Reading Parfit
Dancy (Jonathan), Ed.
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Back Cover Blurb

  1. When it was first published in 1984, "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" was heralded as one of the most significant achievements in moral philosophy to have appeared in recent times. Now, Reading Parfit brings together some of the most distinguished scholars in the field to discuss and critique each of the four parts of this outstanding work, and present a detailed response to Parfit′s1 philosophical perspective.
  2. Including thirteen essays, of which the majority have been written especially for this volume, Reading Parfit will be an invaluable collection for both students and scholars working in the fields of metaphysics and moral philosophy.
  3. Contributors include David Gauthier, Frank Jackson, Larry Temkin, Judith Jarvis Thomson, John McDowell, Robert Merrihew Adams, Michael Stocker, Philip Pettit, Michael Smith, Simon Blackburn, Jonathan Dancy, Mark Johnston, David O. Brink and Sidney Shoemaker.
  4. Parfit′s2 responses to these papers will be published later3 in two separate volumes entitled Practical Realism and The Metaphysics of the Self.
  5. Jonathan Dancy is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading. He has published widely in the areas of ethics and epistemology, including "Dancy (Jonathan) & Sosa (Ernest), Eds. - A Companion to Epistemology" (Blackwell Publishers, 1992) and Moral Reasons (Blackwell Publishers, 1992).

In-Page Footnotes ("Dancy (Jonathan), Ed. - Reading Parfit")

Footnote 3: This promise was on Amazon, but I’ve not been able to find the books, so presumably it was not kept.


"Adams (Robert Merrihew) - Should Ethics be More Impersonal?"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 12
COMMENT: Originally a Critical Review of "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 98, No. 4 (Oct., 1989), pp. 439-484.

"Blackburn (Simon) - Has Kant Refuted Parfit?"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 9
Write-up Note1 (Full Text reproduced below).

  1. The Unity Reaction
  2. Reductionism
  3. The Self in Space
  4. Activity
  5. Imagination and Unity
  6. The Glass Wall

Write-up2 (as at 29/12/2019 12:57:36): Blackburn - Has Kant Refuted Parfit?

