeling. One more addition: in the 90 minute uncut German interview from 2003, DFW (who looks extremely uncomfortable) asks the interviewer to engage in a conversation with him rather than have an interviewer-interviewee back and forth.

But let’s get away from the Fe/Ti axis for now and address something else. In Boye Akinwande‘s Celebritytypes write up of ‘Why Kanye West is ISFJ‘ they use the following quote to suggest Kanye is an introverted perceiver type: “…I got to think about it and give you a really good answer. I got a lock and loaded amount of information that I like to express on a very wide scale. But if you ask me a question like that and I go back and think on it, maybe I’ll have the answer for you in a couple of days.”

“The problem with interviews (including even very considerate ones where you let me write answers out instead of just saying them) is that no truly interesting question can be satisfactorily answered within the formal constraints (viz. magazine-space, radio-time, public decorum) of an interview.”

— 1999, Amherst College interview[4]

Note how Wallace affirms the interviewer in the parentheses by saying she is giving a considerate interview.

In the next question of that interview, Wallace is asked about his aspirations:

“Questions like this almost demand a quick pithy burst of pious methane. The fact that we’d need four pages of back-and-forth to nail down exactly what you mean by ‘aspirations’ before I could even start trying to answer you…and this would not be pithy or brief or probably even very interesting to anybody else. I’m 99+ percent sure you’d have the same problem if somebody asked you, Ms. S., the question in any kind of compressed public forum. Why do we do these sorts of things to one another?”

If one watches DFW interviews, two things become apparent: 1) He was reluctant to expand on conceptualizing questions on the spot and 2) He was self-aware about how he might be perceived, constantly worrying if he came off as esoteric and if so, would that part be edited out of the program.

So I believe it’s fair to say that DFW was an introverted perceiver with a strong sense of Fe. But for arguments sake, let’s address whether Mr. Wallace used Ti more than Fe, or vice versa.

Back to the Amherst interview:

– Do you read reviews of your work?

“It’s tempting to. It’s also tempting to try and eavesdrop on people who are talking about you and don’t think you can hear them. But you almost always get your feelings hurt if you eavesdrop like this. It’s the same way with reviews. It took me a while to figure out that reviews of my work are not for me. They’re for potential book-buyers. I have a nice tight established circle of friends and associates I can send stuff to and get honest critical response that helps me make the stuff better.”

“He would say that the job of fiction was to make you feel less alone. There’s a phrase much-quoted which I guess cannot be entirely relayed on the radio, which is that ‘fiction’s job is to show you what it is to be an effing human being.” He wants you to care, and in reading ‘Infinite Jest,’ difficult as some parts of that book are, you do end up caring enormously, and you care enormously about him, and if the book exceeds, which I think it does, you end up caring more about yourself in a very positive kind of way.”
— D.T Max[5]

Q: Television may be more complex than what most people realize, but it seems rarely to attempt to “challenge” or “disturb” its audience, as you’ve written me you wish to. Is it that sense of challenge and pain that makes your work more “serious” than most television shows?

A: “I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art—which just means art whose primary aim is to make money—is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That’s not good. The problem isn’t that today’s readership is “dumb,” I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.”[6]

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now. Or can be. This isn’t that it’s fiction’s duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I’m not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t art. We’ve all got this “literary” fiction that simply monotones that we’re all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like “Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!” But we already “know” U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?”[6]

David wrote to give the reader imaginative access to other selves: He wanted to engage the reader on an emotional level. To discuss what it means to be human. A Ti/Fe writer, as opposed to an Fe/Ti writer, would probably be less concerned with connecting people together. ESTP writer Bret Easton Ellis said: Every book for me is an exorcism in some way or another, working through my feelings at the time. That’s just the way I work. So to me it’s not coincidence, it just means I’m going through stuff, and I’m working through that stuff in my novels.”

It was decided earlier that David Foster Wallace is a primary introverted perceiving user, so does he primarily use Ni or Si?

DFW would fit more into the category of inferior Se than inferior Ne. He had jock-ish qualities early on despite feeling like he wasn’t manly enough [8], and had a love of tennis before discovering his love of academics[9]. He also suffered from addiction:

“Well, frankly, David was addicted to television. So for him, television was his North Star, almost everything he wrote or thought somehow negatively or positively related to television. He would say, although he was technically more formally addicted to marijuana, and formerly after he went through a halfway house, he would say that television was his real addiction.”[5]

“He always used TV as some sort of calming agent. So it wasn’t just that he enjoyed watching “McHale’s Navy,” although he probably did, it was that he used TV almost to sort of moor himself to the Earth, because that incredible brain of his would have just taken him off on some sort of a wild flight if there wasn’t something to calm him.”[5]

“I don’t have a TV, because if I have a TV I’ll watch it all the time.”[10]

He also went to extremes, being a self-proclaimed “five draft man,” and wrote Infinite Jest — a 500,000+ word novel– in longhand during the drafting period.[8] But seeing how he did it for his work, it’s hard to assume that he is naturally meticulous. This routine is forced because it works for him, not because it comes natural.

As Charlie Rose stated, David does have a strong observation of the moment (which is Se, not Ne) but as David admits, it is hard to work at paying attention. Being observant is not his natural state, and it seems that when he speaks of inferior Se, he does so through an Fe frame of mind: “this is something we all go through.”

“As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”[2]

As for having Ni, David saw meaning behind a situation.

“Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff.”[2]

“It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad.”[2]

“This is not a matter of virtue. It’s 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-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self”[2]

Why DFW is not ENTP

Although Celebritytypes sorts people into types by functions and not stereotypes, it must be admitted that certain types share certain behavioral qualities. The ENTP (or perhaps both Ne types) have a playful, argumentative, devil’s advocate approach to social settings. This can be seen with Socrates, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, etc. These are men who cannot go about without causing trouble; their Fe is weak to where they may seem like Fi users (like the Bret Easton Ellis quote above). David is concerned with what people think about him; he shrieks from conflict, and disagrees while affirming a person behind the opinion.

On a side note, he never came up with the quote “”Good fiction’s job [is] to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”[11] He may agree, but that doesn’t make him the same cognition as the person who said it. The other quotes, on the other hand, seem to speak more to a lack of focus and some zaniness, so whether those are Ne or Ni is beyond my comprehension.

To address the elephant in the room, he did have major depression. But that is not the cornerstone of his sensitive, thin skinned personality.


[1] David Foster Wallace on Writing, Death, and Redemption



[4] Brief Interview with a Five Draft Man | Amherst College


[6] Bookshelf: An Interview With David Foster Wallace

[7] Cognitive Functions at a Glance –

[8] Amy Wallace speaks about her brother David Foster Wallace

[9] David Foster Wallace on Ambition | Blank on Blank | PBS Digital Studios

Published in Venti Mation