Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology

Liz Gulliford, Blaire Morgan, Kristján Kristjánsson

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This paper constitutes a critical review of the recent philosophical and psychological literatures on the concept of gratitude, literatures which have proliferated in recent years. Indeed, it seems everybody nowadays wants to enthuse about gratitude. In theological circles that is no novelty; ever since St. Paul’s exhortation in Thessalonians 5:18, “In every thing give thanks, for this is the will of God,” most scholars working within the Christian tradition have accorded gratitude a high value. More surprisingly, however, academics reared in the secular disciplines of psychology and philosophy have recently jumped on the pro-gratitude bandwagon. Gone are the days when gratitude was deemed the “emotion most neglected by psychologists” and when philosophers could rightly observe that contemporary philosophy has had “comparatively little to say about gratitude.”1 Suddenly, eliciting the conceptual contours of gratitude has become a popular endeavor in philosophy, and psychologists have eagerly started to tease out the relationship between gratitude and a number of positive personal and social variables. Many of those psychologists hail from the newly established positive-psychology camp which has shifted attention within social science to a number of understudied topics alongside gratitude, such as forgiveness, hope, and optimism, and even those hot-to-handle-for-empirical-scientists concepts of moral character and virtue, previously banished from the discipline.2

What has been the catalyst for this change of academic compass regarding gratitude? It seems that time had – for various reasons – become ripe for its rediscovery and reappraisal. The upsurge of virtue ethics in moral philosophy towards the end of the twentieth century prompted a new examination of emotional virtues, and it was only a question of time when gratitude would come under the spotlight there. Similarly, in psychology, the cognitive revolution, which emphasized complex cognitive emotions (as distinct from mere feelings), coupled with the late twentieth-century focus on emotional intelligence and the early twenty-first century one on positive character traits and virtues, was always bound to identify gratitude as a topic of potential interest.

What precisely, then, is gratitude? How and when does it manifest itself? In what sense and why should it be virtuous or socially beneficial? These questions are now occupying the minds of philosophers and psychologists alike, and none of them seems to admit of an easy or unproblematic answer. For one thing, although virtue ethics is truly hot at the moment, in particular Aristotelian or neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, it is by no means clear how gratitude fits into the frame of virtue in general – let alone Aristotelian virtue.3 It does not appear in the list of standard virtues in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, nor among the additional virtues of a purely emotional nature that he introduces in the Rhetoric. 4 Moreover, Aristotle seems to denounce gratitude as a potential virtue in his description of the great-minded – (megalopsychoi) – in the Nicomachean Ethics: the paragons of moral virtue whom we are evidently meant to emulate.5 Even if gratitude could, in one of its many senses, be brought into the fold of an Aristotelian virtue, this would probably require considerable regimentation of the concept with respect to both academic and lay uses. Indeed, one of the present authors has begun work on that project.6

Talk of many senses of gratitude is very much to the point here, bringing us directly to the remit of the present paper – to review critically recent work on gratitude with respect to its conceptual foundations – and to raise more serious concerns about the state of current gratitude-discourse than its deviation from the Aristotelian oracle. Coming from the disciplinary backgrounds of philosophy, psychology, and theology, we began our review of the literatures on gratitude with the working hypothesis that the concept might be characterized and studied differently in different academic fields, which would make interdisciplinary work on gratitude troublesome. While that seems clearly to be the case, as briefly charted in Section 1, our search gradually brought to light more divergent uses of the term gratitude than we had previously imagined, and the finding that scholars within philosophy, on the one hand, and psychology, on the other, differ as radically among themselves and talk as conspicuously past one another as they do across disciplinary borders. Indeed, the conceptual controversies about gratitude that rage in philosophy seem, more or less, to be replicated in psychology, although typically in less explicitly argued-for incarnations. We review those controversies in Sections 2–8. Although previous authors have lamented the disagreements that characterize the discursive fields in question and identified particular conceptual shortcomings, Section 9 demonstrates more radically that the disagreements do not only concern different conceptions of a single concept, but rather relate to radically different types of concepts.7

Some philosophers appear guilty of superimposing their preferred assumptions on gratitude in the name of conceptual rigor – thus airbrushing purported deviant or misplaced uses – without taking account of the possibility that different concepts of gratitude may be abroad in academic and lay discourse, each with its own particular function. Conversely, some psychologists appear guilty of either undertaking their work in a conceptual vacuum or taking for granted some unique specification of gratitude, often derived from a respected authority, without making an effort of arguing for it. Only by disentangling the different uses of the term gratitude and the conceptual controversies surrounding it do issues concerning the nature and salience of gratitude begin to open up to us. The aim of the present paper is thus not to offer a debunking diagnosis of the literatures, but to suggest a way forward for both psychological and philosophical accounts of gratitude – ways out of current impasses.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-317
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of Value Inquiry
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2013


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