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Smithian Empathy

Smithian Empathy

(p.23) 2 Smithian Empathy
Being Me Being You
Samuel Fleischacker
University of Chicago Press

Chapter two explores Smithian empathy in detail. For Smith, empathy has cognitive content. As against Hume, who had seen empathy as spreading automatically from one human being to another, Smith thought that it requires us to enter in imagination into the circumstances of others. We thereby gain insight into what it is like to occupy their perspectives. In fact, this entering of others’ perspectives is essential to learning what it is to have a perspective at all: to recognizing even that we ourselves have a perspective. And these linked phenomena—empathy, on the one hand, and the having of a perspective, on the other—are uniquely human accomplishments. They indeed help define what it is to be human. This Smithian conception of humanity makes room for individuality even while stressing our shared imaginative and emotional capacities: which strikes precisely the balance sought today between personal or cultural difference and some sort of universally shared humanity. Affinities are drawn between Smith’s empathetic and perspectival picture of humanity and the conception of humanity expressed in the modern novel: also an invention of the eighteenth century.

Keywords:   David Hume, Adam Smith, imagination, perspective, novels, empathy

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