Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: Cases of Imagination-Reality Mis-Match

In the previous post in this series, I was concerned with presenting the basic mechanisms of sympathy on Smith’s view. I stressed that Smith offers a general three-part account of sympathy: (i) perception of another’s (external) situation, prompting (ii) imagination of oneself experiencing that situation, which in turn produces (iii) a similar (but less lively) emotional reaction as would be produced by actually experiencing that situation. The links from (i) to (ii) and from (ii) to (iii) are causal. I also noted that the account concerns emotion in general (rather than limiting itself to some subset of sympathetic emotion) as well as that the account is indirect (in that it takes the aforementioned detour through the imagination, rather than regarding, for example, sympathetic sadness as an immediate reaction to the perception of another’s sorrowful countenance).

I have found the pair of emotions anger and sadness helpful for summarizing where Smith’s view is particularly successful vs. where it faces some challenges: Because of its indirectness, Smith’s view is especially well suited to explain sympathetic anger. Merely seeing an angry person does not provoke sympathetic anger in us. On Smith’s view, this is because we are not responding to the display of emotion in sympathy as much as we are to an act of imagining the source of that emotion. When someone tells us how they have been slighted, we are then likely to join them in their anger. Sadness, on the other hand, is a challenge for Smith. If we see someone crying, we usually feel for them, (i.e. sympathize with them) before learning the source of their sorrow. Conversely, and account that has an easy time with sadness is likely to be hard pressed to account for the absence of sympathy at displays of anger.

In a later post, I want to discuss two worries that I’ve heard from people when describing Smith’s account. The first is what I’ll call the “objection from babies”, i.e. the worry that Smith’s account over-intellectualizes sympathy (and thereby predicts that babies don’t do sympathy). The second is the “sympathy/empathy worry” which is that there is a distinction between sympathizing and empathizing which Smith’s account (as I have so far presented it) misses out on this distinction. I’ll discuss those in a separate post or two after this series on sympathy for the deceased.

This post, however, is going to focus on Smith’s discussion of cases that I’m labeling “imagination-reality mis-match”. Immediately after defending the indirectness of sympathy (by appeal to sympathetic anger), Smith introduces a range of cases that he takes to be fodder for his view (TMS 1.1.1.10):

Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself is incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality. We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner.

Contrast Smith’s view here with an expression-responsive view of sympathy (i.e. a view on which we perceive the emotions of another by way of expressions of those emotions, and experience sympathetic emotions as a result. The expression-responsive view, unlike Smith’s, cannot explain sympathetic embarrassment when the person behaving in an embarrassing fashion fails to experience and express said embarrassment. This is not to say that the proponent of such views is unable to offer some explanation of the case, only to note that such cases are covered by Smith’s view in precisely the same fashion as other sympathetic emotions. This, I think, is another virtue of his approach.

It will be useful to raise the issue of whether Smith’s view should be considered, then, an error theory, given the preponderance of imagination-reality mis-match cases. Standardly, an error theory about X is the view that that our ordinary judgments about X go wrong, at least, in some reasonably large proportion of cases.

Does Smith’s story about mis-match cases of sympathetic embarrassment include some sort of error-theory? I think not. Recall that the general account of sympathy involves (i) an act of perception, (ii) an act of imagination, and (iii) an emotional response. The thing perceived, here, is the external circumstances of another person. For instance, if an individual is horribly overdressed for a casual party, but blithely unaware, the contents of our perception are things like that the individual is over-dressed, that everyone is staring at them, etc. In normal cases, we are correctly perceiving the external circumstances of this individual. So we have no false judgment there.

Second, there is an act of imagination. Now, here, the sympathizer imagines him or herself having the features the individual in question was observed to have. Here we have a false content to the act (the sympathizer is not overdressed, but imagines him or herself to be overdressed), but we also have no judgment in this act, and so, no false judgment.

Third is the emotional reaction to the act of imagining. Again, there is no judgment in this emotional reaction, and so, there can be no false judgment.

The mismatch in question is not a mismatch between the content of a judgment made by the sympathizer and the way the world is. At the same time, there is something, in this case of sympathetic embarrassment, that is properly called a mismatch: the sympathizer’s emotional reaction doesn’t match the emotional reaction of the person being sympathized with. And it does seem that the very notion of sympathy (which Smith treats as interchangeable with “fellow-feeling”) presupposes that there is an accord between the emotion felt by the target and the emotion felt by the sympathizer.

I am not sure what to make of the mismatch in light of this, but it seems that Smith can, at the least, claim that something goes awry in such cases (by the lights of the sympathizer): If sympathy presupposes a match in emotions between the sympathizer and target, this does not mean that any case of mismatch places the error with the sympathizer. In the cases Smith has in mind, it seems to be clear that the mismatch results from something going wrong with the target, and not with a mistake (of any sort) on the part of the sympathizer (TMS 1.1.1.11):

Of all teh calamities to which the condition of mortality exposes mankind, the loss of reason appears, to those who have the least spark of humanity, by far the most dreadful, and they behold that last stage of human wretchedness with deeper commiseration than any other. But the poor wretch who is in it, laughs and sings, perhaps, and is altogether insensible of his own misery. The anguish which humanity feels, therefore, at the sight of such an object, cannot be the reflection of any sentiment in the sufferer. The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment.

I want to stress that Smith is not offering a special view of these mismatch cases as an amendment to his theory. Smith’s stance here is straightforwardly the consequence of his general view, and he regards it as a virtue that his view can explain sympathetic embarrassment or pity in cases where the targets do not, themselves, feel embarrassed or sad.

We’ve got enough of the view on the table now that I can turn, in my next post, to Smith’s account of sympathy for the deceased (and, relatedly, Smith’s account of our fear of death).

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