Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Sympathy in Mind (1876-1900)

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Sympathy in Mind (1876-1900)

Article excerpt

In the April 1884 issue of Mind, William James published his influential account of emotion, which stressed the bodily and physiological constitution of various feeling-states.1 The article reflected new trends in physiological psychology, but came under attack by numerous respondents in the journal who argued that there was more to the emotions than physiology.2 As the evolutionary psychologist Hiram Stanley intoned, "emotions in the higher stages are filled out by knowledge and will."3 Many noted that the higher emotions - aesthetic sentiments, sympathy, pity, envy, love - were not marked by clear physiological changes. Charles Darwin had observed that love was not discernable by prominent facial expressions.4 There was also little agreement as to how to divide sentiments from appetites, affections, and passions. What came to be known as the James-Lange theory of emotion, then, was only one of a variety of theories of emotion circulating in Anglo-American intellectual culture of the late nineteenth century.5

In debates about the nature of emotion, the higher emotions - particularly that of sympathy - played a crucial role. Sympathy was most often understood to be a kind of tenderheartedness linked to, but distinct from love. At the same time, sympathy was tethered to a variety of moral and epistemological ends - as a cornerstone in evolutionary ethics, an element in aesthetic appreciation, and even as a source for knowledge of other minds. Sympathy had had a prominent place in eighteenth-century theories of aesthetics, moral sentiments and taste, in the writings of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. In the late Victorian period, theories of sympathy drew on this lineage and increasingly became tinged with evolutionary and developmental features.

Although sympathy in the Victorian period has gained the attention of literary scholars, historians of the mind sciences have not paid it much due, even though its psychological origins and moral correlates were of sustained interest in this period.6 Stefan Collini has argued that British intellectual culture was intrigued by the interplay of egoistic and altruistic tendencies, and the birth of a number of ethical societies in the final two decades of the century attests to the increased emphasis on the moral dimensions of sympathy.7 Anti-vivisection movements and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals and children, often with appeals to sympathy, gained adherents in this period in Britain and America.8 In one study, psychologists distributed scientific questionnaires in order to assess the experiences of sympathy and pity of nearly four hundred subjects.9 There was no underestimating the importance of sympathy for Anglo-American intellectuals, who confidently claimed it was becoming more refined and more widely diffused in their era. Darwin believed that sympathy had been extended to those of the same nation, and prescriptively wrote that it should extend to all nations and races, as well as the imbecile and the maimed. Darwin was echoing here the broader enlightenment sentimentalist tradition that linked the feeling of sympathy to a conception of humanity.10

In the pages of the British professional psychological and philosophical journal Mind, sympathy was under scrutiny by scholars in evolutionary and developmental psychology, ethics, and aesthetics. This journal, first published in 1876, and funded by Alexander Bain, examined new trends in physiological and scientific psychology and sought a broad philosophical framework for the understanding of mental life.11 It played a mediating role in the overlapping discussions of science and philosophy and published on a diverse array of topics. Although Mind saw itself as a specialized journal for psychology and philosophy, it was founded at an historical moment when discussions of the mind were not narrowly portioned out to the psychological sciences, as would increasingly be the case after 1900. Indeed, the experimental psychological laboratory emerged as a new scientific institution only in 1879 with Wilhelm Wundt's Leipzig laboratory, and then in 1897 at the Universities of London and Cambridge. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.