For David Edmonds , and for many other philosophers, Derek Parfit, who died in 2017, was one of the greatest moral thinkers of the past century, perhaps even since John Stuart Mill. Edmonds rightly believes that if Parfit’s ideas about personal identity, rationality and equality were absorbed into our moral and political thinking, they would radically alter our beliefs about punishment, the distribution of social resources, our relationship to future generations, and more. So it’s easy to see why he wants to make Parfit’s ideas more widely known outside the academy. What is less easy to understand is his belief that the best, or even an appropriate, way of achieving this goal is to write a biography of him.
There was a time when biographies of philosophers weren’t just common, but expected and even required. Following Socrates, the great schools of Hellenistic philosophy (the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Neoplatonists) all tried to encourage the pursuit of a certain kind of life. For them, philosophy wasn’t primarily something you learned, but something you practised, with a view to self-transformation. So it was indispensable in critically evaluating a philosopher to critically evaluate their way of life, for that life was the definitive expression of their philosophy, and their writings were primarily a means of achieving that essential work on the self.
This ancient sense of philosophy as having an existential telos retains some power even today. Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein from 1990 is philosophically illuminating precisely because its way of presenting Wittgenstein’s thinking as part of a broader account of his life brings out the ethical spirit that informed both, and so casts valuable light on the nature and purpose of the thinking. Admittedly, such cases are rare in the modern era, when the discipline has moved further away from spiritual concerns, is no longer a vocation but a profession, and has increasingly kept its practitioners in universities, where they are shut off from the broader currents of communal life. Even so, the lives of modern philosophers are sometimes interesting, and even interact with broader cultural movements, in ways that suggest intellectual insights. There is, for example, Kierkegaard’s transformation of religious and romantic trauma into the topics and forms of his writing, or Heidegger’s detestable entanglements in the larger historical currents of 20th-century German politics, or Iris Murdoch’s complex erotic life. A biographical narrative in such cases can contribute to our understanding if it casts light (or shade) on the philosopher’s intellectual interests – in these examples, self-sacrifice, authenticity and love respectively.
Few contemporary philosophers, however, lead unusually dramatic personal lives. And since their working lives tend to consist in a ceaseless round of teaching and administration and (if they are lucky) occasional forays to foreign hotels and conference centres, detailed accounts of them would be equally drab. Parfit’s life was pretty unexceptional in these respects. He was what is sometimes tactfully called a philosopher’s philosopher. He held no brief for philosophy as a spiritual exercise, and had no interest in contributing to conversations about morality and politics outside the seminar room. He gave no media interviews, wrote no op-ed pieces for newspapers or websites, and had no social media presence of any kind.
Parfit’s parents and grandparents led adventurous lives for a time as missionaries in the Middle East, India and China. But his childhood was mostly spent in the English suburbs, and his life followed a golden thread of educational privilege: the Dragon School, Eton and Oxford – first Balliol College, then the exceptionally advantageous academic environment of All Souls, where he spent almost all of his productive intellectual life. For four decades, even the usual demands of teaching and administration were mostly sloughed off in favour of writing – its production, private circulation and ceaseless redrafting in response to selected colleagues’ responses. Edmonds tries to wring some drama out of Parfit’s delayed transition from his seven-year prize fellowship as a young man at All Souls to a lifelong senior research fellowship, to the point of suggesting in the title of his chapter about it that it amounted to a scandal. But even aficionados of C.P. Snow novels will find the gruel rather thin, since it boils down to the college quite reasonably believing that Parfit needed to show a more substantial record of publication before being rewarded with a lifetime’s freedom from everyday academic burdens, and in the end giving him additional time to achieve it. All Edmonds has to work with once Parfit settles into All Souls, apart from a deepening interest in photography and a range of testimony to the high esteem in which his colleagues held his intellectual gifts, is his subject’s personality and character, which became increasingly idiosyncratic over the years – to the point at which Edmonds feels obliged to consider the possibility that Parfit met the diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder.
Since the public face of such a life is so lacking in dramatic texture, Edmonds must content himself with painting an extended, detailed and exposing portrait of Parfit’s peculiar personality. This raises serious issues of taste and tact; but it also creates a problem with respect to Edmonds’s primary goal, which is to communicate Parfit’s ideas. For if recounting the life is given too much space, then the amount available to explain the work will be so reduced that the chances of doing so both accurately and accessibly become very small.
