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  • Recognizing "the party of humankind":Käte Hamburger on Mitleid
  • Henry W. Pickford (bio)

In her final book, the lean and crisp 1985 study Das Mitleid, Käte Hamburger draws on the history of philosophical accounts of Mitleid as well as its appearance in modern literary works to ultimately present her own analysis of the concept. At the outset she notes that the concept has different connotations in different languages, including Greek ἒλεος, Latin misericordia, French pitié, and English pity and compassion; some thinkers have extended the range of the concept's extension to include empathy and sympathy; I shall simply retain the term Mitleid in my remarks here. Hamburger herself defines Mitleid as "die Teilnahme am Mißgeschick anderer" (7, 10, 12, 96, 100, 104, and passim). That is, she understands Mitleid as a two-place relation between one person (the subject) and another person (the object); at places she seems to allow the possibility of the object of Mitleid being a group of people, a complication that I ignore here.

My paper falls into three parts. In the first part, I present one central line of reasoning in her book that leads to her controversial conclusion that Mitleid stands in no necessary, essential or constitutive relation to ethics. In the second part I show that, from her own analysis, an alternative picture of the general relation underlying Mitleid can be reconstructed that does have ethical purport; this general relation I call "anthropological solidarity." In the third part I argue that her [End Page 660] understanding of the relation between mental states on the one hand, and action on the other derives from a mistaken interpretation of Wittgenstein. Her misreading of Wittgenstein motivates her central line of reasoning, and can be corrected by a reconsideration of her chosen Wittgenstein passage that further illuminates my proposed alternative account of anthropological solidarity. My paper thus, all too swiftly and schematically, can be considered a modest immanent critique of Hamburger's account that thereby reveals an alternative picture of the general relation underlying Mitleid that does have ethical purport.


In the concluding section of her study Hamburger draws the consequence that Mitleid occupies an "ethically neutral place." Its ethically neutral status derives from the fact that, as an emotion, it can exhibit a positive or negative valence, as attested in the theories of Mitleid that Hamburger had canvassed in earlier sections of her book. According to advocates like Rousseau and Schopenhauer, for instance, Mitleid can motivate benevolent action by a subject towards someone in distress. On the other hand, detractors such as Aquinas, Spinoza, and Kant argue that Mitleid is neither necessary nor sufficient for benevolent or merciful (barmherzig) action.1 It is not necessary because rationally recognized moral duty alone may move one to benevolence (124); and it is not sufficient because as an emotional response, Mitleid does not of itself indicate what action should be pursued: reason is required (45–52). For these reasons, then, Hamburger seems to accord Mitleid no ethical significance per se, it can "bear both extreme positivity and extreme negativity" in judgements about it (95).

Hamburger sets herself the task of investigating the structure of Mitleid such that it can explain how the concept can designate such a discrepancy in behaviors and judgments. She identifies the decisive feature in "the element of the impersonal [das Moment des Unpersönlichen]" or the moment of distance within the distinctive subject-object relationship of Mitleid. She contrasts Mitleid with justice (Gerechtigkeit), in which the other is merely an instance of a general object in the relation and the subject's psychological constitution is irrelevant.2 Rather [End Page 661] the relation of Mitleid for Hamburger necessarily is psychological-emotional, and both subject and object are determined more concretely and individually than in the relation of justice.3 However, although concrete and individual, the subject-object relation of Mitleid is not personal, but rather is more distanced than relations that constitute concern (Kummer) and care (Sorge), which Hamburger holds attend to personal relationships of friendship and love. Hence she concludes that Mitleid is "an affect, that is characterized by the quality of the impersonal."4 For Hamburger then, the distinctive...


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