Exposition / Comments by Section
  1. The Unity Reaction
    • Blackburn starts off with – effectively – a potted defense of animalism4.
    • From the third-person perspective, there are no obvious problems with personal identity that don’t arise when we consider the identity over time of other large mammals, which is what we are5.
    • While we have complex psychologies, these are just properties that change over time.
    • He does, however, say that these psychologies “are in certain respects universal6”.
    • So, if we are not troubled by stories of fission or fusion, or Sorites7 cases, when applied to chimpanzees, we should not be worried when these are applied to persons8.
    • So there are no obvious problems with third-person re-identification in normal circumstances. And in the case of unusual (imagined) circumstances we’d find our way round it as we would with the fission or fusion of animals, plants or ships – though it would matter more to us that we came to the right conclusion.
    • So, if a friend fissioned, we’d then become reconciled to having two friends – though Blackburn notes Lewis’s “arithmetic9”, where there were two friends all along. If this sort of thing was common – and could be foretold – we’d avoid making future predications implying uniqueness.
    • It’s only from the first-person perspective that problems may arise.
    • Even there it’s the future10 rather than the past that’s troubling – I can get my head around tales of my past fissioning11 or even fusion12. But if I think of future my own future fissioning – especially if the fission products enjoy or suffer radically different fates – I can only imagine one of three possible outcomes. I will be one, the other, or neither13. I will not be enjoying some middle-ground experience, but only one of the alternatives, or nothing at all.
    • Nor can Blackburn imagine the split-brain14 case described by Parfit15 in “My Physics Exam”, where one half of my brain solves a physics problem while the other half talks to a friend. The two activities are mutually exclusive.
    • This is what is intended by the Section’s title “The Unity Reaction”.
    • Blackburn is unsure how much weight should be attached to this Reaction. It may be a hang-over from beliefs in Cartesian Egos16 – though it is surely a motivator for – rather than a consequence of – such beliefs.
    • Blackburn has a swipe at Reincarnation17, Telepathy and the like18 – which are not independent evidence for Pure Egos.
    • Cartesianism explains (wrongly) the Unity Reaction by positing a “definite something” that is unaffected by whatever is happening to the animal and its psychology, and which consequently ends up in one or other (or neither) of the fission products. Kant has (it seems19) shown the uselessness of such a hypothesis. Yet (says Blackburn) it’s only on such a “theory” that we have a problem of identity as such20. Otherwise, it’s just a question of integrating our thoughts about the self21.
    • Origins of the Unity Reaction aside, can we train ourselves out of it, as some suggest this might have metaphysical and even ethical benefits? Blackburn wants to dispute this, and will do so from the Kantian standpoint of the “active subject of thought and action”. Blackburn wants to explore Kant’s idea that the unity of the self is forced on us by this standpoint; and so-doing will loosen a central plank of "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons".
    • It seems that Parfit is proposing22 a “non-practical ‘constitutive’ metaphysics of the self”, but Blackburn thinks this cuts no ice contra a “practical stance such as egoism”.
    • Practical reasoning – and planning a future project – both require us to ask “how will it be for me”, and this activity “maintains an absolute, but formal, grip on the self”, which explains the Unity Reaction, whatever or not the empirical self is seen as dissolved, merged or split in a TE.
    • Blackburn points out that the ethical claim – that nice people might be happier if good things happened to others rather than to themselves (they might “have what matters” in such circumstances) – just changes the subject. If my project is for this good thing to happen to me, it fails if it happens to someone else.
    • So, even if Parfit’s metaphysics is correct, the ethical consequences are less than he imagines. The standpoint of practical reason is a constraint on the truth about persons.
    • He now wants to say something about the standard “Strawsonian” objection to Humean or Parfitian reductionism.
  2. Reductionism
    • Parfit as an updated Humean “bundle theory”. Priorities wrong: persons/selves precede their experiences.
    • Parfit and the Kantian. Both equally hostile to Cartesian Egos, though only empirically for Parfit.
    • Parfit: persons exist, but we can give a complete account of reality without mentioning them. Probably not an error theorist. Analogy with Communities and the people that make them up.
    • The relation of whether an impersonal description is complete to deducibility. Statues and particles & their relations. Do persons follow from bodies and non-branching continuity and connectedness between psychological states?
    • Non-vicious circular ontological dependence of parts and wholes. Analogy of sounds and tunes. But have we any conception of a perception or psychological state in abstraction from its owner?
    • Second objection: contents of thoughts presupposing the Unity Relation and the existence of Parfit’s selves or irreducible Selves. Bernard Williams’s “Government House” line (vulgar illusion) not open to Parfit, whose ethical theory depends on us believing the truth about ourselves. Still, we need a Kantian undermining of the reductionist’s starting point.
  3. The Self in Space
    • Focus on psychological atoms – are they constitutively dependent on Selves that cannot be replaced by a reductionist substitute?
    • Blackburn won’t adopt the third-person approach – which treats thoughts as dependent on Selves at dents and bruises on bodies. It doesn’t take the Unity Reaction seriously enough to engage with what troubles us.
    • Outline of the Kantian/Strawsonian account of perception of the world. The organisation requires an organiser with a self-conception. Reference to "Cassam (Quassim) - Kant and Reductionism". Programming and Camera objections.
    • Programs continued: we require a physical self to anchor the memory of a perception. Footnote approving Cassam’s use of "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Persons and Their Pasts".
  4. Activity
  5. Imagination and Unity
  6. The Glass Wall

In-Page Footnotes ("Blackburn (Simon) - Has Kant Refuted Parfit?")

Footnote 2:
  • This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (29/12/2019 12:57:36).
  • Link to Latest Write-Up Note.
Footnote 3:
  • I’m finding some of what Blackburn says difficult to construe. Consequently, my notes are somewhat plodding until I can see the light.
  • From Section 2 onwards, I’ve just added (maybe inaccurate) indicators of what each paragraph is about.
  • I was alerted to this paper by Lawrence M. Hinman, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, University of San Diego, who was after a copy, but eventually obtained one from Simon Blackburn himself. For Hinman, see Link (Defunct) and Link (Defunct).
  • He was “sitting in on a seminar that Jeff Blustein (presumably Link) and Bill Ruddick (presumably Link (Defunct)) are giving on ethical issues in memory, and we were discussing Parfit on personal identity and memory. In any case, I expect Blackburn's article might help me to clarify some of my reservations about Parfit.”
Footnote 4:
  • For animalism, Click here for Note.
  • I’d not included Blackburn amongst my collection of Animalists (Click here for Note), so this is a useful find …
  • But I’ll wait until completing the review to see whether Blackburn really counts as an animalist.
Footnote 6:
  • I thought I understood what he meant, but I’m not so sure.
  • He says that they could be duplicated. I’d thought that what this implies is that psychologies (or at least the contents of them) are software, or data, universals in any case, so can be realised on many hardware platforms. But, they are not us. We are the hardware on which the software runs.
  • But, his full text is “Complex psychologies … give us a psychological form that is in certain respects universal, so that it could be duplicated, and shared with others of our kind who have had the same experiences or have the same mental traits.
  • I don’t know what he means by the latter part of this sentence. I’d like it to say “who would then appear to have had the same experiences and would then have the same mental traits”.
  • Is this describing a thought-experiment, or saying something more prosaic (and less relevant) about the psychological similarities of people with similar experiences and mental traits, which lays the way for the Parfitian thought experiments?
Footnote 8:
  • Blackburn doesn’t believe in divine persons, but (for all know) most likely believes that alien persons might exist.
  • So, he really means “human persons”, or maybe even “human beings”, or “us”.
Footnote 9: Lewis is a perdurantist (Click here for Note), so we have two partially overlapping friend-shaped spatio-temporal worms.