Most genuinely interesting philosophical ideas are challenging to communicate, and Parfit’s commitment to a particularly pure version of contemporary analytic philosophical methods does less than one might hope to diminish that challenge. His approach is to critically evaluate morality by seeking ever more scrupulous discriminations between ethical stances and their multiple possible variants, searching for foundational premises from which a given ethical judgment follows necessarily, and attempting to construct a unified theoretical account that accommodates as many well-grounded moral judgments as possible on the basis of as few moral premises as possible.
This approach generates prose that is in one sense as clear and rigorous as Parfit can make it: each claim he advances is assigned a precise meaning, and must have survived every critical response he can envisage. But the remorseless drive to divide and conquer also leads to an endless coining of technical terminology, and enumerating of premises and conclusions, as Parfit generates long chains of arguments for and against other chains of arguments for and against ultimately discarded views, on the way to a hoped-for ultimate clarity that never quite arrives.
An insightful summariser could usefully prune away a lot of this luxuriant textual foliage, but they couldn’t justify entirely detaching the ideas that survive Parfit’s dialectical sifting from those that don’t, or from the sifting process itself. For that process isn’t simply a means to the end of distinguishing truths from falsehoods; it is part of the end, internal to the point of the enterprise as Parfit conceives of it. Indeed, the value of philosophy – whatever one’s conception of it – lies not just in the conclusions one reaches, but in acquiring the skills of reflective and critical thinking whose application leads to those conclusions, and might later lead away from them in favour of discarded alternatives. Philosophy is in this sense more an activity than a body of knowledge; and Edmonds sees at least as much value in Parfit’s way of practising philosophy as he does in the conclusions he arrives at.
Summarising and critically evaluating both aspects of Parfit’s work in a way accessible to non-academic readers would, then, require a lot of space in its own right. Edmonds’s book isn’t short, but it isn’t an accessible introduction to Parfit’s thinking either, because he has chosen to devote most of it to his life. Of its 23 chapters, perhaps six are given over (sometimes only in part) to presenting Parfit’s ideas and arguments. It’s true that Parfit published just two books in his lifetime: the first, Reasons and Persons (1984), secured his senior research fellowship, and the second, On What Matters, appeared after the more than thirty years of intense labour that the fellowship made possible. However, neither is easy to grasp, and the second was around 1900 pages long (including its third, posthumously published volume). So even setting aside the many articles he also published – still the genre of writing favoured by analytic philosophers – neither Edmonds nor anyone else could possibly provide, in such a confined space, an account even of Parfit’s most celebrated ideas that would be at once accessible and intellectually responsible.
Take Edmonds’s treatment of Reasons and Persons. He foregrounds two of its central ideas: Parfit’s reductionist account of personhood, and what is known as the ‘non-identity problem’. He provides a fair summary of Parfit’s view that a person is fundamentally constituted by relations of psychological connectedness and continuity, which are themselves related to a particular brain. These psychological relations are created by phenomena such as memories and intentions, which tie us to our past and our future respectively, and which are plainly a matter of degree (the strength of the connection varying with time). Since the relation of identity is not a matter of degree (either A is identical to B, or it isn’t) and is transitive (if A is identical to B, and B is identical to C, then A is identical to C), there will be situations in which, while we can specify the degree of psychological connectedness and continuity between a person and their future selves, we cannot intelligibly claim either that they are or that they are not one and the same person.
Parfit invokes a thought experiment to illustrate this. A person’s brain is extracted, divided and transplanted into two separate bodies, after which each re-embodied half preserves the same degree of psychological connectedness to its original owner as the brain would have had if left undivided. (Parfit makes himself the subject of the example: ‘Each of the resulting people believes that he is me, seems to remember living my life, has my character, and is in every other way psychologically continuous with me.’) Call the original owner A, and the two recipients B and C. Any available basis for claiming that B is identical to A would equally provide a basis for claiming that C is identical to A; but if both relations held, then B would be identical to C, which makes no sense given that they are plainly two distinct beings. And yet it seems arbitrary to say that A is identical to one of their descendants and not the other, and counterintuitive to say that A ceases to exist after the operation (since the same degree of psychological continuity holds between A and their descendants as it would with A’s future self had there been no operation). In such a situation, Parfit asserts, identity claims become empty; but since psychological continuity continues to hold, everything that truly matters about our continued existence would also continue to hold. And this reveals that, despite our ordinarily couching the issue in terms of identity, what really matters in both normal and abnormal circumstances with respect to our continued existence is an appropriately substantial degree of psychological continuity.
