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Gratitude November 18, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Ethics, Philosophy.

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us; its time to think about gratitude and food. Truth be told, my thoughts are seldom very far from the topic of food. I suppose there is an issue about whether fluffy mashed potatoes are better than creamy. I prefer fluffy but I don’t yet have a philosophical argument for this preference. So I shall leave discussion of the right method of making fluffy mashed potatoes to other media. (See here) However, gratitude raises some philosophical questions worth asking this time of year.

Gratitude is an emotion and, like other emotions, has what philosophers call an intentional object. Our emotions are about something. We don’t just feel fear–we fear something. We are not simply sad, but sad about something. Similarly, we are not just grateful but are grateful for something and feel gratitude toward something.

Our ordinary uses of the word “gratitude” suggest that the object of gratitude is another person. Gratitude expresses appreciation for a benefit received, and that suggests that something must have been the giver of the benefit and must have intended it as a benefit. Moreover, if our expressions of gratitude are to make sense, it would seem that we must express them to something that can recognize and appreciate the gratitude. The only thing that seems to qualify is another person.

To whom are we expressing gratitude at Thanksgiving? Believers in a personal God (Christians, Muslims, Jews, some Hindus, etc.) have a ready answer to this question. A God who listens to prayers, is capable of love, and has intentions has the necessary personal characteristics to be a recipient of gratitude, and if the religious narrative is correct, is surely deserving of it.

But what about non-believers (agnostics, atheists, Buddhists) or those who believe in an impersonal God, such as some Hindus, Taoists, etc. Does it make sense to give thanks to an impersonal God, or the universe, or nature? These impersonal beings have no intentions and lack conscious awareness. They neither intended to confer benefit on us nor recognize our attempts to give thanks. Is giving such thanks a coherent idea?

There are many people who do give thanks to impersonal objects. For instance, practitioners of yoga (with its roots in Hinduism) report intense feelings of gratitude and direct them towards nature or Being. But what is the structure of this feeling? What is the object? Of course one can pick an object like the sun toward which to express gratitude–surely the sun benefits us. But it’s just a ball of gas with no intentions or ability to receive our thanks. We can rejoice in its existence and appreciate its usefulness and beauty, but that is not the same thing as expressing gratitude.

My own view about gratitude is this. As human beings we are vulnerable creatures and when that vulnerability is lessened we naturally feel intense relief and celebration. The abundance we celebrate at Thanksgiving is a symbol of the mitigation of our vulnerability. But the object of gratitude is not some impersonal force. By themselves, the forces of nature confer no benefits on us. Without a human society that enables us to manage nature, the sun’s rays or a rainstorm’s moisture are cruel, blind impresses that would quickly snuff out human existence.We survive because of the existence of other persons both past and present who cooperate in ways that allow us to benefit from nature

The people sitting around our Thanksgiving tables are people we depend on and they deserve our gratitude. So do the people who continue to live only in our memories. But these concrete others are also symbols. They are symbols of the vast networks of anonymous others that make our abundance possible. Human beings who do their best everyday, who work hard, play hard, and take their responsibilities seriously. They make our abundance possible and deserve our thanks.

Of course, we don’t have personal relationships with all of these anonymous others. But they are persons who strive to add value and are conscious of doing so and who can acknowledge and receive thanks. And surely they are less abstract than the impersonal divinities of the Asian religions or the personal God of monotheism. Unlike the benefits conferred by deities, we can trace the causal lines of influence and explain the human excellence that puts food on our tables, energy in our homes, and information in our books and on our computers.

As we sit around the table at Thanksgiving, we see in the faces of family and friends the anonymous others who make our lives possible. Though anonymous they are not impersonal and are an appropriate object of gratitude.



1. Nina Rosenstand - November 19, 2007

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving! Let us all have a brief moment in time where we focus on nondenominational good cheer and good food…As for this intriguing analysis of gratitude, three things come to mind: (1) Husserl notwithstanding, it is not impossible that we have the capacity for nonintentional feelings, i.e., a feeling of gratitude extended simply beyond ourselves, toward no one in particular. I would think that this feeling is akin to an immense overflowing of appreciation for one’s good fortune in view of the possible alternatives–a nondirectional rejoicing that results in giving thanks to Chance and Luck. (This is what usually gets redirected to “God,” “The Church,” “The State,” or whoever one thinks has the most influence in those matters. But of course there are moments where people really do thank God, or the State, etc., with all their heart, and the appropriateness of that is surely a matter of personal opinion.) (2) Gratitude may actually not be exclusively an emotion, but also (pardon my soundbite) an attitude, a being-toward which we choose because we deem it to be appropriate. In other words, we often show gratitude rather than feel it, for societal reasons. (3) Getting back to the present and non-present recipients of your suggested feeling of gratitude, which I really like, especially the element of extending it to those who are no longer with us, and those whose unseen hands have helped bringing us to this moment. But something that is rarely brought up is the proper way, not to show gratitude, but to receive gratitude. Tell someone you’re grateful for what he or she has done, and they rarely know what to say! This, I think, is a lack in our moral education–we are appropriately focused on giving thanks where thanks is due, but we are not taught to receive gratitude graciously…

