The Strength of Hume’s “Weak” Sympathy

Hume Studies 30 (2):237-256 (2004)
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Hume’s understanding of sympathy in section 2.1.11 of the Treatise—that it is a mental mechanism by means of which one sentient being can come to share the psychological states of another—has a particularly interesting implication. What the sympathizer receives, according to this definition, is the passing psychological “affection” that the object of his sympathy was experiencing at the moment of observation. Thus the psychological connection produced by Humean sympathy is not between the sympathizer and the “other” as a “whole person” existing through time, but between the sympathizer and the other’s current mental state, detached from his or her diachronic psychological life. Some commentators profess themselves dissatisfied with the impersonality of this “limited sympathy”. John Bricke, for example, argues that the Humean sympathizer sympathizes with “atomistically rendered desires of some individual who is, thus far, of no further concern,” while Philip Mercer writes more bluntly that Hume’s definition omits the “practical concern for the other” that is the essence of sympathy’s contribution to moral psychology.

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Andrew Cunningham
University of Toronto, St. George Campus (PhD)


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