Blushing and the Sympathetic Imagination in Adam Smith

sympathy imagination mutual sympathy blushing sympathetic imagination

Edward J. Harpham for AdamSmithWorks

Why do people blush? Harpham argues that, according to Smith, people blush because they perceive behavior, actions, expressions, or words of others as impudent or rude. Read more to learn what this says about the "sympathetic imagination."
Blushing–reddening of the face triggered by feelings of shyness, shame, or embarrassment–is something most of us experience at some time. Darwin calls it “the most peculiar, and the most human of all expressions.” (Darwin: Chapter 13). Mark Twain, tongue firmly in cheek, rephrases Darwin by noting that “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” Why is this the case? Why do certain situations touch off feelings that lead to blushing? Adam Smith explores these questions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in a way that tells us much about his understanding of sympathy, our humanity, and the power of the human imagination.
 Near the beginning of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith concedes that sympathy originally may have signified our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Nonetheless, he states that he will use the term sympathy “to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” (TMS: 10) Sympathy arises not from our view of the passion in another, but of the situation which excites the passion. When we imagine how we might respond in that situation, we experience fellow-feeling in ourselves. 
For Smith, sympathy is more complicated than simple empathy, with its shared feelings among people, such as feelings of joy or sadness. A physical dimension may accompany the emotions experienced by the spectator. In the case of blushing that occurs when feelings are not shared, Smith claims that our imagination generates “fellow-feeling” even though the other person seems incapable of feeling our imagined feelings–feelings we believe they should have felt. Essentially, we share these projected feelings with ourselves. This sharing is, in fact, what blushing is for Smith. He writes, “We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not from the reality.” (TMS: 12) 
Why do people blush? According to Smith, people blush because they perceive behavior, actions, expressions, or words of others as impudent or rude. Those people have no sense of the inappropriateness of their behavior or feelings. We the spectators feel confused about what we see unfolding before us because we can’t imagine behaving in such a manner. Emotional anxiety arises from our inability to share the actual experiences or feelings of others. This emotional response, in turn, is accompanied by our face reddening. Smith writes,
We blush from the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behavior; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in such a manner.” (Smith: 12)
Smith’s discussion of blushing is limited in that it only considers a spectator’s response to the inappropriate feelings and behaviors of others. He does not extend it to include an analysis of a spectator viewing his own feelings and behaviors under certain circumstances But he could. 
For my purposes, this limited discussion of blushing reveals to us a curious dimension to Smith’s understanding of the operations of sympathy. With blushing, we have an example of sympathy that does not seem to involve the actual “sharing” of feelings at all. Spectators are sharing feelings of their own imagined projections of what would be the proper response to a situation if they were in it. The subjective feelings behind the observed behavior, actions, or expressions of another person are largely irrelevant.  
It is no wonder that confusion is spawned in the mind of a person witnessing the impudent and rude behavior of others. Under most conditions, sympathy results in bringing two or more people together through the mutual adjustment of our fellow-feelings and the desire to experience the pleasure of mutual sympathy with others. In contrast, blushing illustrates an additional side to sympathetic imagination, one that is troubling to the spectator, not pleasurable. Dissonance between what the spectator sees and imagines as the proper emotional response to a situation can lead to the spectator’s emotional discomfort that may manifest itself physically. The sympathetic imagination is a powerful yet complicated human capacity. In this, Smith sees blushing, much like Darwin and Twain, as a most human characteristic.
Darwin, Charles. (1872). The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray.
Smith, Adam. (1976). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.
Twain, Mark. (1897) Following the Equator. The American Publishing Company.
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