Remembering Derek Parfit

Amia Srinivasan

I first met Derek Parfit the summer I was 19, when my college boyfriend and I spent a day visiting Oxford. Parfit’s Reasons and Persons was the only thing written by a living person on our first-year philosophy syllabus at Yale. Passing All Souls College, we went to the porter’s lodge and asked, absurdly, if we could see him. The porter said Parfit was teaching a seminar in the Old Library. We stood outside the door, pressing our ears to it, hearing nothing but murmurs, debating whether or not to go in. Eventually the seminar ended and people started to file out. Realising we had no idea what Parfit looked like, we asked every man leaving the room if he was Derek Parfit. They all laughed: they must have been twenty-something graduate students. Finally, out came a man with a mane of white hair and a bright red tie tucked into his trousers, wielding a large Smirnoff vodka bottle. We introduced ourselves.

Without a trace of annoyance, Parfit signed our books and offered to show us round the college. In the 15th-century chapel he pointed out the hammer-beam roof and gilded angels, the Gothic reredos and its 19th-century statues. We talked about moral philosophy. He said he couldn’t understand why Shelly Kagan, a philosopher at Yale he deeply admired, believed in moral retribution. ‘I just can’t believe that anyone deserves to suffer,’ he said, shaking his head. After the tour he gave us detailed instructions on how to get back to the railway station, anxious that we didn’t get lost, and wished us well.

Five years later, as I was starting doctoral research at Oxford, I was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls. Parfit – who had been a fellow there since 1967 – was appointed as my college adviser. He wrote to me suggesting we have lunch in college. Over the soup I tried to describe our first meeting, hoping that he would recall my silly earnestness and his enormous generosity. At first he seemed not to hear me. When I tried again, he changed the subject. That our lives had intersected before held no interest for him. He had simply been kind to me then, and now was kind to me again; one thing didn’t have anything to do with the other.

Instead he wanted to talk about what I intended to do with the seven years of my fellowship. He suggested I spend the first year reading novels, ‘sowing seeds’. He asked if I would like to comment on his work in progress. (The next day I received two hefty boxes of draft pages of the book that would be published in 2011 as On What Matters.) We talked about meta-ethics, and I told him I was inclined towards anti-realism, the view that moral truths are in some sense dependent on the human mind. He was visibly distressed by this – he said it implied that there was nothing wrong with torture – and I had to recant in order to stop him from leaving. After the soup was cleared we got up, and Derek took two rolls from the bread basket. He placed them on the bench where we had been sitting, to save our seats. When we returned with plates of salad he picked up the rolls and put them back in the basket.

Until his death on 1 January, Parfit was widely thought to be the most important living moral philosopher. He was loved and admired and is now mourned by even those – including me – who have a strong aversion to the kind of moral philosophy he inspired: broadly utilitarian in spirit, concerned with the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain, often indifferent to the particularity of individual persons, interpersonal relationships and human institutions. I find it hard to explain why this kind of moral philosophy, when done by Parfit, was not irksome in the way it so often is in other hands. Perhaps it has something to do with Parfit’s complete lack of smugness; one never got the sense, in his writing or in conversation, of a philosopher delighted with the reductive power of his own system. There was also his capacity for aesthetic appreciation, not just of nature (he had a particular love of bluebell woods) and architecture (he was an obsessive photographer of buildings), but of philosophy itself. Discussing in the LRB of 22 January 1998 the question of why the universe exists, he wrote:

Even if these questions could not have answers, they would still make sense, and they would still be worth considering. I am reminded here of the aesthetic category of the sublime, as applied to the highest mountains, raging oceans, the night sky, the interiors of some cathedrals, and other things that are superhuman, awesome, limitless. No question is more sublime than why there is a Universe: why there is anything rather than nothing.

