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A Life that Mattered

Derek Parfit, one of the greatest philosophers of his generation, died on the first day of this year. At a time when many people are despairing about current political trends, Parfit's writings can encourage us to take a longer and more optimistic perspective.

PRINCETON – On January 1, Derek Parfit, one of the greatest philosophers of my generation, died. Just a year earlier, in a poll on a leading philosophy website, Parfit had been voted the most important living Anglophone philosopher.

Of all the philosophers I have known since I began to study the subject more than 50 years ago, Parfit was the closest to a genius. Getting into a philosophical argument with him was like playing chess with a grandmaster: he had already thought of every response I could make to his arguments, considered several possible replies, and knew the objections to each reply as well as the best counters to those objections.

Parfit was not a household name. Few people outside the world of academic philosophy have read anything he wrote. Nor did he appear on television, although late in life, he spoke about effective altruism, and two of those talks can be seen online.

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