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.
  • “One of the most important philosophers of the past half century and,in the view of many, the single best moral philosopher in more than a century. His imaginative, innovative, but also meticulously rigorous arguments have transformed the ways in which philosophers,economists, political and legal theorists and others think about many moral issues. He was also an endearingly eccentric and even saintly person.” — Jeff McMahan,  forthcoming in Philosophy Now.

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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David Sobel
David Sobel
4 years ago

This is a terrible loss. He was perhaps the greatest moral philosopher of our times and a lovely person. So sad he is gone.Report

Espen
Espen
4 years ago

This is so so sad, and such a loss for philosophy. To my knowledge he was in the midst of working on some very interesting stuff, which we may now never know of. RIP Derek Parfit.Report

Margaret Gilbert
Margaret Gilbert
4 years ago

So sorry to hear this. It was quite a shock. I’ve known Derek since we were in our twenties. He was unfailingly gracious, kind—and full of life.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

I had a similar experience with Derek Parfit–in the one course of his I took, he gave me extremely generous comments that were as long as my paper itself–but this was for a paper that I wrote as a sophomore, taking my first intermediate-level course, and that was no better than you’d expect at the time. Others have spoken of how generous he was with his comments to colleagues, but it is particularly striking (more so than I realized at the time) how generous he was to a callow undergraduate. He helped make me a philosopher.

My condolences to his loved ones, colleagues, and friends. Report

Anne J Jacobson
Anne J Jacobson
4 years ago

Like Margaret Gilbert, i found this news quite a shock. We were all friends in Oxford, and the loss feels very serious.

I scarcely knew his wife, but I am sad at the thought of how she may be feeling now.Report

Glenn
Glenn
4 years ago

This is a shot in the gut. And I never met him. Such was his sublimity.

Report

Jing Li
Jing Li
4 years ago

I am so sorry to hear about this message. About two months ago I had attended his lecture at Corpus Christi College. And at that time he looked very healthy and strong.
God bless you.
Report

Gratitude
Gratitude
4 years ago

Parfit was astonishingly generous with his time. If you flip open the preface to half the books on ethics in the last 30 years you’ll see an acknoweldgement to Derek along the lines of “thank you for providing comments that were as long as the original manuscript.” He was, of course, an astounding philosopher. But his generosity in commenting on manuscripts was one of a kind, and the discipline benefitted immeasurably from these tireless efforts that cumulatively represent one of the greatest contributions to moral philosophy of the last 30 years, quite apart from his immensely influential published work. Report

Peter Singer
4 years ago

With great sadness, I learned today of the loss of the greatest philosopher I have known, and of a teacher, colleague and friend. With no other philosopher have I had such a clear sense of someone who had already thought of every objection I could make, of the best replies to them, of further objections that I might then make, and of replies to them too.

Derek’s On What Matters, Volume Three is in press and will be published by OUP n February. A large part of it consists of responses to the essays in the companion volume I have edited, Does Anything Really Matter: Essays on Parfit on Objectivity, which will be published at the same time.

Derek shared the final version of On What Matters Volume Three with me, and it seems fitting now to share the final paragraphs, which give a brief statement of what Derek considered matters most, as well as an indication of what we have lost by his inability to complete his larger project.

“I regret that, in a book called On What Matters, I have said so little about what matters. I hope to say more in what would be my Volume Four. I shall end this volume with slight revisions of some of my earlier claims.

One thing that greatly matters is the failure of we rich people to prevent, as we so easily could, much of the suffering and many of the early deaths of the poorest people in the world. The money that we spend on an evening’s entertainment might instead save some poor person from death, blindness, or chronic and severe pain. If we believe that, in our treatment of these poorest people, we are not acting wrongly, we are like those who believed that they were justified in having slaves.

Some of us ask how much of our wealth we rich people ought to give to these poorest people. But that question wrongly assumes that our wealth is ours to give. This wealth is legally ours. But these poorest people have much stronger moral claims to some of this wealth. We ought to transfer to these people, in ways that I mention in a note, at least ten per cent of what we earn.

What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.

Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.

