Sympathetic action in the seventeenth century: human and natural

Philosophical Explorations (1):1-16 (2018)
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The category of sympathy marks a number of basic divisions in early modern approaches to action explanations, whether for human agency or for change in the wider natural world. Some authors were critical of using sympathy to explain change. They call such principles “unintelligible” or assume they involve “mysterious” action at a distance. Others, including Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, appeal to sympathy to capture natural phenomena, or to supply a backbone to their metaphysics. Here I discuss how concerns about sympathetic actions form at least a partial background for differing seventeenth-century conceptions of what it is to explain action. I argue that critics of sympathy generally insist on an “atomistic” approach to action explanation, which makes primitively relational phenomena come out as problematic. Proponents of sympathy, by contrast, allow for a more holistic approach to action explanation, which allows for such basic connections. Hence, divergent attitudes toward sympathetic action in part explain differences in approaches to explanation. I conclude by showing how some of these core concerns fade into the background when in the eighteenth-century sympathy gets psychologised and individualised.
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Archival date: 2018-01-22
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