In Parfit’s view, the only alternative to his reductionist reframing – the only framework that would justify assuming that identity is what matters – would be if there were some further fact (something other than facts about our bodies and minds) whose determinate presence or absence constituted our identity: a Cartesian Ego, or a soul. But since there are no such things, we should accept reductionism and reconsider our ethical beliefs in that light. In particular, a reductionist framework makes our relation to our future selves less substantial than we take it to be, and it renders the distinction between ourselves and other persons less absolute. Parfit claims that this should engender less self-interest and more altruism, and that it might also reduce the significance we attribute to death.
Edmonds glancingly acknowledges the long historical roots of Parfit’s view: it emerges in John Locke’s work, and depends on thought experiments devised by other contemporary analytic philosophers. But Edmonds barely considers (no doubt because he barely has room to mention) the various ways in which such a view has been criticised. In particular, he simply follows Parfit for the most part in writing as if there were only one possible non-reductionist account of personal identity, associated with (very unsophisticated versions of) Descartes and Christianity. But in fact the most influential opposition to Parfit’s reductionism comes from contemporary secular philosophers who would reject either kind of ‘further fact’ account, and nevertheless regard our ordinary non-reductionist ways of characterising identity over time, and the significance of our continued existence, as perfectly coherent. They question Parfit’s tendency to privilege the psychological over the physical because it represses the fact that human beings are animals of a specific kind (the speaking, and so social and cultural, kind), rather than individual overlapping threads of mental activity whose vehicle is a brain driving the larger vehicle of its body.
Equally significant, Edmonds establishes no critical distance from Parfit’s devotion to the analytic philosophical method of exploring our intuitions about moral and other matters by the construction of radically counterfactual thought experiments. He acknowledges that this technique ‘turns the grey matter of some philosophers red’; but he simply cannot understand why, and so follows his subject in essentially ignoring the objection, even when it is developed at length by colleagues whose commentaries are incorporated into Parfit’s second book.
Parfit adored trolley problems, the kind stipulating that a runaway train will kill five people on its current track unless you change the points, transferring the train to another track on which it will kill one person: should you change the points? He was lavishly ingenious in inventing new versions of such tales, elaborating variants of them and pursuing the implications of each branch line – resembling nothing so much as a philosophical Fat Controller, sending his readers’ intuitions on a journey through the world’s most complicated train set. Allen Wood’s commentary on this aspect of Parfit’s work, incorporated in the second volume of On What Matters, is scathingly intemperate, but his main point deserves serious attention. He begins by pointing out that a real railway system is nothing like a train set. Real railway companies put a lot of checks in place to prevent the possibility of runaway trains; they also prohibit and otherwise hinder people from getting anywhere near a track, and certainly from having any access to untended points. This is in large part because they are obliged to do so by laws designed to ensure that passengers, workers and passers-by are treated with the respect their moral status as autonomous individuals requires. If the company fails to respect those laws, it will rightly be held responsible for any carnage that ensues; and if people ignore the warnings and barriers that keep them away from dangerous areas of track, then they will be primarily responsible instead.
Parfit’s and Edmonds’s brains turn red when faced with such a response, for it seems to them simply to miss the point of the thought experiment, which is deliberately to excise real-world complications so that we can focus attention on one set of morally relevant factors, then to ask how we should calculate their relative weight. It is meant to be an intuition-clarifying exercise in moral mathematics. But Wood’s point isn’t that such tales are unrealistic. It is that the stipulations that give the tale such clarity also force its readers to wear moral blinkers, encouraging an exclusive focus on ranking the relative merits of states of affairs (one dead person versus five). Parfit’s tales do not prevent the reader from ranking those outcomes by invoking factors other than beneficial consequences, for example by preferring states of affairs in which people’s rights are fully respected. But they do strongly suggest that morality is solely or essentially a matter of evaluating the outcomes of individual actions – as opposed to, say, critiquing the social structures that deeply shape the options between which individuals find themselves having to choose. What Wood’s retelling reminds us is that a non-consequentialist focus on individuals as ends in themselves – distinct centres of self-responsible significance – makes it ethically imperative to arrange public transport systems in ways that ensure trolley problems do not arise.
