Parfit and the Philosophical Life

Parfit and the Philosophical Life

Reasons and Persons may be the most extraordinary book I have ever read. Yet the why behind that statement isn’t easy to articulate. It isn’t the best book of philosophy I’ve read. Honestly, it wouldn’t crack my Top 10 list. It’s an important and influential book, but not on the level of something like A Theory of Justice. It’s a grind to read: long, unremarkable for the quality of its writing (though very lucid), and it has structural problems. It broke a lot of new ground in philosophy, yet while it’s too soon to have an historical verdict, I think those new directions mostly pointed to dead ends. Nor is personally that meaningful since, unfortunately, I happen to disagree with almost everything in it. Yet when you read Reasons and Persons you get an extraordinary sense that it was written by a profound, remarkably inventive, and unusual mind.

There is simply no other book I have read — not the Politics, The Republic, On Liberty, or even An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which gives one the same sense of hearing from a distinctive mind. Plato is much too good an artist to reveal himself. And while Aristotle, Hume, and Mill give readers a sense of the extraordinary power of the author’s intellect, one can imagine their voice your own, if only you were smarter. Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia has some of the same startlingly brilliant qualities as Reasons and Persons. But Anarchy, State and Utopia is a far more human book in every sense. Its arguments are more natural, more traditional and more rooted in cultural reference points. And while the author’s intellectual power is in full evidence, so too is a form of flashy, youthful conceit that can be off-putting but is also very identifiable. It’s the kind of book you write when you are keenly aware that you are smarter than everyone else. Reasons and Persons isn’t like that. There’s no showiness. No conceit. It’s incredibly unique but it never once feels like the author is doing anything but trying to figure out some very hard problems.

It’s just not easy to imagine writing a book like Reasons and Persons.

It’s hard to explain the extraordinary quality of the book. It is endlessly inventive. Parfit was a master of the thought experiment. He had a gift for creating and refining thought experiments to reveal aspects of a problem or theory in ways that no one would ever think about. Reasons and Persons is filled with these (not drawn remotely from real life), often pushing you to accept some conclusion you would never have thought to countenance. It is remorselessly argued. It is a pinnacle of analytic philosophy. Each argument is pushed to the limit, its implications relentlessly exposed with no attempt to pad, sugarcoat or ameliorate.

One of Reasons and Persons most famous arguments, for example, was called by Parfit the Repugnant Conclusion. Parfit pretty much invented population ethics, and the Repugnant Conclusion is a rigorously argued proof that the best society will have as many people as possible, all of whose lives are just barely worth living. Parfit, himself, didn’t believe the Repugnant Conclusion was right, but given his principles, he couldn’t see any way around it.

All of which is to say that I can’t imagine someone reading Reasons and Persons and not being struck by it. Not moved. Not necessarily changed or convinced. But perhaps awed. By the intellectual prowess of the author. The inventiveness of the book. And by the striking lack, in a work of such scope and power, to tie its arguments to anything recognizably a part of human life.

That’s the long background to why I was excited to tackle David Edmonds’ recent biography Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality. Not because I’m particularly interested in Parfit’s philosophy or that mission to save morality, but because Reasons and Persons has remained, for forty years, one of the most unique and remarkable books that I have read. Parfit would surely want to be judged by his work not his life, yet just because Reasons and Persons is such a distinct book, I couldn’t help feeling that knowing more about Parfit would be interesting.

And it is.

The Parfit that Edmonds describes was a legendary eccentric. A philosophy monomaniac of extraordinary dedication. Stories about him are legion. His students at every level — from undergraduates at NYU to doctoral candidates at Oxford — became used to getting massive amounts of feedback on their work. If you sent him a 35-page essay, you’d probably get back, the next day, 40 pages of comments. He was similarly generous (if that is the word) with his colleagues. His comments on yet to be published books were often nearly as long as the book itself. His feedback could be so exhausting that colleagues had to stop sending him versions of their work in the interests of being able to publish.

Parfit’s own work was similarly challenged. He wrote only two books in a life entirely devoted to philosophy. His first, and best, is Reasons and Persons. The story of its production is insane, funny, and fully ironic. Parfit was a brilliant, almost otherworldly student at every level. He was a history undergraduate at Oxford and, in applying to graduate work in philosophy, he managed to get remarkably powerful recommendations from three of the most important philosophers of that time. He spent fourteen years as a Fellow at All Souls in Oxford with no teaching responsibilities. Over those years, he produced only four (very good) articles but not a single book. Yet so important were the articles that after fourteen years he was a likely candidate to receive what amounted to a lifetime position with no teaching responsibilities.

But though Parfit lacked any trace of the acerbic combativeness common to many professional thinkers, he’d made enemies with his philosophical monomania and lack of respect for some of the college’s traditions. Nor was it easy to hand a lifetime appointment to anyone who had, after 14 years, failed to write a single book. Opponents of the appointment managed to postpone it and instead give him another 3 years on the condition that he produce a worthwhile book to get the lifetime job. It was this spur that forced Parfit to finish something.

He spent the next two years writing Reasons and Persons so that it could spend a year in production and be ready in time for his appointment to be reviewed. From Edmonds’ description, it seems no exaggeration to say that he spent every waking moment of those two years working on the book (for exercise he used a stationary bike and read while he pedaled). Unable to quite make the deadline, he solved his problem by sending the publisher early chapters so he could continue to work on the later ones. He wrote right up to the last possible minute, collapsing as he mailed the book’s conclusion to his two most trusted readers, asking them to edit and send it to the publisher as he could no longer work.

