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Hume Studies Volume 29, Number 2, November 2003, pp. 305-325 Hume, Sympathy, and the Theater BRIAN KIRBY Every movement of the theater, by a skillful poet, is communicated, as it were by magic, to the spectators; who weep, tremble, resent, rejoice, and are inflamed with all the variety of passions, which actuate the several personages of the drama. (EPM 5.2.26; SBN 221-2) Much has been written recently about the role of sympathy in Hume's moral theory. That may indeed be its most important use. But it seems from a number of illustrations he uses that it has broader applications, in particular, application to a spectator's appreciation of drama. The problem some see with this broader application is that it conflicts with the basic definition of sympathy as a process by means of which impressions are shared. The actors on the stage would not seem to have the same passions which "inflame" the spectators. Worse, the spectators do not believe in their hearts that the passions which inflame them have real correlates. At first blush, "sympathy" might mean any one of several things. In "The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn," for example, Jonathan Bennett says, "As for 'sympathy': I use this term to cover every sort of fellow-feeling, as when one feels pity over someone's loneliness, or horrified compassion over his pain, and when one feels a shrinking reluctance to act in a way which will bring misfortune to someone else."1 However, fellow-feeling is not a sharing of feelings in Hume's sense. Alvin I. Goldman comes closer to Hume's meaning in a narrow description of empathy: "To empathize with someone, in its Brian Kirby, Associate Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at St. Lawrence University, is at 172 Miner Street Road, Canton, NY 13617, USA. e-mail: 306 Brian Kirby most frequent sense, is to sympathize or commiserate, which involves shared attitudes, sentiments, or emotions."2 Still, Hume's sympathy is not the commiseration but rather what is involved in the commiseration, the shared attitudes, sentiments, and emotions. "No quality of human nature," says Hume, "is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own" (T; SBN 316). The principle of sympathy as he describes it in his technical sense is as follows: When any affection is infus'd by sympathy, it is at first known only by its effects, and by those external signs in the countenance and conversation, which convey an idea of it. This idea is presently converted into an impression, and acquires such a degree of force and vivacity, as to become the very passion itself, and produce an equal emotion, as any original affection. However instantaneous this change of the idea into an impression may be, it proceeds from certain views and reflections, which will not escape the strict scrutiny of a philosopher, tho' they may the person himself, who makes them. (T; SBN 317) If sympathy has to do with the sharing of impressions, what can one say about possible broader applications in which the correlate impression is absent ? One tack to take is to dismiss the illustrative examples as aberrations or at least minor inconsistencies on Hume's part. A second is to argue that the broader applications follow reasonably, given Hume's description of the mechanism of sympathy. I propose, in this paper, to take the second tack. The above description characterizes what one might call sympathy in its normal social context in which the feelings of another are identifiable from his verbal and bodily behavior. Of course, the identification is not infallible. The other person may intend to deceive by lying or mimicking the behavior associated with a feeling. But such occasions are parasitic on normal contexts. But beyond the normal social context, there are other occasions which elicit sympathy, situations in which passions are aroused in the sympathizers for good cause, but which have no correspondent in the objects of sympathy. The case...


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