Finally there was the fact that Parfit’s philosophy was a deeply personal affair. There is something odd in saying this, since he is most famous for the view that personal identity – the conditions under which you continue to exist as you – does not, contrary to appearances, really matter. We are psychological bundles of memories, inclinations, intentions. In the future there will be bundles who will go by my name, who will share many of my memories, and act on some of my intentions. They will think they are me. At a certain point – my death – there will cease to be any such bundles, though there will be other bundles who remember me and perhaps even carry on some of my projects. From this perspective, the boundaries between ourselves and others begin to dissolve. So too, perhaps, does the horror of my death. In Reasons and Persons, Parfit wrote that when he used to believe that personal identity mattered, he ‘seemed imprisoned’ in himself. ‘My life seemed like a glass tunnel,’ he wrote,

through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

Until a year ago, Derek read everything I wrote for publication, including my pieces for the LRB, and usually sent them back to me with detailed comments within a few hours. He would point me towards a relevant passage of Nietzsche, or suggest that a metaphor was too violent, or raise a fundamental philosophical objection. I wasn’t special to Derek; many philosophers, young and old, have similar stories. Sometimes I would pass by him in college and he would smile at me in a way that didn't entirely convince me I was recognised.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Derek didn’t see what is obvious to many others: that there are persons, non-fungible and non-interchangeable, whose immense particularity matters and is indeed the basis of, rather than a distraction from, morality. But in not seeing this, Derek was able to theorise with unusual, often breathtaking novelty, clarity and insight. He was also free to be, in some ways at least, better than the rest of us. After he retired from All Souls, Derek didn’t like to go to the college common room, so we had our last meeting in my study. While jostling his papers he knocked over a glass. He was unfazed. We sat and talked for a few hours, his feet in a pool of water and shattered glass.


  • 6 January 2017 at 5:06pm
    asterisk says:
    Thank you for sharing this a bit different account which incidentally matches in much degree how I viewed Parfit myself.

  • 6 January 2017 at 9:21pm
    suetonius says:
    Did Prof Parfit really not see that persons are non-interchangeable? I somehow don't think that is the point. I think he just thought their "immense particularity" doesn't matter, when it comes to morals.

  • 7 January 2017 at 8:37am
    Joe Morison says:
    (I write as an amateur enthusiast.) You are not being unfair to Parfit because he would say, I think, that ‘what is obvious to many others’ is an illusion. The Parfit/Buddhist view (PB) of personal identity is against the non-fungible view (NF). The difference easily seen with a thought experiment in a setting familiar to us all.

    The USS Enterprise comes into Earth orbit and offers you the chance to beam up to them for a week’s vacation. Do you go? Well, yes, obviously. Wait a minute, shout the NFs, it won’t be you who appears on the Enterprise, you’ll be dead. The transporter works by registering the position of every bit of energy and matter that makes you up, in the process it destroys your body and then creates an exact copy of it on the Enterprise. The being on the Enterprise thinks they are you (unless you’re an NF-ist, in which case ‘you’ will need a lot of therapy): they have a scar on their knee identical to the one you got falling off your bike aged four and their ‘memory’ of it happening is just like yours, they have a half digested curry in their gut indistinguishable to the one you ate last night, in fact in every measurable way they are just like you; but, according to the NFs, they are not you.

    So, what do you do? The two sides don’t just disagree, each thinks the other is failing to see something very obvious: NFs say transporter beams kill; PBs say if that’s what you want to call it then we don’t mind dying as long as an exact copy is created (but we, of course, do not do not call it dying), NFs think that insane. It is not a matter of argument, more like religious conversion - are you prepared see the self as a fiction?
    I’m with Parfit. I was more than halfway there, through studying Buddhism, before I read him; and like him, and I think most PB-ers, I have found this view very liberating. In short: ‘Beam me up Scotty!’