2. Paul Moloney - November 20, 2007

I am thankful to Professor Furrow for bringing up the topic of gratitude. I am not sure that I would have ever thought of gratitude as being a philosophical topic. As Professor Furrow teaches, appreciation follows upon understanding; the more we understand something, such as music or art, the better we can appreciate it. It is worthwhile, then, to investigate gratitude in order to better appreciate it.

It may be possible to give thanks to something impersonal, but I do not think it is reasonable to do so. It is unreasonable to give thanks to something that will never know our thanks, and it is unreasonable to try to reason with something that cannot reason, such as the sun. As Professor Furrow argues, the giving of a benefit belongs to the intention of the giver; it is a rational choice. I am thankful for the sun, but I am not thankful to the sun.

It has to be determined what the perspective of the philosopher is in regards to gratitude. The philosopher regards gratitude in relation to Wisdom. If philosophy is the love of Wisdom, it is the pursuit of Wisdom through love. No one wants to become wise without loving Wisdom. If philosophy has an essence to it, it is Wisdom. The philosopher is grateful to those who help them become wise. The philosopher is grateful for that which is conducive to becoming wise. Gratitude, then, follows upon love.

The pursuit of philosophy is a social endeavor. As Professor Furrow points out, there are many people that benefit us whom we may never know. Many people make the pursuit of philosophy possible for us, too many to even imagine. There are the people that built the school, the people that keep the school running, bus drivers that bring people to school, and the list goes on and on. Without society there could be no pursuit of philosophy.

It is unreasonable to give thanks to things that will never have any knowledge of our thanks, that is a form of talking to oneself. It is especially unreasonable when we neglect to give thanks to those people who have benefited us. Again, as Professor Furrow points out, we will never know all the people that have benefited us. The best way to give thanks might be to be as reasonable as possible to all those we come across, whether we know them or not.

In response to Professor Rosenstand’s thoughts on the reception or the difficulty of receiving gratitude, I wonder if that difficulty is based on a false humility. It seems that the overtly proud person is willing to receive any gratitude whether or not they are deserving of it. I also wonder if we have difficulty in receiving gratitude because we are not actually grateful ourselves. It may be that many of us were brought up to say thank you because it is polite to do so. How sincere our thanks is is another matter. There should be no difficulty in receiving gratitude if we our truly thankful persons. For the sake of argument, say someone is grateful for the way I write, there should be no difficulty in receiving the gratitude without being boastful. If I do write well, it would be due to the efforts of many people. To receive gratitude well would be a way to give thanks to those that helped me. Those that cannot receive gratitude well might be those that attribute to much to themselves. False humility can mask the injustice done to others.

It is the mark of the intelligent person to be grateful. It is the intelligent person that knows they have been benefited and by whom.
Again, as Professor Furrow points out, it is the mark of the intelligent person to know they have also been benefited by persons unknown. To all those that have helped me become more intelligent I give thanks.

3. Brian Sax - March 7, 2010

The very idea of gratitude is to me its own argument for the existence of a personal God who began all things. If I feel & experience gratitude for what my parents gave me, does the gratitude deserve to stop there? Have I not given credit only partly where credit was due? I then must acknowledge the people that gave them their life & ‘abundance’ that allowed them to give me mine. So reasonably, it draws me back, both in attitude and in thought to the issue of Origins. Can Personality and its inseparable Gratitude flow from an Impersonal Force? Can the first man to exist personally thank ‘the universe’ for by chance creating him? If this impossibility were so, then all of my gratitude seems nonsense also. For if we came here by chance, even our personality is an illusion and therefore Gratitude becomes meaningless & nonsense.

But according to historic Christianity (and other monotheistic religions), gratitude flows upward from receiver to giver and eventually to the Unmoved Mover, The Giver, and in so doing, edifies the grateful person. In so doing, it also fosters true humility and in a sort of negative-feedback system creates more gratitude.

In my personal experience, it is gratitude that shows love best. Love is the chiefest thing, but gratitude gives love fuel and a fertile field from which to grow.

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