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Derek Parfit


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

It seems to be a basic human characteristic to speculate on the characters and motives of people we know (and, increasingly nowadays, people we don't know who are in the public eye). We also readily make judgements. To all this activity we bring a set of largely implicit assumptions about the nature of personality and the motives of our behaviour. In his long book, Parfit makes a detailed analysis of both of these things and comes to some surprising conclusions—conclusions which, he believes, can considerably alter the way we think of such important matters as the prospect of our own death. "I believe that most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and our identity over time, and that, when we see the truth, we ought to change some of our beliefs about what we have reason to do."

This is, it has to be said, a difficult book. But there are different kinds of difficulty in philosophical writing, some more justifiable than others: "right" difficulty and "wrong" difficulty. Some writers are difficult either because their thoughts are muddled or because their language is verbose and unclear or stuffed with jargon; both situations may easily exist simultaneously, of course. Parfit certainly does not come into that category. He uses no jargon; his sentences are quite short and their meaning is always clear. He provides lots of examples - mostly imaginary anecdotes in the form of science fiction thought experiments, such as using the teleporter to travel to Mars. There are also discussions of actual states of affairs today, such as the famous "split brain" reports.

The difficulty in reading Parfit arises not from his language but from the subtlety and complexity of his thought. This is the "right" kind of difficulty. Much philosophical writing today seems to be directed exclusively to professional philosophers. Parfit no doubt writes for them as well, but he manages simultaneously to make his ideas accessible to a non-professional audience—quite a feat. (In this respect he is following in the admirable tradition of Bertrand Russell and A J Ayer.)

In the case of some books it may be possible, in a short review, to summarise their argument, but this book is not one of them. Indeed, in his introduction Parfit tell us that his book is long and complicated and impossible to summarise. "Many introductions to books of this kind try to explore the central concepts that are used. Since it would take at least a book to give a helpful explanation, I shall waste no time in doing less than this." In other words, if you want to discover Parfit's ideas you have to read his book; no Readers' Digest version is available. For the same reason there is no index of concepts, only of proper names (though there is a full List of Contents to help you find your way).

Parfit's avowed intention in writing is not merely to explain things but to effect change, not only in individuals but in society at large: a pretty ambitious undertaking. We may extinguish civilization if we are not careful, so we need to arrive at a non-religious ethics. "Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage." It hardly seems that disbelief is as widespread as Parfit supposes, at least in the USA. But he hopes, and apparently believes, that it may result in "continued advance towards a wholly just world-wide community."

I can't say that I see much sign of this myself, some twenty years on, but I hope Parfit may still be proved right. But even if he turns out to be naïve or over-optimistic, his book seems to me one of the most important philosophical discussions I have encountered. Parfit is a genuinely original thinker, who challenges all kinds of beliefs which most of us have absorbed without thinking about except in the most superficial way. His book therefore amply repays its readers for the time they spend coming to terms with its ideas. The best way of doing this, I find, is not to read it consecutively from cover to cover but to dip into it and read the sections that catch my eye and seem to resonate particularly strongly with my own preoccupations, and then expand my attention from those points. Small bites work better than trying to swallow it all at once, which leads to indigestion. A book for pondering, then, not for speed-reading. It's certainly one of those I'd want to have with me on my desert island.

26 December 2004

%T Reasons and Persons
%A Parfit, Derek
%I Clarendon Press
%C Oxford
%D 1984
%G ISBN 0-19-824615-3
%P viii + 543 pp
%K philosophy

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