The Development of Sympathy in Hume’s Thinking: From a ‘Delicacy of Sympathy’ [i.e., Empathy] to a Taste

Draft article: DraftHumeSympathy20091116Agosta 

There is a long history in British empiricist philosophy that engages “sympathy.” There are at least four meanings of “sympathy” in the writings of David Hume, dating to his a Treatise on Human Nature (1739). In today’s post I want to qualify the statement that “sympathy” in Hume means what today we call “empathy.” In selected quotations where Hume conjoins the sympathetic communications of sentiments with the idea of an other individual, “sympathy” means “empathy.” In particular, “delicate sympathy” would capture those features of fine-grained distinction that are characteristic of empathy, but the possibility remains undeveloped by Hume. In the development of Hume’s philosophical activity, “delicacy of sympathy” is swallowed up conceptually by “delicacy of taste.” In subsequent passages (and here is the qualification), “sympathy” means “the power of suggestion” or “emotional contagion” (see above “contagious”; T 3.3.3.5; SBN 604-5). These different, over-lapping, not entirely consistent uses of “sympathy” exist side-by-side in the Treatise (1739) as demonstrated by the textual evidence cited in the attachment. Furthermore, “sympathy” is not a static concept in Hume; but undergoes a dynamic development. By the time of the Enquiry (1751), the push down of “sympathy” behind compassion and taste is complete. “Sympathy” migrates in the direction of compassion as it takes on the content of qualities useful to mankind as benevolence, leaving taste to dominate the field of fine-grained distinctions in the communicability of feelings between persons (“friends”) as well as in the appreciation of beauty.  This former point is essential. Taste gives us an enjoyment of the qualities of the characters of persons in conversation, humor, and friendship that is a super-set of what empathy does with its fine-grained distinctions in accessing the experiences of other persons. The prospect of “delicacy of sympathy” in the social realm of human interrelations is left without further development by Hume. Instead, Hume presents taste as the capacity to discriminate “particular feelings,” which are produced by beauty and deformity. [1] This special capacity to feel is dependent on the ability of our sensory organs to perceive the fine details of a composition. A detailed engagement with these distinctions is attached above.  Please give me the benefit of your comments, feedback, criticisms, impertinent remarks – you get the idea. All signed, authenticated contributions given full credit in the footnotes if this rough draft is ever formally published.

As noted, Hume has at least four distinct meanings of “sympathy” that he uses opportunistically. First, “sympathy” functions in the communicability of affect; next it encompasses what is often described as “emotional contagion,” the communicability of affect without the inclusion of the idea of the other individual as its source; thirdly, it encompasses the power of suggestion; and, finally, it comes to include an element of benevolence, approaching the meaning of “compassion” that we hear in it today. How this series of transformations unfolds is the topic of this story as the meaning of “sympathy” evolves from a communicability of affect to the (re)active sentiment of compassion with which we regard it today. The crucial difference between sympathy in the strict sense and emotional contagion is delimited in terms of a double representation. The opportunity for Hume was to develop the parallel between a “delicacy of taste” and a “delicacy of sympathy,” the latter capturing what we moderns mean by “empathy.” This opportunity is lost, however, and the “delicate” aspects of sympathy end up being gathered together with “delicacy of taste” and buried over in the discussion of aesthetics rather than as a free standing topic in (moral) psychology.


[1] David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757), in Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965): 11.

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Categories: Empathy, Ethics, Introspection, Philosophy, sympathy, Taste (aesthetic)

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