The Grice Club


The Grice Club

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Herbert Paul Grice and Derek Antony Parfit


Derek Antony Parfit is a philosopher whose, er, "philosophizing", on

-- personal identity (cf. Grice, "Personal Identity," Mind 1941)

-- the nature of reasons and

-- the objectivity of morality (cf. Grice, "The Conception of Value")

re-establishes ethics as a central concern for contemporary thinkers and set some of the  terms (even if a few Griceianisms) for philosophic inquiry

Parfit, of All Souls College, rose to pre-eminence with the publication of his first essay, “Personal Identity."

Oddly, this is the title of Grice's first essay, too. Or, as Grice would say, 'publication'. His first 'unpublication' was on "Negation", predating "Personal Identity" for a term or two!

Parfit developed a theory of identity that "downgraded" the notion, and the importance, of an irreducible self — the “deep further fact,” as he called it” — in terms not dissimilar to Buddhism.

Grice would agree, and indeed Parfit quotes Grice in both his "Personal Identity" and "Reasons and Persons".

Parfit argues that we continue to exist over time by virtue of certain relations among mental states at different times, such as the relation between an experience and the memory of it (Grice's main focus -- following Locke's criterion, and dealing with Read's paradox, etc.), or the formation of a desire and the satisfaction of it.

“It was a revolutionary essay, and it made him a philosophic celebrity instantly,” Jeff McMahan, of Oxford and one of Parfit’s tutees, says.

It was. But I would think Grice's Personal Identity was perhaps MORE revolutionary! (Grice deals with very standard authors in that essay, though, as Perry is well aware -- such as Broad, and others -- Parfit is less of a philosophical historian, there!)

Parfit's essay “Reasons and Persons" was greeted as the most important work of moral philosophy since Henry Sidgwick’s “The Method of Ethics."

In "Reasons and Persons", Parfit elaborates his ideas on the concept of personal identity that Grice had set to analyse in 1941 (well, 1941 is the year of publication; Grice finished it much earlier!) and explored issues in moral choice that reanimated the field of ethics, which had descended into abstruse technical analyses of moral terms like “ought,” “good” and “right.” -- Grice would make fun of this: "ought" is Hare's word; "should" is Hampshire's word, "My word is "must"" (Grice, Aspects of Reason). "Good" was rightly analysed, for Grice, by Philippa Foot, and 'right' is like 'ought', only different.

“A whole generation of moral philosophers was inspired by the questions "Reasons and Persons" asked, the *way* it asked them and the methods (alla Sedgwick) it employed to answer them,” Mark Schroeder, of Los Angeles, wrote in The Notre Dame Philosophical Review, if you've read him!

"On What Matters" deals with the theory of reasons and morality, arguing for the existence of objective truth in ethics.

In one grand flourish, which Parfit calls the triple theory, Parfit tries to reconcile three competing theories of morality:

-- one based on the idea of a hypothetical contract -- cfr. Grice's contractualism or quasi-contractualism in "Logic and Conversation, II" and Geoffrey Russell Grice's contractualism -- full-fledged!

-- another based entirely on the consequences of action and

-- yet another based on Kant’s conception of duty -- this was eventually Grice's favourite one, as "Aspects of Reason" shows and the PILES of papers by Grice on Kant, in the Grice Papers (Bancroft Library).

Philosophers of all three schools, Parfit argues, are actually “climbing different sides of the same mountain.”

He fails to mention what mountain that is -- which reminds me of Grice's Marmaduke Bloggs, who climbed Mt Everest on hands and knees ("Vacuous Names").

Parfit's essay includes articles by other leading philosophers criticizing Parfit’s ideas -- after Dancy's excellent work on this -- if you can call it work! -- along with his replies to them. 

It was a format that echoes a good part of Parfit’s philosophical activity. 

Parfit, like Grice, is renowned as a commentator, offering extensive, detailed critiques of work sent to him in manuscript.

In the introduction to his essay “The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions,” Samuel Scheffler indeed writes, as per implicature, that Parfit’s notes on the work in progress "were longer than the book itself."

The implicature is that Scheffler should have extended the book -- as he called it.

“With no other philosopher have I had such a clear sense of someone who had already thought of every objection I could make, of the best replies to them, of further objections that I might then make, and of replies to them too,” the philosopher Peter Singer notes in The Daily Nous.

This reminds me of Judith Baker when writing her dissertation "under Grice" (metaphorically). Baker realized that nobody could understand her better than Grice. And Grice's conceptual analysis of 'meaning' is referred to by B. J. Harrison as having received more counterexamples than rule-utilitarianism! (The fun thing is that Grice managed to reply to EACH counterexample in "Logic and Conversation V".)

