Derek Parfit is the most important philosopher you’ve never heard of. Well, you may have heard of him, but he has almost no reputation outside of academic philosophy, despite the fact that so many modern moral concerns—long-termism, altruism, existential risk, our moral obligation to people in other times and places—are essentially Parfitian. At meetings of the WHO or the World Bank, discussion is influenced by his thought experiments. Almost anyone who has studied moral philosophy, and taken the results of that study into public life, in the last forty years, has been profoundly influenced by his ideas.
Parfit died in 2017. Now there is a new biography, Parfit, by David Edmonds. I am not going to get too far into the niceties of Parfit’s philosophy. Others will do that and do it very well: indeed, that’s one of the main accomplishments of Edmonds’ book: he makes the philosophy accessible without diminishing it. Instead, I want to make some observations about the way Edmonds relates Parfit’s philosophy to his life and the way the biography works.
Parfit is one of the authors I used to read when I got up early before work in my twenties: he gave me headaches and changed my mind. So I paid full-price to get this book right away. It did not disappoint. This is one of the books I have most enjoyed reading recently.
Here are a few facts that might give you a sense of how extraordinary he was. Parfit was opposed to suffering in all forms, and for all people. He once cried for ninety seconds while talking at a seminar because Bach was unable to finish The Art of the Fugue. He assured his wife he would gladly sacrifice his life to give Mozart another thirty-five years of composition time. He told a group of colleagues he would die happy if he could convince five of them that no-one ever deserves to suffer. A few days after Parfit came out of a coma, brought on by a collapsed lung, one of his graduate students visited him in hospital. “He gave me a two or three hour viva, which was much tougher than anything I had a few days later.” He remained upset for his whole life that his sister had the lovely, classical name Theodora, while he was called Derek. So upset that his Skype name late in life was Theodoric.
Parfit seems to have been what Galen Straswon calls “episodic” and “non-Narrative”, that is, he had little sense of connections between his past and present self, and little sense of any narrative of his own life. This is consistent with his views on personal identity, that it is something of an illusion and we should be less interested in ourselves and more concerned about others. Edmonds did a good job of showing, rather than telling, that Parfit philosophised his own psychology.
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Parfit’s transformation from a brilliant but not serious student into a reclusive and dedicated scholar, who believed in his mission so single-mindedly, so monkishly, many others felt he was monstrously selfish, is a wonderful basis for biography as a ship of Theseus problem—with this slow but immense transformation, is he still Derek Parfit? at what point does he become different?—and Edmonds does a good job of demonstrating this conundrum. He also poses a sensible theory about autism and masking that “solves” the conundrum.
The question of whether Parfit was surrounded by a cult, and whether his bad behaviour was excused or encouraged by a patriarchal concept of genius—and the more difficult question of whether anyone can take any blame for this situation, noting that Parfit seems to have been very authentic, immensely generous to other philosophers of all backgrounds especially the young, non egoistic, and potentially unaware of people being disciple-like towards him—is well discussed and demonstrated. As with the autism question, you are so well informed by the time the formal discussion appears at the end, you are able to think more deeply about the idea. I side somewhat with Parfit on this: since he believed that “Our own future well-being is not the highest rational concern,” his behaviour was not, according to his system, irrational or immoral. You might, however, think of his behaviour as a version of the “harmless torture” problem.
The book is not too long. When letters etc., are quoted it is at length. Otherwise, an efficient summary. There are a few moments when you feel the chill hand of discretion, but overall this is the best approach unless the additional material is truly fascinating. Every page is highly informative and/or surprising.
Can we claim Parfit as a late bloomer? He never studied philosophy until postgrad (History BA) and said he was still learning philosophy until he was thirty or so. He had to be forced to write his first book (very much like Samuel Johnson) aged forty. Perhaps if he had been less sheltered, he would have written more. Teaching seems to have been good for his productivity. Dealing with other philosophers’ objections to his work seems to have hampered him. The benefits of his institutionalisation seem debatable.
It is quite possible that Parfit’s most influential work are the thousands of pages of notes he gave to people on their work, often longer than the work itself. The extent to which he seems to have improved many, many works of philosophy like this is amazing. Presumably this work is either largely lost or difficult to reproduce in any meaningful format.
Despite his affinity for Sidgwick, Parfit is very much like Mill. Prodigious, high-minded, aesthetic, musical, socially odd, astonishingly productive (see the point about his notes on other people’s work), romantically unconventional, and, importantly, strongly motivated by death. I thought several times of the line from the Gospel of John that haunted Mill, the night cometh when no man can work. I could quote so many passages, let this be the one:
On 10 August 1980, Parfit’s brilliant friend Gareth Evans, with whom he’d once driven to Spain, died of cancer. He was just thirty-four. Parfit had not been aware of the speed of Evans’s illness, and his death jolted him. He wrote to a friend a few days later, ‘We are all in a state of shock here. I wish Gareth had let us know before. I would have wanted to write to him. I feel now full of a resolve to make more of the rest of my life. I shall at least try to cling to this resolve, in his memory.’
Mill wrote something similar to Harriet Taylor early in their marriage, and something similar again when she died a few years later.
It is remarkable how late in his career Parfit read Kant, whose work was required reading for undergraduates of his generation. This, and other gaps in his knowledge of philosophy, reminded me of Mill’s essay Genius, where he says the important thing is not the discovery of new ideas by original minds, but the fact that all ideas are new to someone at some time. Genius is when someone “discovers” new ideas in this sense and truly thinks for themselves. This the best summary of Parfit’s genius.
The final chapters note Parfit’s obsession with the way that the philosopher Bernard Williams didn’t believe in objective moral truths, which yields several marvellous anecdotes, but they have a melancholy echo as they recur.
Above all, Parfit seems to me to be a romantic poet working as a moral philosopher, “Holding an unremitting interchange/With the clear universe of things around.” Like Mill, he demonstrates that poetry plus logic makes the true philosophy.
I would very much like to read a book about Parfit written by John Gray, but perhaps the young John Gray who wrote Mill on Liberty: A Defence.
My question (one of my questions…) for David Edmonds: was Parfit happy?
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Great review, great book. I struggled to get my head around the challenges in metaethics many years ago when working on my masters thesis. I wish I'd had Parfit's OWM to refer to then. Parfit found plausible answers to many of the challenges that stumped me!
What do you make of Stephen Mulhall’s negative LRB review of Edmonds’ book?