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.