Derek Parfit (1942-2017) (updated)


Philosopher Derek Parfit died last night, according to several sources. He was emeritus fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University, Global Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at New York University, and also had held appointments at Harvard University and Rutgers University.

Parfit was an ingenious philosopher, by all reports a kind colleague, and an especially generous teacher.

His first book, Reasons and Persons (1984), was extraordinarily influential, setting the agenda for an enormous amount of work in normative moral philosophy. His more recent two-volume On What Matters (2011) expanded on some of those earlier ideas and presented his considered views on matters in metaethics and the overall project of moral philosophy. (A third volume, in which Parfit responds to a collection of critical essays, is forthcoming.)

In 2014 Parfit won the Rolf Schock Prize in Philosophy.

In 2011 The New Yorker published a lengthy profile of him.

(I will be updating this post with further information and links to other memorial notices later. See below.)

Derek Parfit

UPDATE 1: Many on social media are sharing quotes from Parfit’s works, including passages from this page of Chapter 13 of Reasons and Persons:

UPDATE 2: Obituaries and remembrances elsewhere:

  • “An undisputed pillar of the contemporary canon of Western analytic philosophy.” — Cody Fenwick at New York City Patch.
  • “In the estimation of many us, perhaps the greatest moral philosopher in our midst.” — David Shoemaker at PEA Soup.
  • “Of all the people I have met, no one comes closer to embodying the ideal of a questioning philosopher than did Derek Parfit.” — Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.
  • “The whole philosophy community is mourning Derek Parfit. Here’s why he mattered.” — Dylan Matthew at Vox.
  • “An extraordinary and ingenious philosopher and a fascinating and delightful conversationalist.” — Adam Hodgkin, OUP’s philosophy editor when Reasons and Persons was published, at Medium.
  • “Clear, precise, rigorous, unpretentious and ingenious.” — an obituary in The Times (UK).
  • “A British philosopher whose writing on personal identity, the nature of reasons and the objectivity of morality re-established ethics as a central concern for contemporary thinkers and set the terms for philosophic inquiry” — an obituary in The New York Times.*
  • “Although he ranked among the great philosophers of the post-war period, he never gave the impression of claiming to be anything more than Derek, a fellow sojourner in pursuit of philosophical truth.” — Harvard University Department of Philosophy
  • “A philosopher who ingeniously created intellectual context and complication for others to freely move about within.” — Christian Munthe at Philosophical Comment
  • “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.” — Amia Srinivasan at the London Review of Books blog.
  • “It takes just two words to capture what made him worthy of the respect and attention even of those who profoundly disagreed with him: ‘what matters.'” — Julian Baggini at Prospect.
  • “A celebrated philosopher” — Clemency Pleming at Oxford Arts Blog.
  • “He wrote only two books… but their originality, brilliance and provocativeness not only inspired philosophers all over the world, but also influenced discussion of practical and political strategies in tackling poverty, inequality, welfare economics, ageing and global warming.” — an obituary in The Guardian.
  • “He will be remembered for his extraordinary rigor, clarity, and breathtaking insights into analyzing some of the most difficult and yet fascinating questions of human intellectual life.” — Bhaskarjit Neog in the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research.

UPDATE 3: Other links about Parfit:

* As important and as influential as Parfit’s work is, the claim in the first sentence of The New York Times’ obituary that Parfit “re-established ethics as a central concern for contemporary thinkers” gives him too much credit. Such hyperbole, well-intended as it might be, obscures both Parfit’s actual contributions and the contributions of the many other moral philosophers who were his contemporaries.

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