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The ‘constitutive thought’ of regret

Scarre, Geoffrey

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Geoffrey Scarre


In this paper I defend and develop Bernard Williams’ claim that the ‘constitutive thought’ of regret is ‘something like “how much better if it had been otherwise”’. An introductory section on cognitivist theories of emotion is followed by a detailed investigation of the concept of ‘agent-regret’ and of the ways in which the ‘constitutive thought’ might be articulated in different situations in which agents acknowledge casual responsibility for bringing about undesirable outcomes. Among problematic cases discussed are those in which agents have caused harm through no fault of their own, or have been constrained to choose the lesser of two evils or to act against their moral values. R. Jay Wallace’s ‘bourgeois predicament’ and related cases, in which we recognize that our present advantages have flowed from regrettable antecedents, further show that regret is often not a simple emotion, and it is argued that conflicted regrets are sometimes unavoidable. Finally, the paper looks at Descartes’ account of regret as a form of sadness engendered by the recollection of irrecoverable happy experiences, to which the ‘constitutive thought’ does not readily apply. It is suggested that what Descartes is discussing is a different genre of emotion for which ‘nostalgia’ might be a better name.


Scarre, G. (2017). The ‘constitutive thought’ of regret. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 25(5), 569-585.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 18, 2017
Online Publication Date Oct 11, 2017
Publication Date Oct 11, 2017
Deposit Date Sep 28, 2017
Publicly Available Date Apr 11, 2019
Journal International Journal of Philosophical Studies
Print ISSN 0967-2559
Electronic ISSN 1466-4542
Publisher Taylor and Francis Group
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 25
Issue 5
Pages 569-585


Accepted Journal Article (461 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in International Journal of Philosophical Studies on 11 Oct 2017, available online:

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