Friday, 9 September 2011

Profile of Parfit in the New Yorker

The New Yorker recently published a lengthy profile of Derek Parfit though, unfortunately, only the abstract of this is available on-line unless you are a subscriber. On a train journey recently I had the time to read through it and thought I would share both some indication of what the profile states and some reactions I had on reading it.

The profile is written by Larissa MacFarquhar who is advertised as preparing a book on the topic of "extreme virtue" and is clearly prompted by the recent publication of On What Matters. The piece opens with a question about personal identity that refers back, however, to the third part of Reasons and Persons and it sets the tone for the general way the profile is constructed. This is not in terms of a continuing philosophical enquiry as set off by the third part of Reasons and Persons, although the piece does include much more philosophy than one might expect. Rather, it is through the focus of the profile on Parfit the man and uses this focus in order to throw some light upon Parfit the thinker. Whilst one may have some reservations about this technique it is the case that much emerges from the outline of Parfit the man that is of undoubted interest.

The opening account of personal identity repeats the general thrust of the argument of Reasons and Persons that, whatever it is "that matters", it is not "personal identity" that does so. The seminal point repeated here is that selves are not, despite the view of "common sense morality", something that are an all-or-nothing affair. This is linked to the claim that Parfit himself made that it may be "liberating" to be released from the "glass tunnel" of the self as it ensures that other people become thereby closer. One of the ways this alleged "liberation" is meant to occur is through the sense that Parfit is less a continuing character and more the source of more or less influential "memes" to use the ugly expression of Richard Dawkins. However, one of the effects of the view Parfit set out in Reasons and Persons is not merely the revision of "common sense morality" but, along with this revision, a kind of challenge to the sense of what it is "that matters". After all, as Bernard Williams and John Rawls argued in their attacks on utilitarianism, if an "impartialist" view of morality abstracts from the separateness of persons this has the general result of making morality something in which we have less obvious interest. Whilst MacFarquhar does not make this point it is noticeable that the shift in the profile from the consideration of personal identity in Reasons and Persons to the discussion of "objective" theories of reasons in On What Matters is presented in terms of the latter responding to an alleged general scepticism concerning moral truth. One of the grounds for such scepticism is precisely the problem of how morality can connect to what we might, following Thomas Nagel, call the experience of "what it is like" to be us. If we are told that there is no fundamental "us" we might come to the view that there is all the less reason to care about "moral truth". This was certainly not the intention of the argument of Reasons and Persons which had, rather, the focus of undermining egoist views of morality in a way that Henry Sidgwick had been unable to do. But responses to egoism need not be impartialist in the way the consequentialist views of Parfit have been and, furthermore, such impartialism may well itself reinforce not only scepticism about morality but a broader focus on precisely only being concerned with self-interest.

MacFarquhar presents the context of On What Matters very well bringing out how the formation of it has been a cooperative venture in which Parfit himself shaped the argument through interaction with other philosophers. She also focuses well on the extreme danger Parfit seems to feel subjective theories of reason pose to a sound sense of objective moral truth though in agreeing to set his view against nihilist pragmatism she allows him the benefit of the doubt here concerning the need for the kind of objectivism he argues for. However, the focus on the question of the contrast between subjective and objective theories of reason that marks the first part of On What Matters takes up only a very small part of MacFarquhar's profile and she soon returns to the concentration on Parfit the man, albeit doing so in a way that certainly subtly reflects back on the denial that personal identity is "what matters" as made in Reasons and Persons.

The return to Parfit the man occurs through reflecting on certain peculiarities of his which are clearly given wider significance in the profile. So, for example, Parfit's habit of wearing the same outfit everyday and of eating in a similarly routinised manner are emphasised. This element of routine is revealed gradually to be part of Parfit's way of dealing with the problem of how to economise on time but is also part of a reaction to the problem of how to avoid emotional entanglement with the everyday. Oddly, however, this element of Parfit the man is presented as part of the way his everyday practice includes a lack of sense of "boundaries" of personal identity whereas it appears to me to mark a clear way in which the boundary of Parfit is maintained since it ensures he remains at an important distance from others. Other elements that mark him as a rather singular person include the information that he lacks the capacity to form images of the past so that memories appear to him only as propositional contents rather as pictures with emotional significance. MacFarquhar points out to Parfit that absence of images need not imply lack of emotional connection and Parfit is indicated as conceding this though the real question is less whether there is any connection between these points than rather "what it is like" (to use Nagel's expression again) not to feel such emotional relation to the past. The lack of it is implied, as with the general presentation of Parfit the man, to be part of his emotional involvement with the denial of the sense of personal identity that common sense morality appears to validate. In other words, it is implied (without being stated) that part of what makes the view of personal identity articulated in Reasons and Persons appealing to Parfit is a certain kind of experience (or set of experiences) of his that set him apart from an understanding of how personal identity is constructed for most of us. As I indicated above, with the example of routinised behaviours, however, I am less convinced than MacFarquhar appears to be, that the evidence she has uncovered points in the direction her profile implies.

