The culture that was Parfit

“‘Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.’ This was the opening sentence of Derek Parfit’s philosophical masterpiece, Reasons and Persons… However, there was a problem. Derek did not, in fact, own a cat. Nor did he wish to become a cat owner, as he would rather spend his time taking photographs and doing philosophy. On the other hand, the sentence would clearly be better if it was true. To resolve this problem Derek drew up a legal agreement with his sister, who did own a cat, to the effect that he would take legal possession of the cat while she would continue living with it.”

And this one:

Derek Parfit was famously a fast and creative thinker. He used to advise students and colleagues to set up autocomplete shortcuts on MS Word for their most commonly used phrases to boost their productivity, unaware that very few other philosophers felt that their productivity was being restricted by their typing speed. Despite this, he published sparingly. He hated to commit himself to arguments unless he was certain of them. What he did produce however were numerous, and lengthy, drafts of papers and books (at least two of which never saw the light of day) that were widely circulated amongst the philosophical community and even more voluminous comments and responses to other philosophers on how they could improve their arguments. Likening Derek to an iceberg would be mistaken. Up to 10% of an iceberg is above the waterline, whereas I doubt if even 1% of Derek’s work has ever been published. As one of his obituaries noted ‘When Derek Parfit published, it mattered!’

Here is the link, by Simon Beard, and it offers further Parfit anecdotes, via Michael Gibson.  And here is the famed Larissa MacFarquhar profile of Parfit from 2011.


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