Derek Parfit, typesetting and marmalade

4 min readJan 3, 2017

Derek Parfit, who was an extraordinary and ingenious philosopher and a fascinating and delightful conversationalist, critic and friend to many, has died and will be sorely missed. I knew him reasonably well for about five years whilst I was encouraging him to publish his book Reasons and Persons with Oxford University Press. I was the philosophy editor at that time, and I was convinced that it was most important that his book should appear through the Press. The OUP philosophy list was not then the pre-eminent philosophy publisher that it is now and it seemed to me quite possible that Derek’s book would be snapped up by Duckworth, Blackwells, or — heaven help us — Cambridge where his friends Bernard Williams and Tom Nagel were published. Persuading Derek was not too difficult, and it certainly was not a matter of offering him exceptional terms — except perhaps in guaranteeing that the book would not be too expensive in spite of its considerable length. I think All Souls was putting some pressure on him to produce an important book (had it been an implicit condition of awarding him a second long-term research fellowship?), and all his friends knew that the typescript that he had been cultivating for several years should be published, and that if it were published it would be much read.

But Derek was not in all ways an easy author. Always delightful and interesting but by no means easy. This period (the early 1980’s) was just the time when word processing was becoming so much a normal feature of scholarly writing that most academics believed that books could be produced much more efficiently and cheaply if the work was ‘typeset’ directly from the word processing files. I had been able to persuade R M Hare that it would be quite impractical to produce his latest book from the 8" floppy disks that he proudly delivered to my office from the Corpus Christi office Xerox 860. Derek was not so easily shepherded and was convinced that his book should be published with maximum efficiency, so with the help of Catherine Griffin (the wife of his friend Jim Griffin), the book’s copy editor, Angela Blackburn, and one or two others who worked long hours as the Oxford University Computing Service, camera-ready copy was generated from the author’s keystrokes. The Computing Service had recently acquired a typesetting machine capable of complex and multi-lingual work, and Catherine Griffin was the expert in charge. I cannot now remember whether the Press paid anything for this work (probably a small charge would have been levied), but I suspect that the process was a lot more finicky and time-consuming than either Catherine or Derek would have allowed for. Derek would not have been good at forswearing the temptation to make further corrections and improvements to the text that had already been signed off. Furthermore, the typesetting computer had an impressive array of fonts in various languages but it did not at that time have a satisfactory program for hyphenation, and so we have the uneven spacing we see in the final work. And not a single hyphenated line ending.

Derek’s personal presence and slightly eccentric manner, was wonderful. Two memories that have stayed with me, rather deviate from his fondness for philosophical innovation and thought experiments. About matters of taste he was surprisingly conservative. Perhaps he changed, but at that time he insisted that the only thing he would eat at breakfast was toast with marmalade. He had some years earlier realised and decided that the taste and the meal was just right and resolved always to stick to that policy. Similarly, he had decided that Venice in October and St Petersburg (it must then have been Leningrad) in late January or early February, was just perfect for a holiday and for some years those were the holidays he took. One year he was insistent that my wife and I should join him in Leningrad. He was not then married and he liked having companions on these holidays, but since the main attraction of Leningrad for him was taking photographs of the frozen river and the spectacular buildings in their snowy setting, I wonder whether his companions began to stamp their feet and push for more time at the Hermitage. We had very young children and this was before the days of Ryanair so we decided not to go. It would have been ….

My boss at OUP at that time, a scientist, used to tease me about the importance of Parfit’s book. He was amused and bemused that I thought it was so vital that the book should be published by us. The sales after all were good, but by no means spectacular. It might be a much better book than most philosophy books, but how come, if it were so important, the sales were not spectacular, as for example the sales for Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which the Press had published a few years earlier? But I was always unrepentant and confident that the book would have a lasting impact. We cannot be sure that Parfit will still be widely read 100 years from now, but he was an impressive teacher and a powerful thinker. Along with JL Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law, Reasons and Persons is one of the best books to come from the Oxford school of philosophy in the twentieth century. It would have been published any way, but I am glad to have helped it on its way.