If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would give us all, including some of those who have suffered, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists.”
Report

Dawson
Dawson
Reply to  Peter Singer
4 years ago

Heart wrenching… Had he made any preliminary progress into his work on volume 4, do you know? I suspect even his incomplete works would be of great value to the world. Like a musician cut down in his prime, we are forced to wonder at what else could have been…and lament for the unrealized, as well as for the great artist.. Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
4 years ago

Derek contributed in countless ways to the work, and the lives, of countless people.Report

Les Jacobs
Les Jacobs
4 years ago

Derek was a wonderful teacher and inspiring thinker. His enthusiasm was unmatched. I still remember vividly at the first meeting of a seminar him entering the room waving around Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics and stating boldly that it was the greatest book ever written in the history of moral philosophy. More importantly, his willingness to engage seriously with the ideas of young philosophers has been a terrific model for me throughout my career.Report

Minh Ly
Minh Ly
4 years ago

I remember hearing Parfit speak at Emerson Hall, and he shared a story about how, when he was traveling, someone asked him what he did for work. Parfit answered, “I write about why people should do what’s right.” The other man looked quizzically at him and said, “You get paid to do that? Of course we should do what’s right!” Parfit laughed and said that he felt that it was a source of great happiness to have the opportunity to think and write about questions which are so profound and important.

Towards the end of “On What Matters, there’s a moving passage where Parfit quotes Nietzsche on “how a thinker’s life could best end.” “The same life that has its summit in old age also has its summit in wisdom, in that gentle sunshine of a continual spiritual joyousness; both of them, old age and wisdom, you will encounter on the same mountain ridge of life. Then it is time, and no cause for anger, that the mists of death should approach. Toward the light — your last motion; joyful shout of knowledge — your last sound.”

Parfit lived the life of wisdom and inspired it in his own readers, students, and friends.Report

Brad Hooker
Brad Hooker
4 years ago

Derek Parfit was a philosopher of unsurpassed penetration. Furthermore, no one tried harder to persuade others with good arguments. In addition, he was spectacularly generous in giving people comments on their drafts. Such facts are widely known. What isn’t so widely known, perhaps, is the warmth and generosity bestowed on his friends.Report

Grad student
Grad student
4 years ago

Parfit’s legendary comments on others’ manuscripts contributed a great deal to the work of many great moral philosophers. But it is worth noting that Parfit was also extremely generous to many people with little eminence or station. When I was an undergraduate, and still very new to moral philosophy, I was lucky enough to attend some class sessions he gave on On What Matters. I sent him two papers by e-mail, on topics only minimally connected to the material he was working on, and was astounded to receive extensive, insightful, and penetrating comments on both manuscripts, within hours or a day of sending each. It was the most feedback I had ever received on any work of mine, and probably also the best. He liked one paper of mine, which was (of course) absolutely thrilling for me, and he gave me numerous excellent suggestions for developing this paper and building on it. He thought the second paper was badly mistaken, and spent several pages presenting some powerful criticisms of it. It was the same sort of direct and deep engagement that, I imagine, he would have given to a distinguished colleague. That he helped me and other young students in the very same way may not have been the best use of his incomparable mind, but it is a testament to his tremendous generosity and deep basic goodness. Report

Hilary Bok
Hilary Bok
4 years ago

I, too, had the privilege of taking a course with Derek Parfit as an undergraduate (on what would become the personal identity parts of Reasons and Persons), and experiencing his generosity to the brash neophyte that I was then. But it’s worth noting that his generosity and grace extended to work he did not think was that good. In the class I took, I thought that Parfit was Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!, and had, basically, a semester-long argument with him. (He seemed to think this was great, an attitude whose rarity I did not then fully appreciate.)

I thought of my final paper as my chance to make my argument against him in its definitive form. However, the night before it was due, when I was trying to nail down the final decisive blow, I suddenly realized that I was completely wrong, and he was right. This meant, of course, that I had to rewrite the whole thing, and to do so in a way that was, mortifyingly, indistinguishable from the paper I would have written had I been trying to ingratiate myself by agreeing with everything he said. (“One might make this objection, but Parfit would have this reply, and he’s right!” — repeatedly. Gack.) (Though even I knew then that agreeing with him would not, in fact, have been a way to ingratiate myself, had that been my goal.)

A few days later, I got the nicest comments. They made it clear that he thought that my paper was — I think he said not as ‘adventurous and original’ — as my earlier work in the course, and that he was quite disappointed by this, but did so in the nicest and most constructive possible way. They were not nearly as long as his comments on my earlier work — what is there to say about repeated agreement? — but they were still generous beyond what I thought I had any right to expect, while still making clear what he (accurately, I thought) saw as my paper’s shortcomings.

