Derek Parfit (1942–2017) is the most famous philosopher most people have never heard of. Widely regarded as one of the greatest moral thinkers of the past hundred years, Parfit was anything but a public intellectual. Yet his ideas have shaped the way philosophers think about things that affect us all: equality, altruism, what we owe to future generations, and even what it means to be a person. In Parfit, David Edmonds presents the first biography of an intriguing, obsessive, and eccentric genius.
Believing that we should be less concerned with ourselves and more with the common good, Parfit dedicated himself to the pursuit of philosophical progress to an extraordinary degree. He always wore gray trousers and a white shirt so as not to lose precious time picking out clothes, he varied his diet as little as possible, and he had only one serious non-philosophical interest: taking photos of Oxford, Venice, and St. Petersburg. In the latter half of his life, he single-mindedly devoted himself to a desperate attempt to rescue secular morality—morality without God—by arguing that it has an objective, rational basis. For Parfit, the stakes could scarcely have been higher. If he couldn’t demonstrate that there are objective facts about right and wrong, he believed, his life was futile and all our lives were meaningless.
Connecting Parfit’s work and life and offering a clear introduction to his profound and challenging ideas, Parfit is a powerful portrait of an extraordinary thinker who continues to have a remarkable influence on the world of ideas.
“Picture in your head: ‘a philosopher.’ Does he have a wild mane of white hair? Does he ride an old-fashioned bike everywhere, speak in a British accent? Does he have eccentric habits, like carrying a vodka bottle full of water? Does he spend every second of his life trying to solve the most important problems of human existence, and is everyone who meets him in awe of his intellect? The person you imagined existed. His name was Derek Parfit, he was utterly fascinating and delightful and brilliant, and with this book David Edmonds has painted him a beautiful, thorough, and compelling portrait.”—Michael Schur, creator of The Good Place and author of How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question
“In his monumental biography of the moral philosopher Derek Parfit, David Edmonds renders the movements of a quicksilver mind, the allure of a charismatic personality, the drama of a cloistered life.”—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
“Although Derek Parfit led a uniquely cloistered existence, immersed in his work, his life was not without drama, as David Edmonds’s sympathetic but not uncritical biography shows. This is likely to be the definitive biography of this irresistibly intriguing, indefatigable, and finally elusive thinker: for many, the great moral philosopher of our time.”—Joyce Carol Oates
“To write an entertaining biography of the philosopher on whom, of all those I have encountered, the label ‘genius’ best fits, is quite a feat. David Edmonds does that in this beautifully written and thoroughly researched volume that also offers fascinating glimpses of academic philosophy and life in Oxford during the past sixty years.”—Peter Singer, author of Ethics in the Real World
“Derek Parfit’s electrifyingly original philosophy transformed thinking about who we are, what matters in life, and how we should care about the future. And the man was as original as his work. In this revelatory and fascinating biography, David Edmonds describes how the young Parfit’s many passions contracted into a fervent, all-consuming search for moral truth.”—Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help
“Derek Parfit was perhaps the most important philosopher of his era. This scintillating and insightful portrait of him is one of the best intellectual biographies I have read.”—Tyler Cowen, author of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals
“A delight-filled, page-turning romp through the life and thought of one of the world’s greatest moral philosophers—completely unknown to most but with ideas that could change the way we think about ourselves and the future of humanity.”—Ruth Chang, University of Oxford
“Derek Parfit was the most brilliant and original moral philosopher in well over a century. In certain ways saintly, he was also legendarily eccentric. David Edmonds’s eagerly awaited biography tells the fascinating story of Parfit’s life in a lively and engaging manner while also providing accessible explanations of his most important philosophical ideas. Both instructive and entertaining, this is greatly rewarding reading.”—Jeff McMahan, University of Oxford
“A beautifully written and psychologically sophisticated biography. Even readers who disagree with Parfit’s ideas will learn from and be moved by this fascinating book.”—Cheryl Misak, University of Toronto