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Hume Studies Volume 30, Number 2, November 2004, pp. 237-256 The Strength of Hume's "Weak" Sympathy ANDREW S. CUNNINGHAM Introduction Hume's understanding of sympathy in section 2.1.11 of the Treatise—that it is a mental mechanism1 by means of which one sentient being can come to share the psychological states of another2—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.3 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.4 Some commentators profess themselves dissatisfied with the impersonality of this "limited sympathy" (as I will call it). 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,"5 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.6 Hume was not unaware or entirely unaccepting of this sort of criticism. Indeed, it was he who first called the sympathy of T 2.1.11 "limited" and "weak" (T; SBN 387). He understood and recognized as something of a weakness the fact that limited sympathy entails that "we sympathize only with one impression"—the Andrew Cunningham is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Philosophy, Boston University , 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, USA. e-mail: 238 Andrew S. Cunningham one experienced by the object of our sympathy at "the present moment"—rather than with the whole person (T,; SBN 387,385). Such statements are puzzling—and indeed take on an air of paradox—in light of Hume's emphatic praise for sympathy as the "animating principle" of the passions and the most "remarkable" quality of human nature (T,; SBN 363,316).7 How, one wonders, could Hume have attributed such potency to a form of sympathy that he recognized as limited? The remainder of this paper will focus on what seem the two most plausible solutions to this "weak sympathy problem." For want of better names, the possible solutions can be called the abandonment thesis and the strength-in-weakness thesis, respectively. The first asserts that Hume responds to the problem by abandoning limited sympathy in favour of "extensive sympathy," the stronger version of sympathy introduced in T 2.2.9, while the second maintains that limited sympathy is not only adequate to support Hume's ethical theory but uniquely suited to that purpose. After discussing these possible solutions in sequence, I conclude by discussing the deeper significance of the matter for Hume's moral theory. The Abandonment Thesis "Extensive sympathy" in Book 2 According to the abandonment thesis, Hume introduces the concept of extensive sympathy in T 2.2.9 as an improvement upon the limited sympathy of T 2.1.11. Before we can evaluate this claim, it is necessary to consider the meaning and purpose of extensive sympathy. In T 2.2.9, Hume is adamant that there is nothing essentially "new" about it. It is a product, he insists, of the interaction of associative and sympathetic principles introduced earlier in the Treatise (T; SBN 385-6). While this interaction is rather complex, its essential elements can be set out as follows: (1) According to the double relation theory, when A sympathetically receives an idea of the momentary psychological state of B, that idea is enlivened by the relation between A's impression of B and A's strong impression of himself, to the point that it becomes an impression—A's impression—of B's psychological state. (2) Because the force of this sympathetic communication varies with the force and vivacity of the communicated impression, A may sympathize more or less "perfectly...


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