In effect, it was Parfit’s enemies who got him to produce Reasons and Persons (which did indeed net him the lifetime appointment) and without that bit of academic infighting, it seems unlikely he would ever have written anything so good.

But the all-consuming sprint to produce Reasons and Persons and the lifetime job that came with it seem to have reinforced Parfit’s philosophy mania and allowed him to relax into an increasingly eccentric life devoid of most normal endeavor. Articulate, witty, and an accomplished conversationalist when young, he became almost impossible to talk to except about professional matters. Later in his life, a colleague watched him, in astonishment, talking avidly with a woman whom he knew to have no knowledge of philosophy. After the dinner, he asked her what she and Parfit were discussing. “Apparently,” she replied, “Bernard Williams has no notion of a normative reason.”

Even many of his professional relationships suffered, though Parfit had an endless supply of ardent young minds willing to accommodate his eccentricities. One student, the day after a grueling, late night review session with Parfit, describes her phone ringing at 3am. Worried that it might be bad news from her family overseas, she answers, only to hear Parfit announce that he thinks he has solved the difficulty, explain his idea, and then promptly hang up.

His most problematic relationship was probably that with Bernard Williams. A dozen years his senior and a brilliant philosopher in his own right, Williams was a Parfit champion and the two had a strong collegial relationship. But Williams’ work went in very different directions than Parfit. Williams had a deep, humanist appreciation for the messiness of humans and the complexity of ethics. He rejected both Parfit’s consequentialism and his later attempts to weld an objective synthesis of Kantian and utilitarian thought. Hardly surprising since Williams was the 20th century’s most forceful critic of both traditions.

For Parfit, though, the fact that Williams didn’t agree with him was a huge problem. This was a product both of his profound respect for Williams and because he came to believe (not unreasonably) that philosophical convergence was a necessary aspect of demonstrating an objective ethics. Of course, Williams wasn’t buying objectivity any more than he was buying convergence. One gets the sense that Parfit’s inability to simply disagree and let it go left Williams increasingly annoyed and frustrated. Parfit was legendary for refusing to stop a discussion –following people home in the rain (uninvited) and keeping them up deep into the night. One suspects that even as dedicated a philosopher as Williams simply got tired of arguing with Parfit.

But even years after Williams’ death, his inability to sway him still hurt Parfit terribly and was a frequent topic of his conversation to all and sundry. It’s very far from the most hostile of academic relationships I’ve heard about, but it is one of the saddest.

Edmonds ends the book this way:

“Parfit sacrificed the ingredients that for most people make up a good life, the simple pleasures to be derived from family, friends, play, food, love. Because he had to climb the mountain from all sides, he missed out on so much. On walks in bluebell woods. On lounging on a beach and feeling sand beneath his toes. On nursing a glass of wine in companionship with people he liked. On joyful occasions such as birthday parties and weddings. Ordinary people believe that these are among the things that matter. Parfit presented one of his early girlfriends with a book about Keats and told her ‘Keats would have preferred to die young and be the best as opposed to living longer and being second best.”’ Accomplishment was Parfit’s most valued virtue. The accomplishment he cared most about was demonstrating that morality was objective, for if it was not, he believed his life was useless as were all our lives. The ambition of his last two decades was to rescue ethics.

We do not need to adopt Parfit’s narrow view about what matters in order to realize 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 his self-sacrifice, if it is not, then it will seem wasted and impoverished. Listeners 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.”

This echoes, I’m sure quite intentionally, a famous thought experiment not by Parfit but by Bernard Williams. In Moral Luck, Williams writes that we sometimes face decisions about which an ethical judgement can only be made after the fact. He gives us a Gauguin abandoning his family and sailing off to Tahiti. It is a risky voyage in every sense. But Williams believed that if Gauguin was able to produce great painting, this would redeem his choice. If not, then he would have no argument against those who criticized his decision to abandon his wife and children. Williams described this as a case of moral luck, because even Gauguin can’t know if his project will succeed.

Like Edmonds, I too believe Parfit had just this kind of luck. Reasons and Persons was worth the sacrifice. Yet I can’t help but wonder if, in this case at least, it’s not a terrible mistake to think that the sacrifice made the work. Much that is wrong in Parfit’s later work On What Matters, might have been right if Parfit had lived a messier life. Philosophy is not mathematics. The best philosophy, like the best novels, are not the products of a grim and remorseless abstraction but a more profound collision with what makes us human.

Edmonds’ book is certainly no product of grim abstraction. I can hardly overstate how enjoyable it was to read. I was recounting several stories from the book to someone who has no deep interest in philosophy, and she asked if Parfit’s biography would be worth reading.

It’s a question that I had to think about it.

We may sometimes read biographies of people whose achievements we don’t know, but what those achievements are typically become clear as we read about them. But the achievements of Derek Parfit are not going to become clear from reading his biography. Nor would I ever recommend Reasons and Persons to anyone not already immersed in academic philosophy. Edmonds does an admirable job where it’s necessary of providing short, clear and understandable explanations of Parfit’s work. But those examples won’t, I think, bring any real understanding of the importance of the work, the uniqueness of his writing, and his place in modern philosophy. Reading Edmonds’ Parfit without having read Reasons and Persons is rather like reading a Saul Bellow biography when you’ve never read a Saul Bellow novel. Something important is going to be missing.

Yet, for all that, I ended up answering her question strongly in the affirmative.

The Derek Parfit that emerges in Edmonds’ book is almost as extraordinary as Reasons and Persons. The Parfit you’ll find there is brilliant, thought-provoking, challenging and oh so maddening. Edmonds’ Parfit is so much like the book he wrote that he’s worth meeting even if you have never and will never turn a single page of Reasons and Persons.

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