    • 9 January 2017 at 9:44pm
      Saksin says: @ Joe Morison
      The enlightened Gautama never denied the person or the self. Our only witness to his doctrines, the posthumously compiled Sutras and the Vinaya, show him unselfconsciously using the first person pronoun, and contain not one single statement of his to the effect that the self does not exist. What he did deny, in his doctrine of Anatta, is the immaterial, immortal soul or self or Atma of his Brahminical rivals. What has erroneously been interpreted as his denial of a self or person is his many, varied, and oft repeated instantiations, under the classificatory scheme of the five Skandhas, of what the self is NOT (i.e. "I am not x, x is not me or mine" and so on).

      All this was noted, known, and broadcast by an early and major school of Indian Buddhism, the Pudgalavadins (from sanskrit Pudgala, 'person', i.e. "the personhooders"). They were eclipsed - even suppressed - by schools for whom the intellectual sensationalism of a radical denial of self became irresistible, and today Pudgalavadin writings survive only in a few fragments in Chinese translation.

    • 11 January 2017 at 6:40am
      kyoung21b says: @ Saksin
      Though is it not uncontroversial, as was my impression, that the Buddha while perhaps never denying the self, taught of the non existence of an independently existing self ? That is certainly one the pillars of all the Mahayana schools.

      Re. Parfit, I have read much that refers to him, but never actually read him. After this lovely memorial piece and a few others I've encountered that sounds like something I should rectify.

  • 9 January 2017 at 2:39pm
    Jan Sand says:
    This rather old problemof being beamed upinvolves the obvious difficulty of distinguishing a reproduction from an original. The question that arises is whether you are something unique no matter how perfect a copy may be or if multiple copies equally perfect are all you. There is a continuity of the sense of self existencein a unique self. Undoubtedly an external observer can accept a perfect copy as the original. But the internal self is an observer that will not transfer to a copy. To extend this a bit, this internal self is not perpetual and changes with each new encounter as it proceeds through life. So the word "self" is an illusion since what I am today is not what I will be in the future. Accepting the four dimensional concept of time-space the self exists in different forms as we move through time and, like any three dimensional object, one cross section may be quite different from a different one.

    • 9 January 2017 at 9:46pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Jan Sand
      And yet today's self is pretty much the same as yesterday's, so that rather than being significantly different from moment to moment, the "self" is cumulative, with a new thin layer depending on recent experience (which is often repetitive) being deposited upon a very thick older accretion of layers. (See Flann O'Brien's "The Third Policeman" for a comical-mystical version of this). The present does modify the past (memories) in our minds, but another person who knows us very well would be able to point out some of these modifications (falsifications?) of an individual's memory. He or she is more "objective" than you, though equally subjective in his or her mind when this happens ("others" are a sort of "reality check" when it comes to the vagaries of our own consciouness). One can imagine that a truly traumatic experience can render very important changes in a person's mentality and how he or she appears to others as well, so this points to a dramatic "alteration of self", but it is the older continuous "self" that is modified (and remembered by oneself and others, too).

  • 9 January 2017 at 11:34pm
    suetonius says:
    I would say the non fungible folks have something real to deal with. Quantum teleportation has been done, for individual particles. You end up with another particle with the exact quantum state as the first one, in a different location. There's a reasonable argument that exact quantum state means "the same thing." So if you're NF, you have to allow for exact copy, where exact means EXACT. You can end up with multiple copies. To use the star trek example, what if they teleported you, but didn't get rid of the original? Are both the copies you? I would think they certainly would think they are.

    Interestingly, it's information which is "teleported" it's not a physical thing. Also, it wouldn't help with star trek, since you must first have two entangled particles. So, if you wanted to beam Kirk down, first, you would have to entangle every particle in his body with another particle, then send the entangled particles down to the planet. Of course it would be much easier just to send Kirk down to the planet....

    • 10 January 2017 at 5:17am
      Joe Morison says: @ suetonius
      In Reasons and Persons Parfit considers a wide range of possible transporter scenarios. In the one you mention, he would not say that there are two copies of you but rather that you have split into two independent people. Instead of a single lifeline leading from birth to death, it is now something more like a tuning fork - a single line that bifurcates at the relevant moment.

