Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Derek Parfit (1942-2017)

This topic contains 2 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Tim Connolly 5 months ago.

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  • #132471 Reply

    Paul R. Goldin
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    Since I didn’t know until tonight, I suspect other readers of Warp, Weft, and Way may not be aware that Derek Parfit passed away on Jan. 1, 2017. I mention this not only because of his philosophical work, with which I’m sure you’re familiar, because also because he happened to be born in Chengdu 成都.

    #132475 Reply

    Tim Connolly

    Thanks for posting, Paul. Maybe you have already seen this article, which describes the influence the time in China had on Parfit’s father and mother, and indirectly on him as well:

    Parfit’s mother, Jessie, was born in India to two medical missionaries. She grew up to study medicine—she was a brilliant student and won many prizes. She joined the Oxford Group, a Christian movement, founded in the nineteen-twenties, whose members strove to adhere to the Four Absolutes: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. Through the Oxford Group, she met Norman Parfit, the son of an Anglican clergyman, who was also studying to be a doctor. Norman was a bad student, but he was funny and gregarious and principled—he was a pacifist and a teetotaller. After he received the group’s permission to propose, he and Jessie married.

    In 1935, soon after they became doctors, Norman and Jessie moved to western China to teach preventive medicine in missionary hospitals. Before they were able to begin work, they were required to spend a couple of years in the mountains studying Chinese. Jessie picked it up easily, but Norman simply could not learn the language, however hard he tried, and he despaired over his failure. Their first child, Theodora, was born in 1939, and their second, Derek, in 1942. Norman was drawn to Mao’s idealist ardor. He didn’t become a Communist, exactly, but he abandoned the conservative political views with which he was brought up. More significantly, both Norman and Jessie lost their faith. They disliked some of their fellow-missionaries, some of whom were quite racist, and they were struck by the irrelevance of Christianity to a sophisticated culture like China’s. Jessie shed her faith easily—she associated Christianity with the oppressive puritanism of her upbringing, and found purpose enough in public health. But Norman’s loss of faith was a catastrophe. Without God, his life had no meaning. He sank into a chronic depression that lasted until his death.

    About a year after Derek was born, the family left China. They settled in Oxford, and had a third child, Joanna. When Derek was seven, he became religious and decided to be a monk. He prayed all the time and tried vainly to persuade his parents to go to church. But at eight he lost his faith: he decided that a good God would not send people to Hell, and so if his teachers were wrong about God’s goodness they must also be wrong about God’s existence. His argument was flawed but convincing—he never believed in God again.

    Jessie and Norman had little in common and grew unhappy together, but they stayed married. Jessie took a second degree, became a psychiatrist, and ended up running London’s services for emotionally disturbed children. Norman worked at a low-level public-health job near Oxford. He was concerned about cancer and fluoridation, but he was too ineffectual to do much about either.

    My father was a perfectionist, who achieved little. He labored for several weeks each year to write his Annual Report, whose text he continually revised. My mother would have written such a report in an hour or two. Though he was, in some ways, an intellectual, to whom moral and religious ideas mattered greatly, I believe that he read, as an adult, only two books: Thackeray’s “Henry Esmond,” which he was given, and “Away with All Pests,” which described a successful Chinese campaign to destroy disease-carrying flies.

    All three children were sent to boarding school when they were young, so they didn’t know each other very well.

    I remember becoming aware that, for most children, home was where they lived, and not merely, as it was for me, a place that I visited for brief interruptions to my main life that was lived at school.

    Theodora and Derek were brilliant students, like their mother. Derek was sent to Eton, where he came first in every subject except mathematics. Joanna, like her father, was bad at everything. Her teeth stuck out. She was also much too tall—six feet at the age of eleven. When the family was together, it was awful—Norman was angry almost all the time. He often didn’t understand what his wife and elder children were talking about, and this made him feel inferior. He had a narrow life. He took refuge in two hobbies—tennis, which he didn’t play well, and stamp collecting, on which he spent several hours each evening. Parfit emerged from his childhood with the understanding that he and his mother and Theo were lucky and would live full lives, while Norman and Joanna were unlucky and would never be happy. For the rest of his life, his father and his younger sister represented for him everything that horrified him about suffering and unfairness.

    I was not, I believe, badly affected by my father’s depression. I was merely very sorry for him. That is because I was never closely related to him. He wasn’t good at interacting with children. Before I left for my years as a Harkness Fellow in the U.S., I noticed tears in my father’s eyes when he said goodbye to me. That moved me greatly at the time, and I find tears in my eyes as I type this sentence. That was the only time in which I had some sense of the love that my father, in his depressed and inarticulate way, felt for me.

    #132476 Reply

    Tim Connolly
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