Thinking about Grief: An Interview with Prof. Michael Cholbi

Prof. Cholbi is a Chair in the Philosophy Department at the University of Edinburgh. He works on issues involving death, practical and theoretical ethics, and the philosophy of labor.

JIMMY LICON: How did you become a professional philosopher?

MICHAEL CHOLBI: I’m not sure I ever resolved to become a philosopher. It was more like that at each stage along that path, I decided to continue: as an undergrad, to decide to do a PhD; as a late stage PhD, to seek an academic job, and so on. In some ways, I viewed each stage as a provisional choice – something to try on for size. But it does feel like the ‘fit’ for my temperament was good. Being a philosopher allows me to keep learning and it suits my skill set fairly well.

JL: Your book Grief: A Philosophical Guide just dropped. Why should we care about grief?

MC: Actually, philosophers traditionally haven’t cared much about grief! Historically, philosophers rarely addressed the topic, and when they did, their attitudes were often very dismissive – that grief should be minimized or eliminated. But philosophers should care about grief. One goal of philosophy is to understand ourselves better, including the experiences that define us. Grief is among the most central of human experiences, so its philosophical neglect leaves a big gap in our self-understanding. Beyond that, I view myself as working in the ‘therapeutic’ tradition in philosophy, the tradition weaving through figures like Epicurus, the Stoics, and Montaigne, that asserts that in the midst of adversity we can survive, even thrive, if we have an adequate understanding of ourselves and what is good for us. Grief is a natural topic for that tradition.

JL: For what sorts of creatures can we rationally grieve? We can’t grieve for our favorite chair, I take it, but perhaps a beloved teddy bear from childhood?

MC: The term ‘grief’ is used in narrower or looser ways. ‘Grief’ is sometimes used loosely to refer to any significant loss. In my own work, I’m interested mainly in the narrower sense: the complex emotional response that the deaths of specific other people elicits in us. I do think it’s crucial that the narrower sort of grief is prompted by the loss of relationships we have with that which can, in principle, relate back to us. So I’d be skeptical that we can grieve when we lose our favorite chair – less skeptical in the case of the teddy bear, since children relate to some of their toys in person-like ways. The relationship in that case is heavily shaped by imagination but has some interpersonal qualities nevertheless.

JL: Are there differences between sadness and grief? If so, what are they?

MC: Sadness is obviously a common element of grief. But of course we feel sadness when we watch certain movies or read certain novels, but we’re not grieving in that case. So there’s not a perfect overlap between grief and sadness. More crucially, most people experience other emotions in the course of a grief episode as well – disorientation, anxiety, resentment, guilt, even joy. Grief is more akin to a emotional process, a form of sustained affective attention, than a single emotion, be it sadness or something else.

JL: Should we think of grief as having an aim, or accomplishing something? Or it is more like a by-product of something useful, e.g. the sound of our heart beating?

MC: My view is that grief can provide something of great value: self-knowledge. I mean by this knowledge of what matters to us – what we should view as our central goals, commitments, and values. Grief is the product of something deeply challenging, the death of someone in whom our identities have been invested. In this sense, it’s grief that’s useful, both motivating us to seek greater self-knowledge as well as providing us with an abundance of emotional evidence on which to draw in order to pursue self-knowledge.

JL: The philosopher, Dan Moller, has noted that we’re resilient, in that we often recover from grief quicker than most would expect. And we should regret this as it makes us blind, over time, to how much we care about loved ones. What should we make of Dan’s point here?

MC: As my previous answer hints at, I am sympathetic to one aspect of what Moller says: it would be a misfortune if we ended up blind to how our loved ones mattered to us once grief ended. But there’s a lot to contest in how Moller understands grief. In my opinion, his position overlooks how grief involves more emotions besides sadness; we may ‘recover’ in the sense that we no longer feel sadness, but we will often continue to engage emotionally with the deceased and are therefore not ‘blind’ to them or to how they mattered to us once our sadness comes to an end. (People continue to remember dead loved ones well after the sadness of grief has faded.). What we should regret is if, after the prolonged emotional attention grief involves, we are still stuck with goals, commitments, or values that assume that we can continue to have the same kind of relationship with the deceased that we had with them when they were alive. I’d also add that his position underestimates the degree to which grief is an activity – we can’t control it exactly, but we’re also not helpless in the face of grief either. It’s something akin to musical improvisation; the musician is given the score but can respond to it and shape it into something new. Grieving is something we do – not merely something that happens to us.

JL: Do we have a duty to grieve? Should we grieve for some people (e.g., loved ones), but not for others (e.g., Hitler, Stalin)?

MC: In my book, I argue that we have a duty to ourselves to grieve because we have a duty to pursue self-knowledge and (as I said earlier) grief is a powerful opportunity for self-knowledge. But do we owe it to others to grieve them? If so, then it’s an interesting question whether there are some people who are so bad that they ought not be grieved – did Stalin forfeit whatever right to be grieved through his nefarious deeds? I’m not sure I see a strong moral objection to (say) Stalin’s loved ones grieving him in a private and small-scale way. The bigger question is about large-scale public mourning of the sort we in fact saw for Stalin. There I think we’ve entered the political domain. It’s tempting to argue that it would have better that Stalin not be mourned but simply be forgotten. But he wouldn’t be forgotten whether or not his death was mourned. The question is what difference mourning bad people makes to how we relate to them and their actions. Is it possible to genuinely mourn bad people in a way that has moral integrity? I wish I knew!

JL: Grief looks like a philosophically rich topic, and something most of us will endure. What do you think explains the relative silence by philosophers on the topic?

MC: One reason for that silence is that treating grief as an important philosophy topic requires thinking that our interdependence or vulnerability are not only essential features of human beings, but that these could be valuable features of human beings. And a good bit of the ‘Western’ philosophical tradition hasn’t seen interdependence or vulnerability as valuable features of human beings. A lot of ancient Mediterranean philosophy saw the happy or virtuous life as a self-sufficient life (‘lacking in nothing,’ as Aristotle put it), so they consequently saw grief as a bit shameful. Part of my objective in writing about grief is identify reasons why it shouldn’t be a source of shame.

JL: Was there a time when you failed, either in your personal or professional life, spectacularly? What did you learn from that failure, and how has it improved your life?

MC: Wow. Without too much detail, I should not have accepted the first permanent academic position I was offered. I should have asked more questions about it, been more attuned to ‘red flags,’ and had more confidence in my ability to find another (maybe even better!) position. Of course, I’m also aware that had I not accepted that position, my career might not have ended up as it did, and honestly, my career has been very gratifying. But I think that experience did show me that self-doubt can lead to bad decisions.

JL: What do you want people to say about you and your work a hundred years hence? What do you want written on your tombstone?

MC: You’re asking a philosopher who writes on grief what to put on my tombstone? How many characters do I get? Not sure about the specifics, but I’d like the tombstone to acknowledge somehow that I’m a descendant of uneducated, working class immigrants. People like me aren’t ‘supposed to’ have lives like the one I’ve had, so I’ve been deeply fortunate to be able to absorb what life has to offer. This captures something of the spirit I have in mind:

If you enjoyed this, please SUBSCRIBE. It’s FREE, with new content EVERY week.