He strove never to make a choice between rigour and relevanceby Julian Baggini / January 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is impossible to sum up in a couple of hundred words the richness, subtlety and complexity of the philosophy of Derek Parfit, who died at the age of 74 on New Year’s Day. However, it takes just two words to capture what made him worthy of the respect and attention even of those who profoundly disagreed with him: “what matters.”
This simple phrase appeared explicitly in his first masterpiece, Reasons and Persons (1984). In Part Three of that book, Parfit discussed the issue of personal identity over time. In the dry, academic terminology of that era, this was the question of what is logically required in order to state that person A at time t1 was identical with person B at time t2.
As a rigorous, analytic thinker, Parfit never dismissed that question, but he was also, and primarily, concerned with the slightly different question of “what matters in survival.” If I were to be physically destroyed, for example, and reconstructed atom by atom elsewhere by some kind of teletransporter, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a replica of me had been created rather than that I had been sent across space. But it would still be worth asking whether this replication had given me all that matters in survival. Identity is a property of logic, what matters is a property of human existence.
Parfit’s determination and ability to keep a focus on what is existentially important is not as common in philosophy as it should be. Too often, even great philosophical minds take a problem and treat it as though it were a merely intellectual puzzle to be solved, neglecting to ask themselves whether their solution actually addresses the human question that gave rise to the problem in the first place.
Many found such talk of “mattering” hopelessly vague and preferred to stick to what is. Such thinkers often gained in precision but lost what makes philosophy worth doing in the first place. Parfit always strove never to make a choice between rigour and relevance. If “what matters” seemed vague to others, he was always trying to make it as precise as possible. After all, if something matters in philosophy, making it as clear as possible matters too.
Those two words reappeared when Parfit’s long awaited two-volume follow-up to Reasons and Persons appeared after 27 years, entitled On What Matters (2011). Described in the Times Higher Education as “the most eagerly awaited work in philosophy since Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations,” this hugely ambitious magnum opus defended an objective ethics that attempted to reconcile Kantian deontology, consequentialism, and contractarianism.
Whether he succeeded or not, the manner of the book’s publication and indeed all of Parfit’s career is testimony to his complete dedication to what he believed mattered. Parfit is almost unique among his contemporaries in being simply “Mr Parfit,” having never completed a PhD and earning the title Dr or gaining a chair and the title of professor. Identified early on as an exceptional talent, All Soul’s College at Oxford made him a fellow in 1967 and allowed him the time and freedom to pursue his research without having to jump through the conventional career hoops.
The work came slowly, but every time it finally arrived, it mattered. His seminal paper “Personal Identity” appeared in the Philosophical Review in 1971, and it took a further 13 years before he developed his ideas more fully in Reasons and Persons. In between his publications, Parfit was constantly discussing his work with his peers, seeking their criticisms, with drafts of chapters and papers circulating in the highest circles.
A career like Parfit’s is unimaginable today. Producing an unreadable doctoral thesis is more of a priority that producing a readable book, and young researchers have a pressure always to keep publishing that promotes quantity over quality. We must hope that the recognition that the system today could not produce a Parfit will motivate the people in charge to change it.
Parfit is one of the few philosophers who turned down my request for an interview when I was editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. It wasn’t haughtiness that motivated this (he was happy to talk off the record to me over an All Soul’s lunch when I was writing The Ego Trick), but a desire to make sure that he only put on the record what he had precisely formulated after many years of careful thought. Getting it right was more important than getting it out, to the frustration of publishers and editors but to the long-term benefit of readers and scholars. When he published, it mattered, and so as a philosopher, he is one of the few of his generation who unquestionably mattered.