Derek Antony Parfit was born in Chengdu, China. -- Herbert Paul Grice, on the other hand, usually the right one, was born in what he calls "the heart of England" -- the affluent suburb of Harborne.

Parfit's father, Norman, and his mother, Jessie Browne, were doctors teaching preventive medicine at Christian missions. 

On the other hand, usually the right one, Grice's father, also called Herbert, was a 'dreadful businessman, but a fine musician', and his mother, Mabel Fenton, ran a school in the Grice residence -- her favourite pupil was her own son!

The Parfits (not the Grices) returned to England when Derek was still an infant (metaphorically, -- could not speak) and settled in Oxford, where Derek attended the Dragon.

Grice went through more standard channels: from affluent Harborne, to Clifton, and THEN the dreaming Spires (Corpus -- or "The House," as Grice calls it)

After graduating from Eton, Parfit spent a year in New York visiting his sister, Theodora, and working briefly as a researcher at The New Yorker. 

Grice didn't. But he refers to New York while in Harvard:

A: Smith does not seem to be having a girlfriend these days.
B: He's paying a lots of visits to New York recently.

-- Note that Parfit visited stuff other than her sister -- e.g. Central Park, etc. She lived in the Upper East Side, rightly.

Parift enrolled in Balliol College and earned a degree in modern history. This would have provoked Grice who was an MA Lit Hum!

While on a Harkness Fellowship at Harvard and Columbia after graduation, Parfit began attending lectures on philosophy and changed course.

O. T. O. H., usually the right one, Grice never changed course.

“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,” Parfit told the journal Cogito.

"What interests me the most is cricket," Grice once said -- but then he was a member of the Oxfordshire Cricket Club!

Parfit was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls, and became a senior research fellow. 

Grice passed from Corpus to Merton and eventually became a fellow of Oxford's best 'college' (Nancy Mitford says it's non-U to add 'college'): St. John's.

For years Parfit was a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Rutgers and New York University. 

Grice was a visiting lecturer at Harvard -- indeed the William James Lecturer for 1967 -- and to almost every other uni in the New World. He would settle actually in Berkeley and return to Oxford as a 'furriner', almost!

Parfit was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy, philosophy’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize -- which was recently given, incidentally to Bob Dylan. Grice could not speak Swedish.

Like Grice, Parfit publishes seldom, but to great effect. 

Parfit's two major works are compendious and staggeringly ambitious.

“Reasons and Persons” is four essays in one. 

The first part deals with morality and rationality.

The second part deals with a theory of individual rationality rejecting the idea that self-interest requires people to be equally concerned about all parts of their future. 

In the third part, Parfit expands his ideas about personal identity -- citing Grice.

In the fourth part, Parfit devotes his interest to moral thinking about future generations and the morality of bringing other humans into existence, offering a number of  Grice-type paradoxes and puzzles challenging traditional moral thinking. 

In so doing Parfit opens up a new field of inquiry, population ethics -- C. A. B. Peacocke had opened the new field of population pragmatics when he expands on Grice in Evans/McDowell, "Truth and Meaning" (Oxford) -- "The word 'dog' means dog in population P iff..."

“On What Matters,” much of it based on the Tanner Lectures Parfit delivers at the University of California, Berkeley (or Grice's varsity, as Grice called it -- Moses Hall) is similarly wide ranging, with multiple sections, each worthy of its own volume, and concluding with a magisterial monograph on meta-ethics, alla Grice.

Oxford University Press plans to publish a third volume of “On What Matters.” Or rather the people working at OUP do -- Presses don't plan -- vide Parfit on population ethics.

This third volume consists in part of responses to criticism of Parfit's work by leading philosophers, which will appear in a companion volume, edited by Singer, titled “Does Anything Really Matter?”

On the other hand, when Grice was asked by Grandy and Warner to provide a response to EACH contribution to PGRICE (Philosophical Grounds of Rationality: Intentions, Categories, Ends), he said, "Are yous crazy?" Instead, he just provides ONE response to Richard Grandy and Richard Warner ("Repy to Richards" -- "I use "Richards" as a short for "Richard Warner and Richard Grandy," Grice says -- the implicature being obvious).

On Daily Nous, Singer offers a snippet from Parfit’s new work:

“Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine.

“In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.”

On the other hand, there are LOADS of snippets from the Grice Papers -- my favourite must be his quote from "From Genesis to Revelations" -- or not!

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