  • 10 January 2017 at 1:17am
    suetonius says:
    Sorry, minor correction, it's been a while since I though seriously about QM. You wouldn't have to entangle particles with kirk's particles, you just need as many pairs of entangled particles as kirk has particles. You use the entangled particles to send the state of a third particle. It's still easier just to send kirk.

  • 11 January 2017 at 8:53am
    Frej Klem Thomsen says:
    I don't know whether saying that Parfit didn't see what is obvious to many others is unfair (fairness is such a terribly slippery concept), but I do think it can charitably be called uncharitable. Parfit certainly wasn't unaware that this was a view most persons hold, or unable to see its intuitive appeal. As he makes clear in one of the passages Srinivasan quotes, it is a view that came naturally to himself in his younger days.

    But Parfit thought longer and harder about whether the view is true than arguably any other thinker to date, and came to a different conclusion. As everyone familiar with his work knows, he produced immensely powerful arguments that our commonsense beliefs about the constitution and moral importance of personal identity are mistaken. It seems to me that there is an overwhelmingly strong case that rather than reflecting his inability to see what is obvious to many, his views reflect his ability to see what is not.

  • 12 January 2017 at 8:08pm
    jdtatum21 says:
    Thanks for the article. Which novels did Parfit recommend you read?

  • 15 January 2017 at 5:16pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    It seems to me that there is a great deal of evidence from our natural lives that points to the “interchangeability” or fungibility of human beings. We celebrate our particularity, but from many points of view each of us is also a “generic human being”. That is, we share a common biology, physiology, and evolutionary history, and, as we move from contemplating individuals to thinking about larger groupings of people (families, clans, tribes, nations, cultures) we find that we share a tremendous amount with our fellow group members, including our mental lives (the stuff we think about and talk to ourselves about) – if we did not we could not communicate with each other or co-operate in common enterprises. The self as a “bundle” of material and mental phenomena captures some of this – all the bundles are put together by similar experiences that most people have, so the bundles are very similar – my “unique self” overlaps with yours to a very large extent.

    One of the most powerful of these “mental phenomena” is language, which is thoroughly social and collective. Of course, like other mental activities, language has a strong material basis (i.e., mastering and using our language’s system of phonemes out of which we build words, and then using the words to build statements that can become increasingly abstract and seemingly bereft of ties to the real world around us). So we have a physical mechanism for making articulate sounds and then a “mental (or cultural) mechanism” for combining these in a way that conveys meaning(s). Many shared meanings are highly questionable (e.g., unrepentant sinners go to hell, which is a place of everlasting punishment). Others we all assent to right away because they are primarily ostensive (e.g., that’s a black dog over there behind that fence, and he’s dangerous); the first part we confirm with our eyes, the second part we believe based on the experience of the speaker (he has no reason to lie, as far as we know). “Unique” use of language (in which meanings become very cloudy, though often emotionally charged) is the privilege (or pastime) of the artist who uses language as his or her medium (or the gifted raconteur who has never dreamed of writing anything down). It would seem that that language often conveys meanings that are not as clear or solid as things we report as a result of observing the world, using all of our senses (not just vision), though there are many “bad reports” from our senses too (mirages, hallucinations, optical illusions – these are the physical counterpart of delusions). So language brings us together and can also drive us apart and lead us to believe that as individuals we are far more “unique” than we actually are.

    A lot of this seems implicit in Parfit’s ideas, though I don’t know if he ever indulged in ruminating over these “statistics of human living”. Think of the grisly wisdom of Stalin, who is alleged to have said something like, “A man’s death is a tragedy – a million deaths is a statistic.” (Of course, this softened the blow to his ego that he was in fact the author of millions of deaths – no tragedy in his mind, just the wheels of history grinding “forward”).

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