Footnote 10: Footnote 13: That is, I cannot – even with the help of Lewis – imagine being both.

Footnote 14: Footnote 15: See "Parfit (Derek) - Why Our Identity is Not What Matters".

Footnote 18: I’m not sure of the reasoning here, and don’t care.

Footnote 19: Footnote 20: I didn’t understand this either – check after reading the whole paper.

Footnote 22: I’ve no idea what these terms are supposed to mean. Maybe it’ll become clearer later.

"Brink (David) - Rational Egoism and the Separateness of Persons"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 6

"Dancy (Jonathan) - Parfit and Indirectly Self-Defeating Theories"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 1

"Dancy (Jonathan) - Reading Parfit: Preface"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Preface

Full Text
  1. This collection of essays on "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984) was first conceived in 1987, and most of the papers that it contains were written by 1990.
  2. My original intention, in proposing such a volume and in inviting contributions, was to promote discussion and understanding of the complex material in "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons", and also to give those who wanted to teach classes on the book something in the way of a series of papers that might help them and their students to find their way through it.
  3. The second of those purposes is no less relevant now, nearly ten years later, than it was then. Matters have changed somewhat in respect of the first; to judge by the constant stream of enquiries that I have received about what was happening to my collection, interest in Parfit1's work is growing just as I wanted it to. I hope that the publication of the collection, better late than never, will further encourage this tendency.
  4. All the essays printed here appear for the first time, apart from the two Critical Notices by Sydney Shoemaker and Robert Merrihew Adams. Essays are printed in the order in which the topics they treat occur in "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons". (This, and nothing else, explains why my own paper comes first.) This rule has been hard to apply to the papers on Part 3: that is, those concerned with the metaphysics of the self. Here I confess that my ordering is a little arbitrary. Otherwise unattributed references are throughout to "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons". Readers should be warned that though there is as yet no second edition of that book, its reprinting of 1987 contained a few significant alterations (summarized on page x there). Like myself, my contributors will have been working from copies printed before 1987.
  5. It is galling now to recognize that the collection could have been published in its present form five or six years ago. The reason for the delay was my desire to include responses that Derek Parfit2 had agreed to write to the suggestions and criticisms of the contributors. These responses rapidly grew to such a size that the whole could no longer be contained in a single volume. The plan then was to divide the one volume into two: one on Reasons and one on Persons, roughly.
  6. But even that plan failed. Parfit3 has now written so much new material that it will itself make three new books, which will eventually be published under the titles4 of
    • Practical Realism,
    • The Metaphysics of the Self, and
    • On What Matters.
  7. I greatly regret the delay in publication. But I have at least the consolation of knowing the quality of the new work that Derek Parfit is producing in response to the papers in this volume. On several occasions I have delivered a contributor's paper to him, thinking silently that he would have a lot of trouble dealing with this one; and on each I have been proved, if not wrong, then at least greatly over-confident.
  8. One consequence of the delay has been that many of the essays in Reading Parfit have become well known, and there have even been responses to some of them published in the journals. My contributors have sometimes asked me whether they can make changes to their essays, either as a result of this or just because they have changed their minds about something. I have been deaf to all such appeals, for the reason that Parfit5's new work, though it is not confined to the essays in this volume, still stands in some degree as a direct response to them, and he has been working on the original versions. So readers should bear in mind that what is contained in Reading Parfit was written between five and ten years ago, and no change has been permitted since.
  9. I end by apologizing to all my contributors, and to a frustrated readership, for my failure to get this collection published in proper time.