It was an honor to have known him, however slightly.Report

Robert Curtis
Robert Curtis
4 years ago

Derek supervised my D.Phil thesis at Oxford from beginning to end, many many years ago now. I knew at the time I was in the presence of someone truly extraordinary, but in my naïve youth, I supposed I would again come across someone like Derek. 25 years later, and I never have. The years he devoted to getting my dissertation over the finish line were among the most rewarding and certainly simulating time I have ever spent. Derek fundamentally changed who I was and who I became.
What an amazing mind. But more importantly, what a kind and caring man he was. Three years ago today, he met me, my wife and young children in Oxford to take them on a tour of All Souls. Like me, my children were mesmerized by his aura, and knowledge or history, architecture, and seemingly anything that came up. In hindsight, I am so glad we made that trip when we did.

My best wishes to janet, and my deep regrets for her loss. Report

Bart Schultz
4 years ago

Like his hero Sidgwick, Parfit was that pure white light in philosophy. He mattered to me more than I can say.Report

Leslie Allan
4 years ago

I was so sad to hear the news of the death of Derek Parfit. He was a powerhouse of ideas in modern moral philosophy and influenced so many people.Report

Bravin Neff
Bravin Neff
4 years ago

I am only a bystander, an amateur philosopher. Derek Parfit is my favorite 20th century philosopher by far.

I once wrote him using his Oxford email address, after finding it via an internet search. This was about 1998 or 1999. I told him that Reasons and Persons changed my life, I thanked him for it, and that I looked forward to his future works. He responded to me very graciously, and attached an unpublished essay on some further thoughts he was working out regarding personal identity.

I absolutely cherish this essay.Report

David Wood
David Wood
4 years ago

After meeting Derrida as a philosophy graduate student in Oxford in the early 70s I concluded that genius spoke with a French accent. Then a young Derek Parfit invited me for a chat about identity in his rooms at All Souls. I stuck with Derrida but I realized that Paris did not have a lock on philosophical brilliance. Or charm. Or generosity. Report

Eric Johnson-DeBaufre
4 years ago

I did not know Derek Parfit, although I had the pleasure of working in the room adjacent to the one he taught in here at Harvard and would see him regularly in the hallway before and after his class. But while my acquaintance with him was limited and brief, I was immediately struck by what a truly generous person he was. Despite his obvious eminence in the field, he never seemed to claim anything more than to be Derek, a fellow human being in the pursuit of philosophical truth. It was characteristic of both his generosity and his modesty that he could often be found talking enthusiastically and listening attentively to his undergraduate students well after his class had ended. We were lucky to have him among us.Report

Tim
Tim
4 years ago

I hope that those of us who are hesitant to respond to students and colleagues we don’t find all so impressive can learn something from this wonderful man.Report

Xuan
4 years ago

Encountered Parfit’s thought as part of a Buddhist philosophy course I took recently, and so I decided to write a little tribute to him from that perspective: https://polycitta.org/parfit-pratyekabuddha-f7585578c644

A truly remarkable philosopher – I’m so glad that his ideas live on with us, as he probably would have been.Report

Lois Turner
Lois Turner
4 years ago

Always enjoyed his enthusiastic participation in Status Quo.Report

Scott Forschler
Scott Forschler
4 years ago

I’ve often had the thought, reading Parfit, that if he hadn’t already existed, someone should should have invented him. His style of analysis was so systematic, so clear, that it’s almost like a natural kind. So maybe I should even say it feels like his style was discovered, not invented, but remains unique all the same, even if others try to approach it.Report

Leah Orent
Leah Orent
4 years ago

I have just heard, and I am shocked. It is hard to believe that I am writing a kind of obituary. No words can express the sense of a loss. Derek was an inspiring and engaging teacher, an original philosopher and a great human being, who touched many lives. What is left is to value his teachings and to be grateful for his wisdom and advice. I am so glad that our paths has crossed at some point of this life-journey. Sorry I did not have a chance to say good-bye. Report

Paul G.
Paul G.
4 years ago

My regards, and sincerest condolences for her loss, to Janet, who brought with her to this shore some of what must have been that deep, happy seriousness about philosophical work for which her husband was so admired.Report

Bernard R.
Bernard R.
3 years ago

I studied with Mr. Parfit. Very kind man with a special style who tried to help me out at a time when I thought school was a waste of time. Which I still believe. Sad to have read this.Report

Vivian
Vivian
Reply to  Bernard R.
3 years ago

Why do you think school is a waste of time? And what are some of the exact things that Mr. Parfit said to you and did for you in order to try to help you out?Report