In other words, although Parfit’s favoured method for pursuing and refining ethical thinking presents itself as open to all whatever their ethical stance, it actually incorporates a subtle but pervasive bias against approaches to ethics that don’t focus exclusively or primarily on the outcomes of individual actions. The problem here is not that those alternative approaches are obviously superior; it is that from the outset Parfit’s and Edmonds’s methodological preferences reflect their ethical preferences in ways that load the dice against alternative ethical approaches.
The second central idea from Reasons and Persons that Edmonds highlights is the non-identity problem. Edmonds is in awe of this aspect of Parfit’s work: he points out how rare it is for genuinely novel problems to arise in as ancient a discipline as philosophy, and praises his subject for having identified such a problem. Again, however, it’s far from clear – certainly from Edmonds’s compressed and confusing presentation of it – that Parfit deserves quite such extravagant praise. The non-identity problem arises from the observation that each of us is the product of a union between a particular sperm and a particular egg. A child conceived by our parents at any other point in time would have involved a different sperm and egg, so would have resulted in a different person – my soul is not, after all, waiting in some celestial antechamber impatiently awaiting its insertion into one of an indefinite number of such unions. It follows that anything – including any human action – that altered the timing of that (or any other) moment of conception would alter who comes into existence. Parfit’s insight was that this observation appears to conflict with our conviction that we can and do harm future people by our choices in the present.
Consider social policy decisions that affect future generations. When we justify plans to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we often say that this may reduce our current levels of wellbeing, but it will make the lives of our descendants much better than they otherwise would have been, by preventing reductions in their wellbeing that we would otherwise be responsible for. But which people’s lives would otherwise go worse? If we had instead continued to use fossil fuels, the people who would have benefited from the contrary policy would not in fact be brought into existence. And the people who will suffer from that continued use could not claim that their lives have been made worse by it, because they would not have come into existence at all if we hadn’t pursued those climate-depleting policies.
This is certainly a fascinating paradox, but in what does its supposedly radical novelty consist? At bottom, it exposes and exploits one aspect of an utterly familiar piece of philosophical wisdom – the radical contingency of our individual existence. Any moment of our lives might be our last; each such moment might have had a different content; and we might never have been born at all. In short, every aspect of our existence is utterly lacking in necessity, absolutely contingent: this is part of what it means to talk of the finitude of human being. The sheer contingency of our birth shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has read Heidegger or Kierkegaard, let alone any Christian theology.
This doesn’t mean that Parfit’s predecessors thought our finitude was easy to comprehend; on the contrary, its nature and ramifications deeply challenge our ability to make sense of it. But Parfit’s approach isn’t designed to get us to appreciate the mysterious, awe-inspiring significance of procreation and death in human life; it is simply the springboard for a new puzzle in moral theory-building. For it places intolerable pressure on what might seem like an uncontroversial moral principle: that if something is wrong, it must harm some particular person or group of persons. If we combine that person-affecting principle with a recognition of the sheer contingency of identity, we have no basis for rejecting climate-depleting policies as wrong. Since the future people whose quality of life will be determined by the implementation of those policies were also (in part) brought into being by it, making that choice amounts to one condition for their having lives to live at all, so it’s hard to see how doing so makes them worse off.
To his credit, Parfit doesn’t regard this as a reason for denying that climate-depleting policies are wrong; he takes it to show that the person-affecting principle must be jettisoned. And this sets him off on a long and fruitless search for a theory that will provide an alternative basis for morally condemning such policies, and any other future-oriented action-choices (of which there are many). But there were already other ways of perceiving the inadequacy of the moral principle he jettisons. For example, who is wronged when someone’s grave is desecrated? The dead person no longer exists; and although the desecration will distress their friends and relatives, that is because of the evil inherent in the desecration, so can’t be what that evil consists in. And it’s not obvious that the only, or the best, way of dealing with the problem is to look for another universal principle that might ground a wide-ranging theory. Perhaps we should rather expect moral principles to have limits as well as a general reach, and consider alternative accounts that aim only to elucidate the heterogeneous moral lineaments of specific contexts. In the climate-depletion case, for example, we might consider humanity (rather than specific individuals at particular times) as vulnerable to harm, or the planet as undergoing desecration.
