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date: 02 December 2021

Sympathy and Empathyfree

Sympathy and Empathyfree

  • Rae GreinerRae GreinerIndiana University Department of English


Sympathy and empathy are complex and entwined concepts with philosophical and scientific roots relating to issues in ethics, aesthetics, psychology, biology, and neuroscience. For some, the two concepts are indistinguishable, the two terms interchangeable, but each has a unique history as well as qualities that make both concepts distinct. Although each is associated with feeling, especially the capacity to feel with others or to imaginatively put oneself “in their shoes,” the concepts’ sometimes shared, sometimes divergent histories reveal more complicated origins, as well as vexed and ongoing relations to feeling and emotion and to the ethical value of emotional sharing. Though empathy regularly is considered the more advanced and egalitarian of the two, it shares with sympathy a controversial role in historical debates regarding questions of an inborn or divine moral sense, prosocial behavior and the development of human communities, the relation of sensation to unconscious mental processes, brain matter, and neurons, and animal/human difference. In literary criticism, sympathy and empathy have been key components of aesthetic movements such as sentimentalism, realism, and modernism, and of literary techniques like free indirect discourse (FID), which are thought (by some) to enhance readerly intimacy and closeness to novelistic characters and perspectives. Both concepts have also received their fair share of suspicion, as the capacity to feel, or imagine feeling, the emotions of others remains a controversial basis for ethics.


  • Literary Theory

Sympathy and Empathy in History

In the 21st century, sympathy is most often treated, much like empathy, as a category of affect. In casual conversation, it frequently is referred to as if it were itself a feeling, as if feeling for another—feeling sympathy—meant experiencing a distinct emotion called sympathy.1 When the terms sympathy and empathy are used interchangeably, it is usually because both are understood to name this capacity for feeling for others, a capacity associated with ethical behavior (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 identifies lack of empathy as a criterion in diagnosing a variety of personality disorders).2 Yet sympathy—the older of the two concepts—is best understood in terms of an evolving range of capacities. It may be an explanatory concept used to comprehend the natural world, including forces of attraction and repulsion between inanimate or nonhuman things (such as magnets, atoms, and trees); it may be a moral faculty or sense, a mechanism in aesthetic judgment, or an imaginative and psychological capacity that facilitates emotional sharing. It may be the name given to a habit of mind, one enabling common sense and communal, shared understanding; or it may indicate a set of protocols used to adjudicate the rightness or wrongness of an emotional response. Each of these meanings (among others) has a place in the long and fascinating history of sympathy. Empathy, by comparison, is a far more recent concept, though it (like sympathy) comprehends a range of meanings; empathy historians (like historians of sympathy) continue to debate the extent to which conceptions of empathy predated the invention and popularization of the term.

Much less debatable, however, is that serious treatments of empathy tend to judge it as superior to its predecessor. Where sympathy is said to involve not so much feeling alongside the other as pity for her—and pity can reek of class hierarchies and condescension—empathy is considered the more egalitarian action of emotional matching among equal parties. Or where sympathy is (by some) reserved for sorrow, or for feelings offered charitably even if not actually felt, empathy has emerged as the preferred term for feeling sharing of a less conscious and more dynamic kind—possibly even an evolutionary, biochemical, and prosocial response available to nonhuman beings, like goats and rats.3 Such an empathy is equally at home in the discourses of science, aesthetics, and ethics. Alongside scientific studies attempting to test the validity of a phenomenon like animal empathy are those that test the controversial hypothesis that reading literature improves the empathetic capacities of humans. For instance, a 2013 study published in the journal Science titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” claims not only that “fiction affects ToM [Theory of Mind] processes because it forces us to engage in mind-reading and character construction,” but also that “not any kind of fiction” will do. Citing Roland Barthes’s distinction between “readerly” (more straightforward and passive) and “writerly” (more demanding and active) texts, and Mikhail Bakhtin on the polyphonic nature of literary discourse, these researchers argue for the greater benefit of reading “literary fiction that forces the reader to engage in ToM [Theory of Mind] processes,” including, for example, the imaginative ability to “enter a vibrant discourse with the author and her characters.”4 Good, as in complicated, literature, in their view, is necessary for cultivating empathetic responsiveness.

