Grief's rationality, backward and forward

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Grief is our emotional response to the deaths of intimates, and so like many other emotional conditions, it can be appraised in terms of its rationality. A philosophical account of grief's rationality should satisfy a contingency constraint, wherein grief is neither intrinsically rational nor intrinsically irrational. Here I provide an account of grief and its rationality that satisfies this constraint, while also being faithful to the phenomenology of grief experience. I begin by arguing against the best known account of grief's rationality, Gustafson's strategic or forward‐looking account, according to which the practical rationality of grief depends on the internal coherence of the component attitudes that explain the behaviors caused by grief, and more exactly, on how these attitudes enable the individual to realize states of affairs that she desires. While I do not deny that episodes of grief can be appraised in terms of their strategic rationality, I deny that strategic rationality is the essential or fundamental basis on which grief's rationality should be appraised. In contrast, the heart of grief's rationality is backward‐looking. That is, what primarily makes an episode of grief rational qua grief is the fittingness of the attitudes individuals take toward the experience of a lost relationship, attitudes which in turn generate the desires and behaviors that constitute bereavement. Grief thus derives its essential rationality from the objects it responds to, not from the attitudes causally downstream from that response, and is necessarily irrational when the behaviors that constitute an individual's grieving are inappropriate to the object of that grief. So while the strategic rationality of an episode of grief contributes to whether it is on the whole rational, no episode of grief can be rational unless the actions that constitute grieving accurately gauge the change in a person's normative situation wrought by the loss of her relationship with the deceased.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-272
JournalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research
Issue number2
Early online date7 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017


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