The Man From ‘Middlemarch’

I wonder what Derek Parfit would make of this biography, and if the philosopher would even condone the idea of biography, let alone one of himself.

Anna Riedl via Wikimedia Commons
Derek Parfit at Harvard, April 21, 2015. Anna Riedl via Wikimedia Commons

‘Parfit: A Philosopher and his Mission to Save Morality’
By David Edmonds
Princeton University Press, 408 pages

What if a biographical subject, as we usually understand the term, does not exist? A commonly expressed criticism of biography is that it cannot reveal the inner life. But what if that objection rests upon a fallacious understanding of what it actually means to be a person?

This is the question that philosopher Derek Parfit (1942-2017) put to himself over a long and brilliant career, publishing groundbreaking books such as “Reasons and Persons” (1984). For Parfit, David Edmonds observes, the “claim about separateness of persons rested on a metaphysical error.”

A person may not be “psychologically continuous with their present self,” Mr. Edmonds argues, channeling Parfit. That person remains in “other beings who themselves are bundles of thoughts, memories, and desires.” They remember the person and “may even be influenced by him.” Thus the boundaries between persons and those who remember them are fluid. 

If there is no fixed line between the self and others, then the biographer’s exploration of that porous boundary becomes at least as important as any considerations of a so-called separate and integral self.

Parfit never addressed the nature of biography head on, yet his thinking about human identity charges Mr. Edmonds’s biography with peculiar force — and with problematic passages. We get a Parfit resolutely refusing to be bound by an earlier self, telling an old friend that he never talks about his past. 

In effect, reminiscence is rebarbative because it detracts from what matters most — Now — to paraphrase the author of “On What Matters” (in two volumes, 2011, and a third, 2017). 

But Mr. Edmonds sometimes acts like a conventional biographer treating Parfit as the mystery self the biographer desperately seeks to reveal in the customary nugatory phrases biographers resort to: “Parfit must have constantly interrogated himself about how he could justify a life dedicated almost exclusively to philosophy.” Where is the evidence for that “must have”? I don’t find it in Mr. Edmonds’s biography.

Contra Parfit, I wanted the biographer to fill the fissures in the philosopher’s otherwise impregnable devotion to philosophy. Why did Parfit devote long hours to photographing Venice and Leningrad, touching up and, in effect, photoshopping reality? He was as obsessive about his pictures as he was about his prose. It did not matter how long it took to perfect photographs or books delayed many years past their contractual date. 

Could it be that photographs, divested of their exact historical context, and of the moment when they were taken, were Parfit’s way of wresting his own Now from reality? In what sense could such photographs be traceable to the photographer? Were they not a kind of anti-biography, an effort to dislocate the ceaseless quest to pin down a self that had at best a questionable existence?

Mr. Edmonds, a trained philosopher, does not ask such questions. He resists my own biographer’s quest to connect what otherwise might seem the disparate elements of a subject’s life. 

I wonder what Parfit would make of Mr. Edmonds’s biography, and if the philosopher would even condone the idea of biography, let alone one of himself.  For biography is a segregationist sort of enterprise, positing a divide between biographer and subject and a gap that can be only partially closed.

Parfit hated those gaps that led to differences of opinion — for instance, the idea that morality, one of his chief subjects, could be a matter of personal preference. Mr. Edmonds reports that Parfit became upset when an old friend said “she thought morality was not objective” but “dependent on the human mind. ‘He said it implied that there was nothing wrong with torture.’”

The biographer relays Parfit’s conclusion: “If moral values were relative, then almost everything in his life was pointless.” 

As Parfit entered his final years, his range of interests narrowed and narrowed, as he left behind friendships and lovers. There is something both heroic and foolish in his Casaubon-cloistered-like quest to find the “key to all mythologies.” 

The George Eliot of “Middlemarch” would surely recognize in Parfit Mr. Casaubon, who “seemed even unconscious that trivialities existed, and never handed round that small-talk of heavy men which is as acceptable as stale bride-cake brought forth with an odor of cupboard. He talked of what he was interested in, or else he was silent and bowed with sad civility.”

Mr. Rollyson is the author of “Lives of the Novelists” and “Reading Biography.”

The New York Sun

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