Yet any simplistic opposition between sympathy and empathy—the one outmoded or dripping with class bias, a product of culture, the other democratic, perhaps even a fundament of biological nature—obscures the rich history of, and relations between, the two terms. Introduced into English in 1909 by the British-born Cornell University psychologist Edward B. Titchener (1867–1927), empathy is a translation of the German Einfühlung—“feeling into” or “in-feeling”—and was used by practitioners of what came to be known as psychological aesthetics to account for the ways in which bodies experience the felt environment. This empathy was formal and spatial, embodied rather than virtuous. Writers such as Vernon Lee (1856–1935) were among those early 20th-century experimenters interested in the somatic, more so than the ethical, dimensions of such empathetic response. Describing a rhythmic affinity between the self and the objects and spaces of the world, empathy of this sort orients the body toward forms, highlighting physical experiences such as the expansion and contraction of muscles and breath in relation to one’s encounters with them. In that sense, it represents not a wholesale rejection of sympathy but a return to some of sympathy’s earliest meanings.5 Emphasizing how human relations with senseless entities—such as vases, trees, and clouds—involve embodied physiological response, such an empathy is no doubt counterpoised to a supercilious Victorian sympathy (so-called), but it retains sympathy’s first affiliations with the material environment. This is an empathy that involves what Titchener refers to in his 1909 Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought-Processes as “attitudinal feels”: visceral pressures, muscular “tonicity,” and altered breathing and facial expressions that could be produced by the experience of reading words, and felt by authors and readers alike.6 Recent biological, biochemical, and neurocognitive work on an empathy that is identified with prosocial behavior—with altruism and, therefore, with ethics—thus obscures empathy’s earlier affiliation with “motional” (as opposed to “emotional”) empathy, making empathy more like the older category of sympathy than it may first appear.7

Three sections follow. “The Origins of Sympathy” provides a select overview of sympathy’s meanings and the major controversies that accompanied its development in moral, theological, philosophical, and scientific debates. Next, “Sympathy, Empathy, and Literary History” turns to sympathy’s role in philosophy and literary criticism. Finally, “Empathy, Affect, and Literary Criticism” briefly considers uses of sympathy and empathy in contemporary writing in and beyond the literary.

The Origins of Sympathy: Theology, Philosophy, Science

Sympathy has a complex and uneven history, dating back to the classical era and gaining new and far-reaching importance in the West in the moral, philosophical, and cultural debates of the 18th century. It was at this time, in the post-Enlightenment period, that sympathy became a much disputed—and absolutely central—issue. The controversy it entailed had to do with the question of origins. Was sympathy for others—understood as fellow-feeling, pity, or compassion, the very glue of social life—an inborn, divinely given property of the human soul, therefore requiring theological explanation supported by religious doctrine? Was it instead an aspect of nature, if also a nature sacralized: explicable by way of natural theology, which sought to reconcile doctrinal with natural law? Or was it rather the case that sympathy should not or could not be reconciled to theological explanation? Was it then a thoroughly human, perhaps even an animal, phenomenon?

This last possibility raised a number of profoundly disturbing questions about sympathy’s purpose and ultimate value. If sympathy was no divine gift, knitting humanity harmoniously together in pursuit of God’s divine plan, but was instead an aspect of human sensibility, mind, or emotion, perhaps even an effect of lived experiences of culture and environment, then there could be no guarantee that it could be trusted, certainly not as a reliable moral guide. During the 18th century in Britain, writers such as Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), David Hume (1711–1776), Adam Smith (1723–1790), and others put forth non- (or not entirely) metaphysical accounts of sympathy’s origins and development that could provide some firmer foundation on which to evaluate its usefulness. Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), offered the influential thesis that goodness is comparable to beauty—they are “one and the same,” he said, in that both are judged by way of disinterested perception. God was an artist, the rightness of whose divine compositions were recognizable to all who viewed them with the correct perspective. Importantly, Shaftesbury’s thesis justified human morality on objective, impersonal grounds: on an aesthetically balanced, compositional, observable world.8 The eye of the beholder was paramount, but also susceptible to error: just as an impaired eye could not see—or judge—the world rightly, so too dysfunction in the moral faculty accounted for impaired moral judgment. “Why is the Sphere or Globe, the Cylinder and Obelisk prefer’d; and the irregular Figures, in respect of these, rejected and despised?,” Shaftesbury asks. Bringing aesthetics to bear on the visible as well as the moral realm, he answers by claiming that fitness, agreement, and “decency” in all things and actions—including mental action—are in each instance “universally” approved.9 This is a theory of universal morality that is grounded in the material world.

