Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: The Mechanism of Sympathy

I’ve recently been reading Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, and already I think it is clear that this is one of the most underrated works of philosophy from the early modern era.

I’ve been yapping at people a lot about Smith’s account of our Sympathy for the deceased, so I wanted to write up some of my thoughts on it, but I’m going to try and do this in a multi-part post, rather than one giant one.

In this first post First, though I need to present my understanding of the basics of Smith’s account of sympathy. We’ll start with Smith’s own statement of the core of the account (TMS

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enuring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or disress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.

Smith’s account, I take it, is this: I see someone else in circumstance C. I don’t perceive what it is like for them to be in C, but instead, I imagine what it would be like for me to be in C. Imagining myself in C produces a weaker version of the emotional reaction that would be produced if I were in C. This is the mechanism, on Smith’s view, whereby I can have sympathy (aka “fellow-feeling”) with that person.

There are a few interesting aspects of this account that I want to flag. First, the account can be thought of as having three components: 1) perceiving someone else’s circumstances, 2) imagining oneself in those circumstances, and 3) reacting emotionally to the act of imagination. This is interesting because it has specific psychological predictions about instances of sympathetic emotional reaction.

Second, the principal place that judgment or belief enters the picture is in the first component: there, we have a perceptual judgment that so-and-so is in such-and-such circumstances. The subsequent elements of the account involve an act of imagination as well as an emotional reaction to the imagining. And though this judgment is a component of cases of sympathetic emotion, it is non-essential to the machinery of the other components (at least, for all that has been said). The emotional reaction is consequent on the act of imagining, but we can and do imagine ourselves in circumstances that we do not perceive others to be in. This opens room for a puzzle about why I am saddened much more when the act of imagining is prompted by perceiving someone in those circumstances, than when I just imagine myself in such circumstances. I suspect that the strength of the imagining would be a natural thing to appeal to in response to this puzzle, and my guess is that the best response to this puzzle is that we imagine more strongly with perceptual prompting then if we just idly imagine ourselves in some circumstances.

Third, the account is general for various emotions. Smith’s opening example is one of sympathetic sorrow, but he intends it to apply to cases of joy, anger, etc. There are some interesting remarks on which emotions are more or less prone to produce sympathy (and the degrees of sympathy they are prone to produce), but I won’t go into that here.

Finally, the account is indirect in a way that may be troublesome to some: It is natural to think that I can sympathetically become sad simply by seeing the sadness in someone’s face. Smith’s account does not, as it stands, permit this. Smith actually discusses this worry though (TMS

Upon some occasions sympathy may seem to arise merely from the view of a certain emotion in another person. The passions, upon some occasions, may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person pricipally concerned. Grief and joy, for example, strongly expressed in the look and gestures of any one, at once affect the spectator with some degree of a like painful or agreeable emotion. A smiling face is, to every body that sees it, a cheerful object; as a sorrowful countenance, on the other hand, is a melancholy one.

This, however, does not hold universally, or with regard to every passion. There are some passions of which the expressions excite no sort of sympathy, but, before we are acquainted with what gave occasion to them, serve rather to disgust and provoke us against them. The furious behavior of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies. As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves, nor conceive any thing like passions which it excites. But we plainly see what is the situation of those with whom he is angry, and to what violence they may be exposed from so enraged an adversary. We readily, therefore sympathize with their fear or resentment, and are immediately disposed to take part against the man from whom they appear to be in so much danger.

It may seem that here, Smith is conceding that his account does not apply to grief and joy, but does apply to sympathetic fear and anger. Rather, though, Smith is using this case to point out that a general account of sympathy has to be indirect, in order to capture anger. He then goes on to present an account of how we can view sympathetic grief and joy under this indirect account. Roughly, the account is that grief and joy are known to be reactions to bad and good fortune (respectively), so seeing a sad face suggests to us the general idea of ill fortune, and this is what prompts our sympathetic sadness. While seeing an angry person suggests the general idea of provocation, for Smith, this general idea alone does not trigger sympathetic anger. Smith’s remarks suggest that the key difference is that anger is directed at another individual, whose interests oppose the angry party’s, whereas good fortune or ill fortune (as such) do not go beyond the individual experiencing them.

The only amendment I want to propose to Smith’s account here is to allow for habituated emotional reactions to the sight of a sad or joyful face, where sufficient repetition of sympathetic joy and grief allows us to acquire immediate emotional reactions to seeing a sorrowful or joyful face, rather than always requiring the involvement of imagined (general) good or ill fortune. I don’t know enough of Smith’s views on the human mind to determine whether this would be taken as a friendly amendment, or whether such an account would do violence to other views of his.

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