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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 282-308

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Evocations of Sympathy:
Sympathetic Imagery in Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Physiology

Evelyn L. Forget

Sympathy drove Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiments and was used by many others in the eighteenth century to explain aspects, if not the whole, of human behavior. Smith himself supplied numerous examples of sympathy at work, without positing that it is a force like the passions, far less that it is inborn. At the same time, physicians made use of the term to conceptualize a rapidly expanding body of physiological knowledge. The phenomena that eighteenth-century philosophers and physicians attempted to explain by means of sympathy were quite real. Physicians used the term to characterize the unconscious communication between different organs in the human body. Organs within the human body did seem, somehow, to coordinate their actions. The health of a mother did influence a developing fetus (Blondel 1729; Boucé 1987; Kirkland 1774). Animal magnetizers did have an effect on their subjects. The mood of one individual did, sometimes, infect others. Theater did entrance its patrons. When the word sympathy disappeared from use in medicine, there was a need for something to replace it. Edward Shorter (1992, 12–24) has shown how terms such as consensus took over, in nineteenth-century medical discourse, the job that sympathy did in the eighteenth century. Alison Winter (1999) has traced this insight in the [End Page 282] context of nineteenth-century mesmerism. Oliver Sacks ([1992] 1999, 3–6) goes so far as to argue that contemporary explanations of such neurologically complex conditions as migraine and epilepsy owe a great deal to, and are often indistinguishable from, eighteenth-century sympathetic explanations, although the word no longer appears. Perhaps there is among economists a similar felt need to find a cognate term, and this drives them periodically to resuscitate sympathy.

Be that as it may, tracing the various meanings attached to the term provides a window into an era when ideas were not constrained by disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, there was no clear distinction between medicine and what was to become social theory. Ideas developed in medicine enriched social discourse, and poetry engaged philosophical debate. Knowledge, developing more quickly than the vocabulary in which new discoveries could be expressed, borrowed terms still carrying the freight of alchemy and astrology. Scholars adapted existing words to new uses by playing upon the metaphorical implications of existing terms.1

The use of the same word for similar ideas in analyses of the human body and the social body is more than an analogy. There is a logical continuity between physiological and sociological investigations. The same physiological communication that was imagined to account for somatic sympathy was used to explain the effects of the "passions of the mind" on the sensations and impressions of the body. And the "passions of the mind," these physicians noted, are very often infectious, illustrating one form of the unconscious communication between different people that is captured by the concept of "social sympathy."2

Section 1 of my article examines the highly ambiguous use of the word sympathy in eighteenth-century social discourse. Section 2 examines the use of the term in medicine. Behind both bodies of literature, however, was another, much older, set of ideas that still appeared in popular medical writing as well as in poetry and literature. An ancient system of sympathies and antipathies between all bodies in the universe, detailed in section 3, pervaded the popular imagination. Physicians of the eighteenth century explicitly dissociated their work from such "superstition," yet they drew upon it freely for imagery and even for scientific content. Social thought was also subject to these older associations. Finally, section 4 notes that these archaic associations disappeared from [End Page 283] social analysis, as they did from medicine, by the nineteenth century. Sympathy was an idea too tainted by political events, and too much a product of a worldview that encouraged metaphorical associations rather than the analytical precision that came to...


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