Such ideas would need extensive working out, yet Edmonds has deprived himself of the space he needs, not only to explain Parfit’s position clearly, but to contextualise it in relation to alternative treatments. He thereby discourages his readers from any critical evaluation of Parfit’s conclusions, or of the philosophical methods he employs to reach them. This isn’t a good way of conveying what philosophy is, or what at its best it aspires to inculcate in its practitioners.
The other major focus of Edmonds’s account of Parfit’s ideas is On What Matters. This vast text has two main goals. The first is to show that the three major approaches to ethical evaluation and decision-making in contemporary moral philosophy are (when rightly understood and charitably reformulated) convergent on a single perspective – that they are, as Parfit puts it, climbing the same mountain from different starting points. The second is to demonstrate that moral values and judgments are objective, because if they are not, then morality as such, and more generally the meaningfulness of our lives, would evaporate. I can, fortunately, treat both claims in less detail than those advanced in Reasons and Persons, because it is fairly obvious, both from the critical commentaries from colleagues included in On What Matters and from its wider reception, that he failed to justify either.
The first claim is, on the face of it, wildly implausible. It is no accident that students are introduced to the approaches of Aristotle, Kant and Mill as being mutually opposed: the first centres morality on the goal of living a virtuous life, the second on fulfilling one’s obligations, and the third on maximising beneficial consequences. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Parfit succeeds in creating the appearance of convergence between them only by subjecting each to a sufficiently radical reformulation in the light of largely familiar criticisms that they lose what is distinctive about their specific orientations to the good and the right.
The second claim is certainly a live possibility in contemporary debates in what philosophers call ‘meta-ethics’ – the part of moral philosophy that deals with questions about the nature of morality that arise regardless of one’s particular understanding of what is involved in living a good life. Modernity has been obsessively concerned with whether moral judgments and beliefs can be regarded as objective in the ways that truths in physics or mathematics are held to be – that is, true independent of what human beings make of them. A range of interacting intellectual and practical developments arising from the death of God, the overthrow of kings and the enhanced powers of science have rather made it seem that we can only make sense of moral value in ways that presuppose, and so depend on, the distinctive nature and capacities of human beings.
So Parfit is swimming against the tide in endorsing the objectivist view, and for what it’s worth I sympathise with his choice of direction, if we understand the situation as a forced choice between two clear-cut options. But his attempts to defend objectivism and to criticise its subjectivist opponents show a surprisingly limited understanding of the internal complexity and sophistication of the positions he is attacking. For their proponents think that morality’s dependence on human beings can perfectly well support the continued authority of its claims on us, and Parfit simply cannot take that claim seriously. So time and again, the commentators whose responses are included in the book tactfully suggest that he is oversimplifying and otherwise misunderstanding the positions he criticises; and each time, Parfit doggedly insists that the issue is far simpler than they claim, and that his position is the only one capable of ‘saving morality’.
There is an additional twist. Just as Parfit insists that Aristotle, Kant and Mill are brothers under the skin, so he claims that many of his subjectivist opponents don’t really disagree with him, or at least they wouldn’t if they fully understood what they were saying, and what he is offering as an alternative. There is an endearing aspect to this strategy, as there is to the idea that the fate of morality and the possibility of meaningful human life depend on attaining universal agreement in a highly technical debate in meta-ethics. But it hardly outweighs the intense irritation it must have provoked in those on the receiving end – as Allen Wood’s contribution makes clear.
Edmonds dutifully records the mixed reception that On What Matters received. Many reviewers were much more critical of it than commentators on Reasons and Persons had been, and there was a general sense of anticlimax (which Edmonds attributes to the fact that its main elements had been circulated so extensively over the decades that most of Parfit’s colleagues had already made up their minds about it). Notwithstanding the respect owed to the immense intellectual labour Parfit expended on the project, I suspect that few of those who share Edmonds’s estimation of him as a philosopher would deny that On What Matters falls short of the standard set by Reasons and Persons (though they might also stress that this is a high bar to clear). Privately, some might wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better for Parfit and for analytic moral philosophy if he had stuck with his earlier decision to eschew meta-ethics, on the grounds that it was too difficult for him and that other colleagues were better equipped to handle its complexities.
