Derek Parfit
Derek Parfit

Photograph by Susan Hurley

“Groundbreaking” philosopher explored the nature of identity

Clemency Pleming

Derek Parfit, Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, who has died aged 74, was a celebrated philosopher. His book Reasons and Persons was described by the political theorist Alan Ryan as “close to a work of genius”.

He studied Modern History at Balliol College, graduating in 1964, and returned to Oxford after a few years at Harvard, to take up a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College. He remained at All Souls for the rest of his academic career.

Parfit’s research concerned personal identity, morality, and our obligations to future generations, and his two great works are Reasons and Persons, published in 1984, and On What Matters, published in three volumes between 2011 and 2017.

His first paper, ‘Personal Identity’, was published in 1971, and contained the first outline of a theory of identity that diminished the importance of the “self” as a single, enduring thing. Instead, he argued that physical and psychological continuity are what is important to a person’s identity.

In 1995, he told the journal Cogito that “what interests me the most are those metaphysical questions whose answers seem to be relevant — or to make a difference — to what we have reason to care about and to do, and to our moral beliefs.”

He was a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New York University, Harvard University and Rutgers University. In 2014 he was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize for his “groundbreaking contributions” to philosophy. He was also an accomplished photographer. He is survived by his wife, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, who is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.