21 Pages

Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy and its contemporary interpretations


Adam Smith’s account of sympathy or ‘fellow feeling’ has recently become exceedingly popular. It has been used as an antecedent of the concept of simulation: understanding, or attributing mental states to, other people by means of simulating them (Gordon 1995a; Darwall 1998; Davies 1994). It has also been singled out as the first correct account of empathy (Goldie 1999, 2000, 2002; Neill 1996). Finally, to make things even more complicated, some of Smith’s examples for sympathy or ‘fellow feeling’ have been used as the earliest expression of emotional contagion (M. Smith 1995, 1998). The aim of the essay is to suggest a new interpretation of Smith’s concept

of sympathy and point out that on this interpretation some of the contemporary uses of this concept, as a precursor of simulation and empathy, are misleading. My main claim is that Smith’s concept of sympathy, unlike simulation and empathy, does not imply any correspondence between the mental states of the sympathizer and of the person she is sympathizing with.

Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy is a form of imagining being in someone else’s situation. When we sympathize with someone, what happens is the following: