review of David Edmonds’s biography of Parfit

I’ve often said Parfit is my favorite philosopher, because his arguments about personal identity had a huge impact on my worldview. But all I previously knew about his personal life came from skimming the New Yorker profile, which left me with an image of him as a highly eccentric, socially-inept monomaniac. The really fascinating thing revealed in this biography is that he doesn’t seem to have always been like that. From childhood to early adulthood he sounds like a pretty well-rounded person whose extraordinary intelligence let him excel at a wide range of activities. Edmonds quotes Parfit’s friend Larry Temkin on the change:

I believe that when Derek was younger, he regarded his relationship with academic subjects as a kind of game. A very enjoyable one that he was really good at. … But, when he realized that he could be massively successful at philosophy, and then, more particularly, that he could make important and lasting contributions to moral philosophy, he was now dealing with issues that really mattered.

Edmonds also speculates that Parfit may have been autistic, masking at first but revealing his true personality under the stress of publishing his first book, and then having no further need to hide once he had the security of a permanent academic position.

(Parfit wasn’t quite a monomaniac even in his later years: he was a photographer, and he was also involved with the design of street lamps in Oxford, and he approached both of those pursuits with the same extreme perfectionism as he did philosophy.)

I find the breadth and depth of Parfit’s correspondence with other philosophers really inspiring. He had an insatiable desire for feedback on his own work and a compulsive need to incorporate and address every criticism. Moreover, Edmonds tells many stories of the astonishingly fast, lengthy, and detailed feedback that Parfit would give on the writing of more or less anyone who asked (if it was within his field of interest), even students of no reputation.

…unlike many philosophers—who see it as their role to attack the weakest links of an argument—he was more interested in identifying the seeds of a strong argument and then helping to water it so that it could bloom and flourish.