Derek Parfit died on 2 January 2017. He was a philosopher, whose work focused on personal identity, the basis of ethics, and our obligations to future beings. The title of his 2011 book states his overall focus: On What Matters. He was a distinctive person, and he produced strikingly original and influential work.
I was a final year BA student in philosophy at the University of Canterbury when Parfit published his first book in 1984. Seven years later he was an examiner of my Oxford D.Phil. thesis. He gave me a fair grilling and a fair go.
He was born on 11 December 1942 in Chengdu, China, the second of the three children of Jessie and Norman Parfit. Jesse and Norman practised preventive medicine in Christian missionary hospitals. Soon after Derek’s birth they moved back to the UK. Derek’s school record was outstanding in every subject except mathematics. He ‘read’ for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in history at Balliol College, Oxford, 1961-64. Seven years after they get their BA, Oxford BA graduates are awarded the degree of Master of Arts. That was his highest degree. Following a period in the USA as a Harkness Fellow, in 1967 he won a Prize Fellowship to All Souls College, Oxford. It remained his primary academic base. In 1983 or so, Parfit met Janet Radcliffe Richards, author of the 1980 book The Sceptical Feminist. They got together some months later, and were together for the rest of his life.