Smith on Sympathy and the Loss of Reason

fellow-feeling sympathetic imagination edward harpham

Edward J. Harpham for AdamSmithWorks

For Smith, sympathy is a multidimensional phenomenon that also can take us inside ourselves as we reflect on our place in the world, generating feelings and passions that can be illuminating or disturbing. 
At the heart of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments lies the idea of sympathy: our capacity to share fellow-feelings with other human beings. By imagining ourselves to be in the situation of others, sympathy generates emotions and passions in ourselves that we can share with others. These shared emotions join people together, forming the foundations of human community.  
In numerous examples throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith expands the term “sympathy” to mean more than just the simple sharing of fellow-feelings like sorrow or joy. For Smith, sympathy is a multidimensional phenomenon that also can take us inside ourselves as we reflect on our place in the world, generating feelings and passions that can be illuminating or disturbing. We see this in Smith’s remarkable discussion on “the loss of reason” at the end of Part I, Chapter 1 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
According to Smith, we naturally feel compassion for an individual who has lost the capacity for reason. Smith writes, “Of all the calamities to which the condition of mortality exposes mankind, the loss of reason appears, to those who have the least spark of humanity, by far the most dreadful, and they behold the last stage of human “wretchedness” with deeper commiseration than any other.” (TMS: 12) But how does this feeling come about? Through sympathy? Yes, but it is a sympathy that operates differently than the normal sharing of fellow-feeling between two individuals.
Under normal conditions, spectators project themselves into the situation of others who have experienced loss and generate feelings of sadness. Their efforts to feel mutual sympathy with the passions and emotions of those they are observing gives rise to emotions that effectively resemble the emotions of the person suffering and gives rise to the pleasure of mutual sympathy. This process brings the suffering person and the spectator closer together. 

In contrast, spectators in possession of the faculty of reason cannot partake in the feelings of people who have lost that capacity. Spectators do not identify with or share the feelings of the suffering party that is being observed. The suffering individual lacks the ability to appreciate appropriately the situation that he is in. Compassion for that person must arise from another source. Smith explains, “The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and, what perhaps was impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment.” (TMS: 12) 
This is a thought-provoking and somewhat confusing argument about the operations of sympathy and the origins of compassion for individuals who have lost the use of reason. Let’s unpack it. A spectator uses his imagination to project what he might feel if he were in the situation of the person who has lost the capacity to reason. Given the spectator’s perspective as someone with the capacity for reason, his imagined response to the situation conflicts with what he sees, leading the spectator to judge as inappropriate the observed response. Feelings naturally arise, even though the normal feedback loop between the actual feelings of others and the spectator’s projected feelings through sympathy has been severed. Here there is no mutual sympathy between the suffering person and the spectator. There is no sharing of emotions through direct fellow-feeling. 
What happens instead is our imagination leads us to share or sympathize with our feelings within ourselves, a process unlikely to bring us immediate pleasure, ease pain and suffering, or foster closer connections with others. This sympathetic imagining within oneself pushes us to confront a frightening truth: We are mortal and could one day, like the person we are observing, lose our sense of who we are and how we exist in the social world.

For spectators, inwardly directed sympathy for people who have lost the use of reason may cause uneasiness that carries important consequences: We are led to commiserate with the plight of such people who can no longer take care of themselves, which, in turn, leads us to feel compassion for them. Such compassion for those in this horrifying situation can motivate humans to feel and act benevolently towards others in the world. 

Sympathy for Smith is a complicated phenomenon, one that uses more than one mechanism to promote sociability through our emotions and feelings. In situations where we cannot experience shared fellow-feelings with others, our inwardly directed sympathy still may produce feelings of benevolence and motivate us to actions that help people who cannot help themselves—behavior that may bind people emotionally together and strengthen the bonds of community.

Related Links:
Edward Harpham, Sympathy, Fellow-Feeling, and the Imagination
Kevin Stucker, Sympathy and Spectatorship in Adam Smith: A Collection