Remembering Derek Parfit

I first met Derek Parfit the summer I was 19, when my college boyfriend and I spent a day visiting Oxford. Parfit’s Reasons and Persons was the only thing written by a living person on our freshman philosophy syllabus at Yale. Passing All Souls College, we went to the porter’s lodge and asked, absurdly, if we could see him. The porter said Parfit was teaching a seminar in the Old Library. We stood outside the door, pressing our ears to it, hearing nothing but murmurs, debating whether to go in. Eventually the seminar ended and people started to come out. Realising we had no idea what Parfit looked like, we asked every man leaving the room if he was Derek Parfit. They all laughed: they must have been twentysomething graduate students. Finally, out came a man with a mane of white hair and a bright red tie tucked into his trousers, wielding a large Smirnoff vodka bottle. We introduced ourselves.

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The whole philosophy community is mourning Derek Parfit. Here's why he mattered.

Derek Parfit, who died at age 74 on Sunday evening, was not the most famous philosopher in the world. But he was among the most brilliant, and his papers and books have had a profound, incalculably vast impact on the study of moral philosophy over the past half century.

His work did not dwell on topics of merely academic interest. He wrote about big topics that trouble everyone, philosopher and layperson alike: Who am I? What makes me “me”? What separates me from other people? How should I weigh my desires against those of others? What do I owe to my children, and to the future in general? What does it mean for an action to be right or wrong, and how could we know?