Remembering Derek Parfit

Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2494 Jan. 07 19.00I 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.

Without a trace of annoyance, Parfit signed our books and offered to show us round the college. In the 15th-century chapel he pointed out the hammer-beam roof and gilded angels, the Gothic reredos and its 19th-century statues. We talked about moral philosophy. He said he couldn’t understand how Shelly Kagan, a philosopher at Yale whom he deeply admired, believed in moral retribution. ‘I just can’t believe that anyone deserves to suffer,’ he said, shaking his head. After the tour he gave us detailed instructions on how to get back to the railway station, anxious that we didn’t get lost, and wished us well.

More here.