Smithean Sympathy: Entangled Emotions

Is Adam Smith offering an account of “cognitive empathy” – understanding another’s mental states via perspective-taking – in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS)? This is the standard reading of Smith’s remarks on “sympathy,” but attempts to “fit” his view into contemporary debates on empathy, while illuminating, miss important insights Smith offers on the depth and variety of our emotional experiences of each other. This paper explores an alternative interpretation of Smithean sympathy, according to which “correspondence of sentiments” (or “empathy” as ordinarily understood) is but one way in which we are inescapably susceptible to the emotional lives of others. And as Smith’s examples show, this susceptibility is no less manifest even in the absence of such “concord.”