Just as routinisation of habits has a very clear individualising function in helping to separate one from others so, similarly, the relation to the past that Parfit describes is also an indication of a singular temperament and its singularity is not evidently one that should point in the direction of an "emotional" commitment to a view of personal identity of the type Parfit has professed. 

After these opening sallies have been ventured the profile becomes more conventional, focusing, as is common, on some elements of Parfit's past that might be thought to have formative force for him. This includes information about Parfit's parents and their commitments (to a Christian movement called the Oxford Group) that led them to settle in China. The reference to this group has a further reinforcing effect in the profile since the group that his parents belonged to had a clearly ascetic and purist character expressed in a set of absolutes. This reference, despite the later information of how Parfit's parents later left the movement contributes to the sense that there are environmental backgrounds that led Parfit himself to a view of morality that is more demanding than would be easily accepted by "common sense". However, as with many of the other insinuations in the profile, so also with this one, there is something rather neat about it. After all, why wouldn't Parfit as easily rebel against such a background as conform to its temper, its "spirit" (if not its "letter")? No explanation is attempted here precisely because the art of the profile consists less in argument than intimation.

The movement of Parfit's parents away from the early commitment to the "Oxford Group" is further presented with the effect indicated as having a terrible undermining of his father's self-confidence. This is, however, as shown in the profile, an indication of a serious emotional difference between Parfit's father and Parfit himself since Parfit junior convinced himself by a flawed philosophical argument at an early age that there couldn't be a God and seems never to have been bothered by the question since. This early indication of such independence is itself not probed, just mentioned. In Parfit's infancy the family moved back to England where it would appear he grew up with his mother working as a psychiatrist and his father "a low level public-health job" (unspecified). Since both his parents worked in careers to do with health one might wonder again about the relation of this to Parfit's concern with mental hygiene if we were to take the trope of the profile seriously but this is not ventured into.

Parfit's up-bringing was largely through boarding schools with the result that he has never developed close relationships with his siblings. Parfit is indicated as having had a "successful childhood" in the sense that he did well at school though little else is said. Aged 18, Parfit went for the first time to the US and worked for a while at the New Yorker itself. Here some incidentals are thrown in about Parfit's inability to write poetry before we bring him back to Oxford, later the same year, as a student of history before being told he subsequently returned to the US on a Harkness Fellowship. It appears from the profile that it was during the latter period that he began to study philosophy and that he opted for analytic philosophy since he could "understand" it even though he thought it trivial, leading him to return to Oxford on a Prize Fellowship that took him to All Souls.

The arrival at All Souls, in some respects, closes the biographical interlude that the profile has been led into since there is little left of a chronological sort to include after this, given that, after arriving at All Souls, Parfit was fixed for the rest of his life (until his recent retirement). This gives rise to the usual topos of the "monk-like" life of an academic in such a place though in this case there is more than usual truth in it. Parfit has, after all, had few relationships in his life and the setting of All Souls is such as to seal off his departure from the everyday and make his routinised habits sustainable. Here MacFarquhar also steps back from her posture of generally "intimating" a response to Parfit by frankly describing him (with his permission) as "institutionalised" by his relationship to All Souls (something that supports the dismissive attitude to him indicated by Simon Blackburn in the concluding paragraph of  the original version of the review of On What Matters subsequently published in the Financial Times). This again suggests, however, how important in fact certain very specific experiences and structures are and have been for Parfit, hardly supporting therefore the suggestion that his biography is the basis of his philosophical stance on personal identity.

The foray into Parfit's interest in photography is fascinating given the way both Reasons and Persons and On What Matters have appeared with photographs of places to which Parfit is particularly attached and the remarks he adds here about architecture indicate the reasons why these pictures are of buildings and places to which he has an attachment. However it is also part of a further display of obsessiveness since Parfit's photographic practice consisted in hours-long waits for exactly the right kind of light before he would take his pictures. Further the process of selection and development of them included a refined sense of selection that was, as would be expected, not to a sense of fidelity to the scene (which he presumably lacked a mental image of) as to the sense he wished the scene to make. It is, however, humanly interesting to see how much Parfit loves Venice and St Petersburg.

