The rationality of grief

Price, Carolyn (2010). The rationality of grief. Inquiry, 53(1) pp. 20–40.



Donald Gustafson has argued that grief centres on a combination of belief and desire:

The belief that the subject has suffered an irreparable loss.
The desire that this should not be the case.

And yet, as Gustafson points out, if the belief is true, the desire cannot be satisfied. Gustafson takes this to show that grief inevitably implies an irrational conflict between belief and desire.

I offer a partial defence of grief against Gustafson's charge of irrationality. My defence rests on two elements. First, I offer an alternative model of emotion, which presents emotions as complex episodes, initiated by emotional appraisals. Secondly, I appeal to John Bowlby's account of grief to argue that grief involves two forms of sadness (anguish and desolation) which Gustafson's analysis runs together. I concede that anguish does characteristically involve an element of irrationality. But the irrationality of anguish does not arise from an apparently gratuitous clash between belief and desire, but from a conflict between emotion and belief—a form of irrationality that is both familiar and easily explained. Moreover, desolation need not involve any irrationality.

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