A Biography of a Brilliant Philosopher Reads Like a Mystery Story

From a Washington Post review by Oliver Traldi headlined “The biography of a brilliant philosopher reads like mystery story”:

The stunningly original British philosopher Derek Parfit, who died in 2017, was known for work that forms the core of the modern metaphysical study of personal identity. With the help of some sci-fi thought experiments, he famously argued that there is sometimes no answer to the question of whether a person at one point in time is the same as a person at another time.

Realizing this, he argued, should help us understand that personal identity isn’t what “matters,” a thesis with far-reaching consequences that should leave us with doubts about the whole notion of rational self-interest. Rationality might, instead, demand impartiality from us. And we might start to fear death less.

When a professor of mine came to this last point in a seminar more than a decade ago, he scoffed a little and said something like, “But remember, it’s Parfit saying this. He eats cottage cheese and bell peppers for breakfast.” Parfit was so strange an individual, and lived such a strange life, that his musings on the real-life implications of his work might be hard to take seriously — or so my professor thought.

David Edmonds’s new book, “Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality,” is about both the intelligence and the strangeness of its subject. It works through his life, spent largely at Oxford, and his ideas, which all relate to people (or “persons”) and ethics, the study of what people ought to do. In Edmonds’s estimation, at least, Parfit saw himself as among the first philosophers to really and seriously undertake this study without religious assumptions.

Concerned above all with suffering, Parfit himself had abandoned religion in his youth, unable to understand how a just and loving God could be responsible for so much pain. And his ethical philosophy remained focused on suffering, a good fit for British utilitarian consequentialism, an intellectual tradition in which promoting pleasure and reducing pain are seen as the primary mandates of ethics.

“Parfit” is told, in some ways, as a mystery story, an investigation into how its subject became such an alien. The adult Parfit, single-mindedly focused on his thinking about ethics, exhibited a number of strange behaviors, like exercising nude, redirecting everyday conversations to philosophy and editing his photography — his other passion — to improve things (lengthening spires, removing human figures and so on).

As a boy, though, Parfit had been popular, and his interests had been wide-ranging. He won a top scholarship to Eton, where he was a legendary student, and then a top scholarship to Oxford’s Balliol College, where he was almost an All Souls fellow in history before eventually being named one in philosophy. This was the pedigree of prime ministers (and Edmonds notes that Parfit probably spent his 19th birthday with Harold Macmillan, then Britain’s prime minister, at an Oxford gathering).

Excerpts from letters, poems and short stories written during his teenage years evince a vivid imagination and superb prose style; at one point, he interned for the New Yorker. In my view (with which some professional philosophers disagree), he would become a spectacular philosophical stylist, as well. Reading Plato in Greek is like watching glasswork slide across a frozen and frictionless pond under moonlight. Parfit is probably the closest anyone has gotten to achieving that effect in English.

In some ways, Parfit’s work was of his times, and “Parfit” draws out those connections, perhaps without discussing them as explicitly as a reader might like. His first paper, the barnburner “Personal Identity,” came in 1971; its claims that persons are always shading into new identities and that they have deeper connections to each other than they might realize seem appropriate to the hippie heyday.

He was, in other ways, too, clearly a product of his era. Though he was professionally competitive — cutthroat, even, Edmonds suggests — those instincts did not extend to his romantic life, in which he appears to have been a kind of proto-polyamorist in the ’70s, another instance of porous borders. Separately, Edmonds mentions Parfit’s aphantasia, a condition of incapacity to generate mental images that also seems, Edmonds notes, to be linked with a weak sense of connection to one’s past, but he doesn’t draw out the connection between Parfit’s life and his thinking. Perhaps he was hesitant to explain Parfit’s conclusions as anything other than the result of ingenious argumentation. Indeed, Parfit comes across in the book as someone who would follow logic where it led, whether it was with or against the currents of contemporary culture.

Some of Parfit’s work has, in any case, continued to resonate in our own moment. The clearest example of this is his interest in the ethics of future persons, which had a critical impact on the movements of effective altruism and the associated thesis of “longtermism.” Longtermism, recently the topic of a popular book by William MacAskill, “What We Owe the Future,” holds that when we think about what’s right and wrong, we should take the far future into account.

It could have far more people than the present, which could mean far more pleasure (good) or far more pain (bad). Those people could also make progress on ethics itself, leading to exponentially more good being done. Longtermism has the classic Parfitian feel: somehow straightforward and sensible while simultaneously seeming completely alien — like eating cottage cheese and bell peppers for breakfast.

“Parfit” is written engagingly, ably balancing philosophy and biography. Readers outside the field will find Edmonds’s descriptions of Parfit’s philosophical contributions fascinating and clear. Readers inside the field, on the other hand, will probably be just as engaged by the inside baseball of it all, in which a cast of often surprisingly famous characters affects and is affected by Parfit’s life and work at every stage, from childhood to death.

People like Tim Hunt, Joan Didion, Tyler Cowen and Amartya Sen pop in and out of the pages, some of them seemingly by chance, but others out of what feels almost like elemental force: In Edmonds’s account, the gravity of Parfit’s generational philosophical genius ineluctably draws in other intellects and creative people.

Before reading Edmonds’s book, I had been unaware of just how many people Parfit had influenced. Though he wrote many articles for specialists, and some for the public, he published only two books, “Reasons and Persons” and “On What Matters.” Both were academic texts, and not easy ones, but both garnered enormous readerships, as well.

His brilliance seems to have radiated out into others, their own success a side effect of his intellectual dynamism. Edmonds, a former student of Parfit, makes frequent reference to the voluminous commentaries Parfit offered to other philosophers on works in progress, and he quotes another former student as saying that being taught by Parfit was “like a religious experience.” Despite doing very little in the way of public writing, he pivotally affected the broader culture.

Philosophy at its best combines striking originality with rigorous argument and deftly navigates between simply restating our common-sense intuitions and doing away with them entirely. Parfit’s philosophy was philosophy at its best, and “Parfit” is an excellent introduction to that philosophy and the life in which it grew to occupy such a central role.

Oliver Traldi is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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