Yet Edmonds’s subtitle implies that this later project is the most significant feature of Parfit’s intellectual life taken as a whole, and he ends the book by declaring that the gamble Parfit took in focusing on it exclusively for thirty years paid off. A rhetorically satisfying conclusion, perhaps; but what justifies it? By Parfit’s own criteria the gamble didn’t pay off, since he plainly failed to convince the colleagues he respected to accept his claims. Perhaps Edmonds believes nevertheless that Parfit was right and his colleagues wrong; but he never says so, and offers no reasons anyone else should believe it either.
What is it that Edmonds thinks his readers are gaining by his massively disproportionate biographical contextualisation of Parfit’s thought? What kind of relation between life and thought is he trying to establish, and why does he take it to be so crucial, or even just helpful, to establish such a relation? Edmonds is frustratingly inexplicit about this, but as far as I can tell, he sees two ways in which Parfit’s life and work illuminate each other. The first surfaces when Edmonds declares that ‘Parfitian philosophy … is bound up with aspects of his character.’ He points out that Parfit’s reductionist account of persons downplays the role of the body, and says that this view was of a piece with the way Parfit treated his own body – in the words of a friend, as ‘a mildly inconvenient golf-cart he has to drive around in order to get his mind from Oxford to Boston to New York’. Elsewhere, he connects Parfit’s hostility to retributive views of punishment – according to which punishment is essentially a legitimate moral response to wrongdoing – to his apparent lack of any natural reactive attitudes (of resentment or vengefulness) to wrongs done to him by others in his life.
Although it’s hardly a surprise that peculiar thoughts often reflect the peculiarities of the thinker, both these idea-character connections are certainly striking. But they are isolated examples: Edmonds identifies no such connections bearing on the non-identity problem, or Parfit’s criticisms of Kantianism, or his views about equality. And even in the exceptional cases, Edmonds shows no desire to draw any conclusion about the merits of the relevant ideas. Presumably this is because the fact that a peculiar idea about personhood is advanced by someone with a peculiar relation to their own body tells us nothing about the cogency of the idea. Likewise, hostility to punishment is central to most forms of consequentialist moral thinking for reasons that have nothing to do with the prevalence of reactive attitudes among those thinkers. Instead they reflect the belief that responding to the infliction of suffering with the infliction of more suffering only makes a bad state of affairs worse. But if Edmonds does think that such biographical facts are irrelevant to the truth of Parfit’s ideas, why bother locating those ideas in the context of his life in the first place? By doing so, he only encourages readers to reject ideas that Edmonds values highly, on the grounds that they are merely the projection of a peculiar personality. In this respect, his biographical approach actually works against the wider acceptance of Parfit’s ideas.
Edmonds’s second way of relating life to work bears on Parfit’s later quest to demonstrate the ultimate convergence of our three main ethical theories, and to secure universal agreement on moral objectivity. Although Edmonds briefly notes that a psychoanalyst might relate this thirst for agreement to Parfit’s childhood experience of parental conflict, he sees it instead as a particularly pure expression of a genuinely valuable philosophical ideal, namely a single-minded and intensely focused search for the truth. Parfit ‘represents an extreme example of how it is possible to prioritise certain values above all others – in this case, the urge to solve important philosophical questions’.
Edmonds’s biographical narrative certainly makes two things clear about that urge. First, it wouldn’t have been easy for Parfit to prioritise his philosophical pursuit so absolutely and unremittingly without the enabling institutional context of All Souls; and second, in doing so, Parfit willingly, and it seems happily, sacrificed many of the sources of value and satisfaction that most of us would regard as vital to a well-lived human life – sources of value and satisfaction that he showed real interest in pursuing when young. For during the intense, three-year process of bringing Reasons and Persons to publication in time to secure his fellowship, Parfit fell into a pattern of ceaseless academic labour barely interrupted by sleep, let alone by the ordinary demands and opportunities of life with friends and family. That emergency measure became his way of life in subsequent decades, and contributed to the expansion of his repertoire of behavioural idiosyncrasies. He wore identical clothes every day so that he didn’t have to waste time choosing what to wear, cleaned his teeth while cycling through Oxford, refused either to clean or to allow others to clean his college rooms, avoided most non-academic social settings and more generally ignored many basic norms of human interaction. Whether or not they are helpfully characterised as neurodivergent, these choices were consciously aimed at maximising the efficiency of his monofocal intellectual life.