From here we move to a description of Parfit's interactions with other philosophers and the discouraging difficulty he encountered of changing other people's views. Little, interestingly, is said about how easy others may have found it to change his views! In connection with this the commitment Parfit has had to the life of the mind becomes more developed since we learn here of his hours-long conversations with students and the meticulous care he would take commenting on the views of others, both admirable traits. 

Afterwards we venture back into family history and learn of the early death of one of Parfit's siblings and his subsequent struggle to have her children placed with an appropriate family. Nothing is here said of why these children could not be taken on by remaining members of the family, an odd omission from the profile's biographical element. One of the rare moments of personal insight that are seriously illuminating concerns the odd relationship Parfit has had with Janet Radcliffe Richards, another philosopher, who he pursued after completing Reasons and Persons but with whom his relations largely don't seem to have been that intimate though he recently, after relating to her for nearly thirty years, married her. Again the lack of emotional connection suggested here does indicate a singular character in Parfit, though it is less clear how to evaluate this (particularly in conjunction with the suggestion that he nonetheless suffers at the sight of the suffering of others). For some reason snatches of argument between Parfit and Richards are subsequently interspersed in the profile though it is less than clear what the reader is supposed to make of them.

Philosophy is explicitly returned to with the suggestion that Parfit only began seriously reading Kant after having written Reasons and Persons. From this we learn Parfit's antipathy to Kant's conception of autonomy (which he appears here to confuse with the notion of transcendental freedom) and some of the obtuse remarks that appear also in the preface to volume 1 of On What Matters are repeated including the sense that Parfit has that Kant is, apparently like himself, an "emotional extremist". The rationale for this remark appears to reside in the sense that Kant's appeals to a method in philosophy that would have lasting results is less likely than Sidgwick's more modest self-assessment. This is coupled with a contrast between Sidgwick's allegedly flatter temperament and his achievement resting on a kind of non-genius mentality. All of this is pretty hack cod psychology and Parfit appears to find it sufficient as a way of contrasting the Methods of Ethics with the Groundwork. Disappointing and paltry as such observations are they do appear to tell us a fair few things about Parfit the man (and underline, again, the sense in which he is certainly a definite individual even if not always one that one can affirm a liking for).

The "emotional extremism" Parfit alleges in Kant is part of the temperamental reason he gives for coming to appreciate Kant. However the introduction of the relationship to Kant is not itself explored in serious detail in the profile since the point is rather to have this encounter as a preface to the general methodology of On What Matters, the methodology of reconciliation between the main substantive moral theories of our time that it wishes to achieve. So at this point the profile repeats the familiar story of how, in 2002, Parfit began the project of laying out his general theory of such reconcilation by means of the Tanner Lectures and subsequent versions of the work that eventually became On What Matters. Here philosophers are unlikely to learn much since the suggestion that the traditions can be reconciled clearly requires a lot of work in On What Matters and the quick rendition of how the formula of universal law can, for example, be reformed, is presented in an offensive short-hand here. 

The profile moves on from Parfit's "triple theory" to an account of Parfit's personal relations with Bernard Williams and the contrast between the two brings out well the sociable character of Williams in contrast to Parfit's solitary habits and also shows clearly how Parfit did have the potential for a kind of homoerotic admiration for Williams although the profile is careful not to state the relation was so conceived by Parfit.  Here also one notes a certain clear capacity for self-deception on Parfit's part as when we are told he discovered after Williams' death that it only "appeared" that Williams disagreed with him as they really didn't since Williams simply lacked the sense of the concepts that Parfit correctly grasped.

The biographical element that is most recent in the profile concerns the break-down Parfit appears to have suffered after completing On What Matters and marrying Richards. This is here put parallel with his wooing of Richards after completing Reasons and Persons since it suggests a crisis besets him whenever he is not working on a major project. Oddly, however, less time is spent probing this point than in venturing back to an account of the major problem of the fourth part of Reasons and Persons, the problem of future generations, especially as retailed in the case of the Repugnant Conclusion. The account of this at the conclusion suggests that Parfit will be returning in future to the central difficulty of the Non-Identity Problem that afflicts, on his view, the understanding of future generations (and itself parallels the problem of personal identity). Concluding with this suggests something about the legacy Parfit may have though, characteristically, the profile does not spell out what, if any, lessons, we have to learn from this.

As my summary here suggests the profile is long and goes a considerable way in introducing the work of a serious and major contemporary philosopher to the public and the New Yorker is to be commended for publishing it. However, the intimations that there is something to be learned by contrasting the philosopher with the man, whilst not without foundation, are insufficiently explored and some of the intimations given here are hardly supported by careful thinking about either the circumstances of the man or the nature of his thought. Whilst such pieces are a good way of encouraging the general public to start to take philosophers more seriously it would be even better if the construction of them was itself given greater philosophical thought.

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