Tag: Derek Parfit

What Philosophers Read

How many people want to start learning about philosophy but don’t know where to start?

We often assume that philosophers are born and not made. But, like us, most of them had a moment where things started to get interesting for them. I hated scotch for years and then I found the one scotch that opened up my world. So often it just takes a whiff of something amazing to open up an entirely new part of the world.

How can you get interested in philosophy? What reading makes sense?

Twenty-eight of the world’s most important philosophers were asked1 which three books influenced them the most while undergraduate students.

Take a look at some of the responses and maybe you’ll find the one book that pulls you in and opens up a new world.

The three most popular answers were:

  1. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  2. Critique of Pure Reason by Kant
  3. Dialogues by Plato

Some notable individual responses were:

Daniel Dennett (Tufts University):

“That’s easy:

Word and Object, Quine.

The concept of mind, Gilbert Ryle

Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein

“I got to study with Quine and Ryle, but Wittgenstein had died before I encountered his work”.

Shelly Kagan (Yale University):

Catch 22, Joseph Heller: “This is a novel, a work of fiction. It is a humorous book, though it is very dark humor, and the perspective gets progressively darker as the novel moves along. It is set in World War II, and portrays an American soldier who is desperately trying to stay alive while dealing with the insane military bureaucracy and the impossible-to-satisfy demands it makes upon him. But the book speaks to something larger that we all face from time to time, in that it portrays the difficulty and importance of staying whole and sane in a job–or society, or world–that is often both hostile and irrational.”

Night, Elie Wiesel: “This is a work of nonfiction, a memoir, though it is written in a highly terse almost poetic literary style. It recounts the author’s experiences during the Holocaust, when as a young Jewish teen he was shipped to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. This book is haunting and at times unbearably sad, and for me it serves as a unforgettable lesson in how appallingly cruel people can be –and continue to be– to one another.” (Editors note: I found Man’s Search for Meaning was better.)

Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Walter Kaufmann: “This is a work of philosophy, written by one of my teachers in graduate school, although I first read it as an undergraduate several years earlier. The book offers unusually penetrating accounts of both philosophy and of religion, and most centrally it criticizes the common tendency to give lip service to one’s religion without taking its various teachings and claims seriously. Kaufmann was not himself a religious man, but he was a serious student of religion, and he knew it was too important to treat in the typical superficial manner.”

Dialogues, Plato: “This is a cheat, because of course this isn’t a single book, but a collection of books, or more properly, dialogues, by the first great philosopher of the western tradition. What I have in mind in particular are the early Socratic dialogues and those that portray Socrates’ last days (like the Apology, or the Crito or Phaedo). In these works, Plato paints a breathtaking portrait of his own teacher, Socrates, as someone who cared about philosophy so completely that he was willing to die for it, rather than give it up. It was this portrait that first persuaded me that the life of the philosopher was both noble and admirable, and something to which I could aspire”.

Derek Parfit (Oxford University):

Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidwick
Utilitarianism, J. S. Mill
The View from Nowhere, Thomas Nagel: “my favourite book published in the 20th Century, and which seems to me to make many very interesting claims about fundamental philosophical questions”.

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    Source: http://demasiadoaire.com/philosophical-youth/

Derek Parfit: Does Anything Matter?

I must admit that I have Derek Parfit‘s long-awaited book On What Matters sitting on my nightstand at the moment. I’m aided in my procrastination by its daunting length—over 1400 pages in two volumes.

Most of us might come to the same conclusion as Parfit on the question of what matters—”we rich people give up some of our luxuries, ceasing to overheat the Earth’s atmosphere, and taking care of this planet in other ways so that it continues to support intelligent life.”

What we gain from reading Parfait, however, according to the article below, “is the possibility of defending these and other moral claims as objective truths.”

If his new book is half as mind-blowing and lucid as Reasons and Persons, I’ll enjoy the moment I stop balking at its sheer intellectual size and immerse myself.

Many people assume that rationality is always instrumental: reason can tell us only how to get what we want, but our basic wants and desires are beyond the scope of reasoning. Not so, Parfit argues. Just as we can grasp the truth that 1 + 1 = 2, so we can see that I have a reason to avoid suffering agony at some future time, regardless of whether I now care about, or have desires about, whether I will suffer agony at that time. We can also have reasons (though not always conclusive reasons) to prevent others from suffering agony. Such self-evident normative truths provide the basis for Parfit’s defense of objectivity in ethics.

One major argument against objectivism in ethics is that people disagree deeply about right and wrong, and this disagreement extends to philosophers who cannot be accused of being ignorant or confused. If great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham disagree about what we ought to do, can there really be an objectively true answer to that question?

Parfit’s response to this line of argument leads him to make a claim that is perhaps even bolder than his defense of objectivism in ethics. He considers three leading theories about what we ought to do – one deriving from Kant, one from the social-contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and the contemporary philosophers John Rawls and T.M. Scanlon, and one from Bentham’s utilitarianism – and argues that the Kantian and social-contract theories must be revised in order to be defensible.

Then he argues that these revised theories coincide with a particular form of consequentialism, which is a theory in the same broad family as utilitarianism. If Parfit is right, there is much less disagreement between apparently conflicting moral theories than we all thought. The defenders of each of these theories are, in Parfit’s vivid phrase, “climbing the same mountain on different sides.”

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You can buy the two-volume set or get the core of his argument in the first 400 pages of volume one. Parfit is also the author of the mind-blowing Reasons and Persons.