Monday, September 5, 2011

Parfit, carpet knight

Dice sent along this engrossing NY'er profile of Derek Parfit [gated link] -- it is really a case where understanding the life helps one appreciate the work. It is immensely revealing, e.g., that Parfit did not like mathematics:
He hypothesized that there was some relationship between his inability to read music and his deficiencies at mathematics: he was not good at processing symbols.

By far the most irritating thing about Reasons and Persons is Parfit's aversion to algebraic symbols; many of the arguments would be infinitely clearer and shorter if he introduced x's and y's, or used heuristic numbers. (See Tyler Cowen on this re Parfit's new book.) I had put this down to convention, but idiosyncrasy is a more believable explanation. His obsessive circling around the same thoughts, his sheer repetitiveness, also turns out to be a character trait. ["Every time he'd say, 'Larry, isn't that boring, don't you want some of my curry?' I'd say, 'No, Derek, I don't like curry.'"] MacFarquhar cleverly splices in bits of dialogue between Parfit and his wife Janet Radcliffe Richards; I find that I agree with JRR's positions on most cases. (Though unlike her I would cheerily agree to align myself with "those gloomy Scandinavians" who believe life, even at its best, is only just worth living.)

Two other factoids that really illuminate R&P:
  1. "Theodora and Derek were brilliant students, like their mother. ... Joanna, like her father, was bad at everything. Her teeth stuck out. She was also much too tall... [Derek's father] had a narrow life. He took refuge in two hobbies -- tennis, which he didn't play well, and stamp collecting... Parfit emerged from his childhood with the understanding that he and his mother and Theo were lucky and would live full lives, while Norman and Joanna were unlucky and would never be happy." This fleshes out the endless nattering on about full lives and crimped lives in part 4 of R&P.
  2. [At All Souls] "he had become, he realized, what psychiatrists call institutionalized -- a person for whom living in an institution feels much more normal than living in a family." This, it seems to me, makes his views on selflessness etc. fairly easy to understand, and also his inability to engage persuasively with the Bernard Williams/JRR point of view.
His views on poetry ("he developed an obsession with the idea that not only should the lines of a poem rhyme but the words within each line should have internal assonances... when he read his favorite poets ... their poems seemed to him badly flawed, because they had too few internal assonances") and photography ("he disliked overhead lights, in which category he included the midday sun") are vaguely charming in the usual nutty way but perhaps not of much interest.

Finally, there is one of these decompositions-of-personality:
he pictures his thinking self as a government minister sitting behind a large desk, who writes a question on a piece of paper and puts it in his out-tray. The minister then sits idly at his desk, twiddling his thumbs, while in some back room civil servants labor furiously, come up with the answer, and place it in his in-tray.

Cf. the street that is John Davidson's heart, the household that is T.S. Eliot.


zbs said...

The situating of this piece struck me as strange, all the "Parfit is thought by many to be the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world" and then one of his books is "the most important book in its field [moral philosophy] ... since Henry Sidgwick"—readers are expected to be so ignorant of contemporary philosophy that these statements are necessary and unqualified, inserted as asides, and not even really explained until p. 3 or so? As you suggest, the piece also works much better as a personality-profile than any sort of critical reading—seems a sloppy way of underlining "this guy is important."

Zed said...

Yes, I honestly would not have known about Sidgwick if I hadn't read Parfit. The piece seems to me quite explicitly meant as a human interest story on a Major Thinker -- e.g. no attempt is made to review the new book, or to explain the arguments of the old one -- but I suppose the guy is odd enough to be amusing even if you don't know the work. I do think the horn-tooting is necessary though, as otherwise it's not clear why Parfit should be profiled by the NY'er.

zbs said...

I guess my larger discomfort is that: if it's supposed to be, on any level, a profile of a Major Thinker qua Major Thinker, shouldn't there be either an earnest appreciation of his (absurd) goal of finally solving morality, and a thorough explanation/defense of his achievements thus far? Or otherwise, contend the actual argument of his philosophy, which from many perspectives (JRR's among them) seems extremely problematic? I guess my impression is that it's a human interest story masquerading as an appreciation of a Major Thinker. (If it's not obvious already I do not subscribe to the belief that he justifies that designation.)

Zed said...

I guess I don't have a problem w/ Parfit as Major Thinker purely on the basis of Reasons & Persons, which introduced a fair number of new ideas (the Mere Addition Paradox etc.); I think his approach to trying to reconcile commonsense morality with consequentialism -- by saying that you have to patch both for independent reasons and once you patch them they look suspiciously similar -- was also fairly novel. In fields that are at all technical it is difficult, as a rule, to justify the profile-worthiness of one's subject without appealing to authority or derailing the profile.