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Journal Articles The Adam Smith Review Year : 2018

An Investigation into the Smithian System of Sympathy: from Cognition to Emotion


After having made it explicit that Smithian sympathy, strictly speaking, possesses an emotional content, I show, in the first section of the paper, that it relies on a complex cognitive process (the “imaginary change of situation”) which enables one to conceive of others’ sentiments. Of course, Smith’s aim, with his system of sympathy, was not to explain how we manage to conceive of others’ feelings but rather how we come to be affected by them. This cognitive process constitutes, therefore, just one step, the next step being to highlight how we move from the cognitive to the emotional realm. I argue that such a movement relies on the concept of “force of conception” which allows for our conception of others’ feelings to give rise to an emotion being experienced that is related to others’ situations. In the second section, I offer a characterization of the emotional result that arises from Smith’s imaginary change of situation. I do so by highlighting the influence of the cognitive realm on the emotional realm, through the role of the force of conception. After having highlighted two properties of Smith’s imaginary change of situation [(i) the conception bias and (ii) the weakness of conception], I show that it is not only possible but that it is also taken for granted that this imaginary change of situation leads the spectator to feel an emotion distinct from the one felt by the person with whom he identifies. To conclude, I highlight the conditions under which the emotional result of Smith’s imaginary change of situation can properly be called “sympathy”. I come to the conclusion that Smithian sympathy does consist in a correspondence of sentiments between the sympathizer and the person he is sympathizing with. It shall be argued that the question of the content of sympathy does not lie so much in knowing whether it is a correspondence of sentiments but rather in knowing what Smith means by correspondence?
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hal-03904227 , version 1 (16-12-2022)


  • HAL Id : hal-03904227 , version 1


Laurie Bréban. An Investigation into the Smithian System of Sympathy: from Cognition to Emotion. The Adam Smith Review, 2018, 10, pp.22-40. ⟨hal-03904227⟩


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