Reading Parfit (edited by Jonathan Dancy, Blackwell, Oxford: 1997).
Derek Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons is counted by many to be among the most important works of British philosophy this century. The book covers two of the biggest questions of all – what we are and how we should live – and with ingenious arguments and breathtaking imagination, attempts to deal with them as deeply interrelated problems.
A collection of critical writing on the book thus seems long overdue. Indeed, this book was to have been published half a dozen years ago, as a collection of critiques and Parfit’s own responses to them. As it turns out, Parfit’s replies never came, not because he wasn’t writing any, but rather because his responses had grown out of all control, meaning that we now have three new books of his to look forward to. Despite the delay, Reading Parfit is still the first major work on Reasons and Persons though it surely will not be the last.
At the risk of criticising something for not being something else, it is worth clarifying what purpose this book actually serves. Despite the title, it is not in any way designed, or suitable for, introducing the arguments of Reasons and Persons to new readers. Although some of the essays it contains, particularly Michael Stocker’s elegantly written “Parfit and the Time of value”, do read well as stand-alone pieces, unless one is familiar with the source material, the book as a whole will not make proper sense.
Nor is it a collection of the best writing on Parfit. The essays it contains are mostly specially commissioned. As they are of a uniformly high quality, this would not seem too important, but serious students of Parfit will have to look elsewhere for the most important journal papers on Parfit. An anthology of these is still sorely needed .
However, these caveats aside, what we are left with is an impressive collection of essays which reflect Parfit’s own knack of getting to the heart of the most fundamental problems in ethics and personal identity. With contributors of the calibre of Sydney Shoemaker, Simon Blackburn, Judith Jarvis Thomson, John McDowell and Frank Jackson you would have every right to expect some first-rate writing, and you won’t be disappointed.
The structure of the book mirrors that of Parfit’s, covering the overlapping themes of self-defeating theories of rationality and ethics, the significance of time for reasoning and morals, personal identity and our responsibilities to future generations. It is the third of these, personal identity, that Parfit has become most famous for, and, indeed, the essays on this topic are particularly strong.
Parfit argued that we are mistaken in our common beliefs about what we are. We tend to view ourselves as entities distinct from our brains, bodies and thoughts We think the question of whether a future person will be me or not has a determinate yes or no answer. And we think the most important thing about survival is that we are literally the same person in the future as we are now. Parfit rejects all three of these beliefs. Parfit argues that what matters in survival is mental continuity and connectedness. By connectedness he means that there is an appropriate causal link between experiences over time. This could typically be that I remember at one time an experience at anther. By continuity he means that such links should form more or less seamless overlapping chains, so that there is not any gap in my life across which there are not a decent number of mental connections.
If Parfit is right about this, then identity doesn’t seem to matter. It could be the case, for example, that I am replicated twice over, and that there are then two people who are mentally connected and continuous with me prior to the replication. By the laws of identity, I cannot be both people, for if I were, they would be identical with each other, which by virtue of their now having different lives is not possible. In such a case, I may well have in my two replicas all I value in ordinary survival, twice over. But neither of them can be said to be identical to me.
The present collection presents a fair reflection of the major criticisms against this position. Shoemaker’s article (a reprint of his critical notice of Reasons and Persons) represents the response of many who are on the whole well-disposed towards Parfit’s theory, but see problems in the details. But the loudest voices have been those of critics who believe Parfit has made some fundamental mistakes Some have claimed that, in making persons mere products of mental events and their relations, Parfit has overlooked the essential unity of the “I”. Others have argued that people are essentially rational animals, and that our identity is therefore inextricably linked to our identity as particular organisms. Finally, there is the objection that Parfit is wrong to claim there are major practical repercussions concerning how we live and how we view our selves. All these objections are admirably represented in the volume, making it an ideal work to place Parfit within the context of the most popular alternative positions
For anyone with a casual interest in Parfit, reading the original remains the most viable option. This is a volume for the reader who has been fascinated by the richness and complexity of Parfit and is looking for insightful, well-considered responses to it.