I’m sure this isn’t right…

The New Yorker abstract of its article on Derek Parfit contains this (would-be telling) sentence: “Around the mid-nineties, Parfit started reading Kant. He became more and more troubled by the ways in which Kant diverged from Sidgwick, and by the way that modern Kantians disagreed with modern consequentialists and both disagreed with contractualists.”

This would be news that perhaps the most discussed ethicist of the last thirty years read Kant only after engaging with him critically in various articles in the 1970s and 80s. Insert your Continentalist critique that analytics don’t engage the tradition they pretend to transcend here. But there are, you know, numerous citations to Kant in Reasons and Persons so maybe it depends on the reading of “reading” in the above. Like the kids say, it only counts if you repeat it: I was reading him, but in the 90s, I was, like reading him reading him…

(That said, there are far more philosophers than people in other disciplines would believe who simply are really ill-read outside of their tiny confines. I have had colleagues who have never read any number of canonical figures: never a word of Plato or Aquinas or Kant…After all, if it didn’t come after Russell, then it doesn’t count.)



One comment

  1. I have to correct myself often: When reading this or that philosopher, I often feel inclined to rush to a conclusion – ‘he hasn’t read so-and-so’ – which often *actually* means, “he or she hasn’t footnoted here or in other texts I’m aware of someone I feel is relevant”.

    I have to remind myself that 1. Just because you don’t write about it doesn’t mean you haven’t read it. The act of reading is very elusive, I forget I read things all the time – which doesn’t mean it didn’t have any effect, and 2. There is a huge variation in “reading”: from a couple of articles as an undergrad, through to reading a magnum opus cover to cover endlessly. We need the proverbial 52 words that mean “snow” here to show the range.

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