In-Page Footnotes ("Dancy (Jonathan) - Reading Parfit: Preface")

Footnote 4:

"Gauthier (David) - Rationality and the Rational Aim"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 2

"Jackson (Frank) - Which Effects?"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 3

"Johnston (Mark) - Human Concerns without Superlative Selves"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 8

"McDowell (John) - Reductionism and the First Person"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 11

Author’s Introduction
  1. Locke's discussion of personal identity centres on the thesis that a person is ‘a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places'. What Locke stresses here is that the continuity that constitutes a person's continuing to exist has an 'inner' aspect. Normally this inner aspect is realized in substantive knowledge: what Locke calls ‘consciousness' holds together in a single survey some of the specifics of the career extended in time, of what the subject of this survey conceives as itself, ’the same thinking thing'. But if a person can survive with the details of its past and future blotted out, its being a person requires that it still conceive itself as a self-conscious continuant, capable of an ‘inner’ angle on its own persistence, but currently deprived of any specificity in what that capacity yields.
  2. Now a core thought in the reductionism that Derek Parfit recommends is that this 'inner' aspect of personal persistence should be understood in terms of relations between psychological states and events that are intelligible independently of personal identity. It is this claim that allows Parfit to play down the importance of personal identity. If the relations that constitute the phenomenon that Locke stresses are independent of personal identity, they must be detachable in thought from the continued existence of persons, even though Locke’s idea has to be that they are constitutive of it (as they indeed are in the normal course of things). And what matters for the rationality of the sort of concern with the future that, with our usual unimaginative restriction to the normal case, we conceive as self-interested is Locke's phenomenon: hence, according to Parfit, what matters is those independently intelligible relations, rather than the facts about personal identity that they help to constitute.


COMMENT: There is an annotated photocopy filed with "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 10 (M1: Ma-Mc)".

"Merricks (Trenton) - Review of Jonathan Dancy's 'Reading Parfit'"

Source: Philosophical Review 108.3, July 1999, pp. 422-425

Author’s Introduction (excerpted)
  1. The bad news is that all of these essays were in their completed form five or six years before the book was published; as a result, the arguments sometimes seem a little bit familiar and, of course, neither profit from nor engage the most recent literature on the topics they address.
  2. The good news is that "Dancy (Jonathan), Ed. - Reading Parfit" includes some very fine essays (and, in my opinion, a few not-very-fine essays) by talented philosophers. These essays, taken together, address all four parts of Reasons and Persons: Self Defeating Theories, Rationality and Time, Personal Identity, and Future Generations. I'll focus my discussion on (the parts of) those essays-about half of the essays in the collection-that say something about Parfit1's metaphysics of personal identity.
  3. What is Parfit2's metaphysics of personal identity? It involves, in large part, the relation of psychological connectedness and continuity.

COMMENT: Review of "Dancy (Jonathan), Ed. - Reading Parfit".

"Olson (Eric) - Review of Dancy's 'Reading Parfit'"

Source: Philosophical Books; Oct1998, Vol. 39 Issue 4, p252-4
COMMENT: Review of "Dancy (Jonathan), Ed. - Reading Parfit".

"Pettit (Philip) & Smith (Michael) - Parfit's P"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 5

"Shoemaker (Sydney) - Parfit on Identity"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 7
  • Originally a Critical Review of "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" in Mind, New Series, Vol. 94, No. 375 (Jul., 1985), pp. 443-453.
  • The version in Dacy is somewhat abbreviated.

"Stocker (Michael) - Parfit and the Time of Value"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 4

"Temkin (Larry S.) - Rethinking the Good, Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 13

"Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - People and Their Bodies"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 10

Author’s Introduction
  1. The simplest view of what people are is that they are their bodies. That view has other attractions besides its simplicity. I feel inclined to think that this fleshy object (my body is what I refer to) isn't something I merely currently inhabit; I feel inclined to think that it is me. This bony object (my left hand is what I refer to) – isn't it literally part of me? Certainly we all, at least at times, feel inclined to think that we are not merely embodied, but that we just, all simply, are our bodies.
  2. What stands in the way of adopting this simple and attractive view?
  3. Some people would say that the manner in which death ordinarily comes on us stands in the way of adopting it. Some people's deaths issue from total destruction of the body, as in an explosion, but that is not the ordinary case. Suppose Alfred and Bert are people who died of a disease, in their beds. Their bodies did not go out of existence at that time. So if Alfred and Bert went out of existence at that time, then they are not their bodies.
  4. But did Alfred and Bert go out of existence at that time? Don't people who die in bed just become dead people at the time of their deaths? Cats who die in bed become dead cats at the time of their deaths; why should it be thought otherwise in the case of people? Can't there be some dead people as well as some dead cats in a house after the roof falls in? The answer surely is that there can be.
  5. You might have wondered why I have been talking in the plural, of people. I did so because the only available candidate in the singular for the plural 'people' is 'person', and philosophers do not use 'person’ as a mere innocuous singular for 'people': 'person' in the hands of a philosopher trails clouds of philosophy. 'Dead people', like 'dead cats’, causes no one any discomfort; but ‘dead person’, unlike ‘dead cat’, causes a philosopher (though not, I think, a non-philosopher) to feel at best anxious.

COMMENT: Also in "Sider (Ted), Hawthorne (John) & Zimmerman (Dean), Eds. - Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics".

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