Eton’s annual Parfit Lecture attracts acclaimed philosophers, but it was a particular privilege for the Wotton’s Society to host the celebrated Dr. Simon Blackburn. Dr Blackburn began his career at Cambridge, and was a professor there until 2011. Throughout his career Dr Blackburn has been involved in a range of philosophical debates, and most notably his rigorous, yet accessible, books have received worldwide acclaim, in particular his 1999 work ‘Think: A Compelling Introduction To Philosophy.’
It was during his time at Cambridge that he met the eponymous Derek Parfit OE, whom the annual lecture honours. Dr Blackburn began his talk by remembering their time together, reflecting on their trips to foreign countries and philosophical discussions, stories which would become sounding boards for the thought experiments he presented later in his talk.
Exploring the topic of ‘Selves, Thought Experiments, and Reasons: Hume and Parfit’, Dr Blackburn explained how Dr Parfit wrote up to 800-page volumes responding to Hume’s postulates on ‘sentimentalism,’ a meta-ethical theory which proposes that ethics in large part takes its roots, or ought to derive from, emotional values rather than pure reason. Parfit, building on the work of Kant, devised a detailed response, utilising the philosophies of utilitarianism and egoism to formulate an original and comprehensive response to this problem, at a time when ‘rationalist’ views were widely unpopular.
Dr Blackburn also told us about the issue of personal identity, often referred to as the “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment, which asks how we know that we remain ‘ourselves’ throughout our lives. Every few decades our cells renew, we become almost unrecognisable to people who may not have seen us regularly, and our opinions, experiences and situations develop and evolve. This of course raises the question of what makes us ‘ourselves’. Locke responded to this question with the idea that memory was the unifying factor, but this seemed unsatisfactory to both Parfit and Blackburn, who determined their own resolutions to this complex problem, the fascinating explanation of which constituted the rest of Dr. Blackburn’s talk.
Many thanks to the professor for his illuminating talk. Much like his books, I have no doubt his talk inspired a number of boys to pursue philosophy at school and university.