I recently wrote a short review of David Edmond’s forthcoming biography on Derek Parfit, which I thought might be of interest to folks here for obvious reasons.
I’ve included the full post below, and more info on the book can be found here. I highly recommend it and encourage anyone interested to pick up a copy.
"It is impossible to read off a person's personality from their ideas. Discuss." One could imagine such a question in an All Souls general paper. And there are such cases where there seems to be no connection. The special theory of relativity provides no clue to Einstein's genial personality. Parifitan philosophy, however, is bound up with aspects of his character.
I don’t read many biographies. Frankly, I often find them boring. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn a bit more about my favorite philosopher of all time.
That proved to be the right choice, not only because the story is brilliantly and meticulously told by David Edmonds, but also because of the close connection between Parfit’s work and his personal life.
Two themes, in particular, stood out to me:
- His radical sensitivity to the suffering of distant others
- His unending determination
As for the first: a central theme in Parfit’s work is that we ought to care a bit less about ourselves and an awful lot more about others (even those who are quite far away from us, in space or in time). But I was honestly surprised by Edmonds’ account of how deeply Parfit felt this concern for others.
At various moments, he’s brought to tears by the suffering of others, near and far. The book retells one story from Victor Tadros, in which Parfit (who, I was surprised to learn, majored in history as an undergrad) is overcome with emotion during a philosophical debate in 2014, in which the example of World War I was brought up: “Suddenly in the middle of that discussion, Derek started to cry, really quite a bit. He was crying at the sadness of all those lives ended prematurely in the war.”
This caught me off guard. Maybe it’s because I grew up playing video games that dramatized fatal WWI battles as a cure for boredom. But I would venture that for most people, like myself, the century since the First World War began has been more than enough time to make the deaths of that war nothing more than a historical fact.
The idea that it would have been so sensitive a subject as to bring Parfit to tears really demonstrates his incredible sensitivity to human life and suffering, regardless of its location in space or time. Edmonds describes plenty of other moments, big and small, where you can see Parfit’s compassion shine through.
Still, he wasn't a saint, and Edmonds doesn’t fail to address the many times that his lack of social prowess resulted in rude interactions, or his life partner Janet Radcliffe Richards’ frank reflection: “I can’t think of anything we did together that wasn’t what he wanted to do.”
But what the story of his life makes clear is that Parfit really did care, on a visceral level, about the ideas he dedicated his life to. But perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise. The opening of the preface quotes Derek, who, in his own words, "wrote about what matters.”
Toward the end of his life, it seems like Derek felt most strongly about the possibility that morality itself has no grounding in truth — a fact that was (and continues to be) popular in philosophical circles, and which threatened to render his concern for the suffering of others as arbitrary as his preferred choice in tie color (red).
Edmonds mentions one case in 2010 when he became “visibly anguished” when, on a visit to Harvard, the students he was teaching didn’t seem convinced by his arguments for moral realism: “At one point, he fell to his knees, virtually pleading with the class: ‘Don’t you see, if morality isn’t objective, our lives are meaningless.’”
And it’s that which brings me to my second takeaway from the book: Derek’s singular dedication and focus concerning his work, and that of his peers and mentees. For a philosopher who only published two books in his lifetime, I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of work that he did.
The book is full of examples: discussions with students that lasted fourteen hours, decades of constant revisions and additions to his work that nearly drove his publishers mad, and hundreds of pages of detailed feedback regularly offered to students and other philosophers only days after reading their work.
Even a charming chapter on his main hobby, photography, shows that Derek was truly obsessive about whatever was in front of him. But he was also very particular about what made its way in front of him. Usually, it was the questions that he thought were the most important in the world, especially that of moral realism: the foundation, it seemed to Parfit, upon which all other meaning in life relied.
There are many other little things to love about this book. To name a few: the glimpse at fierce institutional politics in Oxford during the twentieth century, the due attention given to the ideas of Parfit’s students, peers, and partner (all brilliant in their own right), the meticulous research process that shines through the text and its corresponding twenty pages of endnotes, and even the handful of color photos included in the hardcover: both photos of and by Derek himself.
If there’s anything I would have liked to see more of, it would have been time spent with Derek’s ideas on their own. I suspect the author figured most readers had already read Parfit, or could choose to go do so if they were curious, but I do wish that more of the book was spent laying out his arguments and the objections raised to them — even the nitty-gritty stuff. That being said, the few dozen pages that are devoted to this task do an awfully good job at it.
Ultimately, the reason I wanted to read this book is the same reason that I’m writing a review encouraging others to do so. I’m secretly hoping that, by learning more about his life, some part of Derek can rub off on others. And if his reductionist view of personal identity is correct, maybe it literally can.
I don’t think all of it should, of course; he wasn’t always the best husband or community member, and he was often needlessly myopic and stubborn in his academic life.
But I do believe that we can all stand to care much more about others. And I do think we all ought to find something that matters and work really damn hard on it.
Finishing this book left me a bit more motivated to do both.