[The Cunning Tower by Kim Davis: September 16, 2011]
I read Larissa MacFarquhar's portrait of the English philosopher Derek Parfit in the New Yorker's 'Annals of Ideas' deparment earlier this month. Then I looked at a copy of his first book, Reasons and Persons (1984) which I bought when I was a graduate student and part-time teacher in the subject at the University of Bristol.
The cover is a photograph of Venice by the author. He has taken photographs as a hobby for many years. But he only photographs a few places, and he photographs them only very occasionally. Then I read the MacFarquhar profile again.
I bought Reasons and Persons after the author came to give a talk to the Philosophy faculty at Bristol. The overwhelming impression he left was one of strangeness. He sat at the head of a long table, reading a manuscript at furious speed without lifting his eyes from the page. Hooked around the fingers of one hand was the handle of a little plastic bottle from which he frequently refreshed himself. Water, I presume. He struck me as an irredeemably sober person.
And then there was the mop of grey hair. In his late sixties, he still has it.
Obviously a gifted philosopher. Perceptibly a strange man. MacFarquhar's article fills in that last impression with a wealth of detail. The countless years spent chained to his desk, first at Oxford, then in a country-house from which he rarely emerged to explore the country. The social awkwardness. The disinterest in anything as trivial as conversation or food. Above all, the bizarre but enduring marriage - which seemed for some years to be a sort of estrangement - with the distinguished philosopher Janet Radcliffe-Richards.
It would be impertinent to offer a remote diagnosis of autism, but the conclusion that Parfit is a highly intelligent but, in many ways, rather dysfunctional individual... sorry, person...is hard to avoid. I am quite prepared to aver, however, that his writing is compulsive-obsessive. I was interested to learn from the New Yorker piece that he takes as his model the legendarily fastidious, if no longer read, moral philosophy Henry Sidgwick.
Since I haven't read his Sidgwick, I can't confirm that he approaches every stage of an argument from every direction, answering every possible objection in exhaustive detail; but Parfit sure does - in Reasons and Persons anyway. I've never read the book cover to cover, but I've read the 'famous bits.'
MacFarquhar opens her article with one of Parfit's famous thought experiments, the so-called "branch line" situation. Unfortunately, she doesn't pause to explain its consequences. Very simply, a man suffers an accident which destroys his body but preserves his brain; his brothers, meanwhile, have their brains destroyed while their bodies survive. The healthy brain is split in two and one half successfully implanted in each of the two viable bodies.
It's important to emphasize successfully: success here means that the two brain halfs each maintain, with no deterioration, the memories - the entire mental history - of brother number one. Parfit's question is, which of the two brothers is the first brother. Both? Neither? The conclusion he draws is that the survival of the "self" is not as important as we thought it was.
MacFarquhar is at a disadvantage, like any non-specialist confronted by research at the leading edge of a discipline not their own. She scarcely addresses the ethical positions taken by Parfit in Reasons and Persons at all, and seems defeated when it comes to outlining the views expressed in his new book (or books).
She deserves sympathy. Although sections of the work have enjoyed limited circulation for a while, it will take the philosophical community - let alone a jobbing journalist - some years to come to grips with Parfit's blockbuster. MacFarquhar tells us that he is able to make the categorical imperative consistent with rule utilitarianism and contractualism. As a practical guide for action, that's hardly surprising. It's no coincidence that these different schools of ethics issue strikingly similar rules of behavior (don't kill, steal, lie, kick puppies...). If, on the other hand, Parfit finds in these positions a consistent account of "the good," that would be truly startling.
I can't tell from the New Yorker article what Parfit is saying in the book, and I won't be reading the book this week either.
Going out on a fairly secure limb, though, I'd estimate that this is the longest English language work of philosophy ever published. That's quite something. I can't think of any serious competition, even from Henry Sigwick. Admittedly, the second volume reprints some comments from his critics, but it's still an original work in excess of one thousand pages.
Cross the channel of course and Parfit's effort is matched pretty closely by Sartre's monolithic Critique of Dialectical Reason. Length, of course, is no merit in philosophy. But it is a temporary barrier to giving any popular account of the work.