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.


I love the first story.

Sounds like Lars Onsager, who kept a file cabinet full of physics problems he had solved but not felt were worth publishing.

The same was true of Richard Feynman, which graduate students discovered when they cleared out his files after he died.

As Betrand Russell commented about Wittgenstein's second period, Wittgenstein got tired of serious thinking, preferring to play word games instead.
I'm not saying I agree with Russell's assessment. He was wrong about a number of things (he didn't get the point of Berkeley's argument, didn't get Marx, or Nietzsche, for example, or at least not if A History of Western Philosophy is any indication.)

What was his net worth? Philosophy is a pauper's profession.

And this is important why, GK? Just how utterly trivial are you?

Bertrand Russell inherited stocks in armaments industries (if memory serves). For pacifistic reasons, he gave them to T.S. Eliott. As Larry Holmes said about Muhammad Ali, not many people are willing to give up what they have.

Bernard Williams is the classical economists' philosopher. And, it seems, Trump's too.

Love the first story. Sounds like a perfect example of the sentence itself.

But first story makes little sense if Parfit really cared about time. Instead of drafting a legal agreement with his sister, why not simply begin the first sentence by saying, "Like my sister's cat"?

It's a shame he didn't open up his life to a greater variety of experiences, the companionship of a cat - one has her paw on my forearm as I type this, very slightly disabling me - being among the easiest. If he had, he'd have known cats are stoics, not hedonists. What a crazy thing to get wrong. But as above poster suggests, maybe he is being playful. He "wanted" at that moment to say something unfounded.

I am in the middle of re-reading Catch 22. The first sentence would have been right at home anywhere in that book. Perhaps in one of the chapters about Milo.

Heh. The entire first story would fit in Catch-22 pretty well.

I said "sentence"--i meant the whole first story.

What does Simon Beard know about cats?

NO ONE owns cats.

Alternatively: was Parfit a naïve literalist? He could've written "Like my sister's cat . . ." (if his sister's cat was so disposed): did some pesky editor simply delete the possessive noun to make DP seem human?

--or DP could've written "Like a cat . . .", a construction perhaps few cats could quibble with.

Other alternatives: "Like some cats . . .", "Like many cats . . .". (Some cats are held in captivity, whether they much mind or no.)

--and then there's the case of Erwin Schrodinger:

Or he might have meditated on the beauty of cats, and how aesthetics might be connected with our ideas of right conduct. Rather than suggesting an inside knowledge of a cat's thoughts, perhaps more humbly recognizing that a cat's thoughts are what they need to be to make those better-rather-than-worse decisions he then invokes. And why does a cat, no matter what it decides to do - nap, hunt, cuddle - look so beautiful to many of us? Is it because it very distantly reminds us and echoes what is right, generally? Aesthetics must be *very* important, though I don't know that philosophy is the field where we might ever discover why that is.

Parfit's second book, "On What Matters" has profound implications for economics which have not yet been followed through. He wrote "“As Keynes remarked, many politicians act in ways that show them to be the slaves of some dead economist. Many economists, we can add, think in ways that show them to be the slaves of some dead philosopher”. The dead philosopher he had in mind was Hume, who said “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”. This notion, that desires cannot be questioned, has been fundamental to modern welfare economics since the "marginal revolution" of the mid-19th century. In the opening chapters of his book, Parfit shows the incoherence of Hume's subjectivist approach.

As an example of the issues it raises, consider Mariana Mazzucato’s excellent recent book, “The Value of Everything”. The book’s thesis is that many of those who describe themselves as “wealth-creators” can more plausibly be seen as “value-extractors”, or, to put it more bluntly, parasites. Mazzucato describes how different theories of value have evolved, each of which takes a different view of what kinds of activity create value. However, Mazzucato stops short of offering any new theory of value. If one accepts that whatever meets some desire creates value, however questionable that desire might be, one must admit that, for example, fund managers, or, come to that, drug dealers, are indeed wealth creators.

With his powerful argument for an objective, rather than a subjective, account of reasons, Parfit laid the basis for new thinking about value. But so far, I'm not aware that anyone has built on that basis.

I doubt Hume is who either Keynes or Parfit had in mind. Hume’s account of value won’t give a foundation to modern economics as he did not offer any commenserable values for interpersonal comparisons. He did suggest a labor theory of value in one place but that is isolated. The point about reason is about motivation and the nature of values. Parfit obviously was not much for a Hume but that had more to do with moral realism.

It’s true that Hume wasn’t interested in measuring desires – that came much later with Jevons. It’s also true that Hume would have accepted his friend Adam Smith’s theory of value. But Parfit’s point is that Hume’s notion that “reason is the slave of the passions” – that desires can’t be questioned – lies at the heart of today’s welfare economics. (Whether Smith agreed with Hume on this point is doubtful – when Smith writes “how many people have ruined themselves by laying out money for trinkets of frivolous utility?” he seems to accept that some desires are unreasonable, and their satisfaction does not add to welfare.)

Hume did not say desires can’t be questioned. The quote is from an argument about causal force of reason. We getting off topic so I will leave it.

There are now papers beginning to float around on the economic implications of Parfit's thought. I cannot say more for an obvious reason.

I will take this opportunity to brag that the journal I currently edit, the Review of Behavioral Economics (RoBE), has now gotten its first impact factot, 1.07. This compares to 1.06 for Games and Economic Behavior, 1.64 for Experimental Economics, 1.31. for JEBO, 0.84 for Journal of Economic Psychology, and 0.64 for Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics.

So, this so-called philosopher, who needs to be certain about what he is saying had no problem with creating a false statement (his cat) and then creating a legal fiction to cover the (intentional) lie. Gosh, definitely someone (whose work) I will try to avoid. 'Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do’ would hardly (imho) be diminished if it were to be changed to 'Like most cats, I often simply do what I want to do’ - but that would be for a non-post-factual world were intellectual honesty was presumed and violations were dealt with harshly.

What evidence is there for "most"?

Oh, sorry. I mostly repeat an earlier post. Great Minds.

Are all blog posts of TC just mood affiliation - American/English hegemony ? To talk about a work, you can only talk about it if it's been translated in American/English? You can't be autistic to that point. Reminds me of Nadella - turning American even in his baldness à la Bezos. Petrodollars, academic dollars!

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