So Edmonds’s attempt to relate Parfit’s life to his thought ends up tracking his life’s gradual subsumption into the life of his mind – his transformation of a profession into a vocation – as the increasing absoluteness of Parfit’s pursuit of perfect philosophical answers generated a correspondingly absolute commitment to the austere form of scholarly life that made it possible. Such education in philosophy as Parfit received as a postgraduate student in Oxford in the 1960s and 1970s (he switched to philosophy only after gaining his undergraduate degree in history, but never completed either his masters or doctoral studies) plainly inculcated in him a strong version of analytic philosophers’ self-image as uncompromising seekers after truth. But only someone whose personality responded hungrily to this conception of truth as an unconditionally demanding value could have achieved what Parfit did; and here Edmonds notes a connection with his family’s missionary background without making anything more of it.
Edmonds summarises the intended moral of this part of his narrative neatly:
We do not need to adopt Parfit’s narrow view of what matters in order to realise that forfeiting the things that other people find fulfilling is a risky strategy. If the work produced is of seminal value, then the life devoted to it might reasonably be judged as worthwhile, in spite of its self-sacrifice. But if it is not, then it will seem wasted and impoverished. Readers can turn to Parfit’s work, and reach their own verdict. My own view, and the reason I wrote this book, is that his gamble paid off.
Since Edmonds and I disagree about the value of Parfit’s later work, he would expect me to believe that Parfit’s life seems wasted and impoverished. But he doesn’t seem to expect that his readers might come to that conclusion even if they see as much value in the work as he does, and that his biographical narrative of Parfit’s transformation of his profession into an all-consuming vocation provides a reasonable basis for their doing so. For it suggests that Parfit is an exemplary philosopher not because he found the truths he was looking for, but because he went further than most in a direction that is built into his philosophical ideal of truth-seeking. Insofar as his story shows that this ideal naturally seeks expression in a particular form of life, it implies that even paradigmatically modern conceptions of philosophy encourage work on the self of a kind that the Stoics or Epicureans might recognise. But it also implies that that work will result in a radically isolating, inward-looking, bare mode of existence. In other words, it suggests that the philosophical practice of which Parfit was an exemplary instance has an intrinsic tendency to impair the human flourishing of its devotees.
You don’t have to be Nietzsche to see in Parfit’s adult life a particularly stark version of an ascetic ideal that has its historical roots in the religious framework his family inhabited, but which has mutated into a variety of avowedly secular cultural forms, in science, art and philosophy. These ideals attribute a transcendent value to truth and truthfulness, and so to forms of human life that seek it, no matter what costs they impose. To the martyred Galileo and the abused avant-gardiste, we can now add the moral philosopher who cloisters himself within a cloistered institution whose founding purpose was to pray for the faithful departed. All these exemplary figures exhibit a sadomasochistic structure of self-denial, in which most of what makes life worth living is sacrificed to one’s intellectual calling. And from Nietzsche’s perspective, doing so willingly and even happily does not reduce the harm done; if anything, it merely shows how deeply this punitive impulse has been internalised.
Parfit’s early work already embodied the deliberately impersonal spirit cultivated by analytic philosophical conceptions of what reason demands, but since it also involved taking up strong stances on his chosen topics that differentiated him from other philosophers, it did nonetheless delineate a distinctive philosophical personality. However, precisely because his later writing seeks to eliminate disagreement between the major movements in contemporary ethical and meta-ethical thinking, it exhibits fewer and fewer distinctive traces of his own individual perspective even at the level of content. It’s as if what he aspires to is an apotheosis of impersonality, the etherealisation of his soul; and although in one sense he fails to achieve it, in another he was all too successful, in his thinking and in his life.
When Kierkegaard in his Book on Adler offers a highly critical evaluation of a Danish pastor and his claims to have experienced a revelation, he is well aware that he is taking an ethical risk in forensically displaying a living fellow citizen’s soul for all to read about. But he claims that it is justified, insofar as Adler is a transparency through which his age might be more deeply understood – a case study whose confusions and derangements amounted to an epigram on the Christendom of his time. Edmonds’s biography of Derek Parfit might have been intended as an entertaining and admiring portrait of a quirky exemplar of post-religious moral thinking; but it also unwittingly presents its subject as an epigram on our present philosophical age – a compact, compellingly lucid expression of its own confusions and derangements.
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