22nd January 2017
On January 1, 2017, Derek Parfit passed away in Oxford, just days after approving the final page proofs and jacket design for his third book, a sequel to his massive, two-volume 2011 work, On What Matters. Born in Chengu, China to doctors working to teach preventative medicine in missionary hospitals, his early ambition in life was to become a poet, but he read Modern History at Oxford as an undergraduate, and his personal passion was for architectural photography, particularly in Venice and St. Petersburg. But his life’s major contributions were as a philosopher.
Parfit’s 1984 book, Reasons and Persons, wrapped one of his photographs of Venice around 560 pages of brilliant arguments about the relationships between personal identity, reasons, and how we should treat the impact our actions have on people who have not yet been born. It inspired several generations of philosophers with the elegance with which it raised new and obviously important questions that no one else had realized were worth asking, before. And everyone who read it saw with clear vision that progress in our moral thinking must be possible, because Parfit was manifestly making it.
In contrast, Parfit himself grew to worry more and more over time about whether moral progress is possible. Rather than regarding his earlier work as proof positive, he turned to try to find new ways of settling the question of whether moral progress is possible. His 2011 book, On What Matters (volumes 1 and 2), wraps two of his photographs of St. Petersburg around 1440 pages of arguments that it is possible to make progress in moral philosophy, in thinking about what really matters, and why.
The theme of “on what matters” honors Parfit’s life and work, on the occasion of his untimely death. Reflecting on his passing brings into focus some of the things that matter. The entries that stood out to me showed rather than told, and each, I thought, told us something interesting and true about what really does matter. There were other entries with structure and style that engaged me as literature, but called into question what matters rather than affirming the answer to that question, and I imagine that Parfit, if he could review these entries himself, would similarly value the entries with affirmative things to say about what matters. And in fact, in choosing as I imagine Parfit might himself have chosen, Parfit might say that I take away from the disvalue of his death. He once wrote:
“When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.”
About the judge
Mark Schroeder (http://www.markschroeder.net) is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California (http://dornsife.usc.edu/phil). His books include Slaves of the Passions, Being For, Noncognitivism in Ethics, and Explanation and Expression in Ethics, volumes 1 and 2. He has also published many articles, including two about Derek Parfit’s famous work of moral philosophy, On What Matters. Schroeder lives in Glendale, California with his wife Maria and their two children, Caroline and William.