A Memory of Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit, an influential moral philosopher died on January 1st this year. He was evidently an extraordinary individual, both very self-absorbed and very generous,  as well as a philosopher of considerable talent. His importance goes beyond ethics into metaphysical and philosophy of mind questions of personal identity, questions of social welfare and justice, questions of rational choice and maybe some other things I have overlooked.. A few stories have come out in obituaries and comments since his death. Here is a memory passed onto me on condition of strict anonymity.

Parfit told me that I should pursue manual labor, a joking reference to Wittgenstein’s advice to his students which I actually did not find funny. Later he actually read something I wrote and changed his mind.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an extreme character as well as a extremely creative figure in philosophy, liked to tell students he did not think had genius to do manual work.

Parfit is most famous for his book Reasons and Persons (1984), which I have read myself and I can recommend even though it is a bit outside my normal range of reference, that is to say I believe it to be a distinguihed work of philosophy with wide appeal. Enthusiasts for Parfit regard his later book, On What Matters (3 volumes, 2013-2017) as a master work which towers over other works of ethics for over a century. My brief encounters with the text do not support this view and Reasons and Persons appears to be still much more influential. It is at least worth noting the enthusiasm that does exist for Parfit’s later book and acknowledging the possibility that it will surpass Reasons and Persons in influence.

I cannot see it overtaking Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy or Morals, Emmnuel Lévinas’ Totality and Infinity, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, Charles L. Stevenson’s Ethics and Language, W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good, Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Henri Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion, R.M Hare’s The Language of Morals, and other major works of various schools in its influence, but there are intelligent well informed people who have claimed otherwise.

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