Such arguments hearken back to sympathy’s earliest meanings, wherein it referred to affinities (real or imagined) between bodies or other physical entities such as rocks and metals, wounds and the medicines that healed them, the stomach and the kidneys, or, as in Samuel Purchas’s 1613 Purchas His Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions Obserued in All Pages and Places Discouered, ocean crabs and the moon. From the late Latin sympathia, and the Greek συμπάθεια‎ or συμπαθή‎, meaning fellow-feeling, the term sympathy evolved to combine sym-, indicating formal likeness or coincidence (“conformity”), with Greek suffixes indicating feeling or suffering. Yet the first known uses of the concept of sympathy do not require suffering, nor indeed feeling of any kind. As the Oxford English Dictionary shows, sympathy could refer either to formal similarity or to two things “affected by the same influence” or able to affect one another. This capacity to influence, especially “in some occult way,” included phenomena such as magnetism, or the forces of attraction or repulsion.10 The 16th-century Welsh physician John Jones, proponent of the healing powers of mineral waters, refers in The Arte & Science of Preserving Bodie & Soule in Healthe, Wisedome, and Catholike Religion to Plato’s concept of “Sympathia,” defined as a relation “betweene the bodye and the soule, that if either exceede the meane, the one sufferth with the other.”11 As would later be true for Shaftesbury, this form of sympathy is compositional and symmetrical—it is both formal and aesthetic—privileging healthy wholes comprised of well-balanced parts. 17th-century thinkers would generally come to agree that sympathy involved the recognition of affinities, such as likenesses or complementarity. There was, however, wide divergence of opinion on where it came from or how it worked.

Platonic sympathy was appealing for some because it was not limited to humans but extended across the natural to the immaterial world and into the cosmos. Philemon Holland’s popular 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History shows Pliny explaining observable sympathies and antipathies among insensible things across the entirety of the earth:

. . . as in euerie coast and corner of the world there may be obserued both sympathies and antipathies (I meane those naturall combinations and contrarieties in those her creatures). From whence proceed the greatest miracles which are to bee seene in this round Fabricke and admirable frame.12

A conception of sympathy as involving occult powers is beginning to give way to one that explains “miracles” by way of scientific and empirical frameworks. In this way, sympathy becomes integral to biological life, a way of conceiving relations among observable things, and not only relations of positive likeness. Pliny’s description of the “mutual rancor and malice” between the oak and olive tree is such that, in his words, the two are “so stiffely bent to war one with another, that if a man replant one of these trees in the trench or hole from whence the other was taken up, it wil surely die.”13 Analogous arguments flourished in medicine, as in the Flemish physician Johannes Baptista Van Helmont’s 1621 text On the Magnetic Curing of Wounds, which defended doctors against charges of practicing diabolical medicinal “magick” by arguing that sympathies and antipathies, paradoxical though they may seem, are natural features of the world and can be manipulated for the good: “God in the production of miracles does for the most part walk hand in hand with Nature,” he writes.14 Using the principle of the sympathetic cure, Van Helmont advanced a theory of inoculation and immunity that was far advanced for its time, and was reflected in poems by John Dryden (1631–1700), Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), and others.15 Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, for instance, describes a noble lady who, drawing a “broken lance” from a wound, “wash’d it from the clotted gore, / And salved the splinter o’er and o’er,” turning it “round and round” over the injury, so that the wounded Deloraine “should be whole man and sound, / Within the course of a night and day.”16 This act of sympathy is portrayed as involving both emotional care—compassion—and medicinal and physiological know-how, a tending to the body and a healing of bodily harm.

Attempts to reconcile materialist explanations of natural processes with moral ones would alter the ways in which sympathy could be perceived. In the 17th century, John Donne (1572–1631), in Fifty Sermons (1649, posthumously published), framed the question of the Christian concept of resurrection by asking:

In what corner, in what ventricle of the sea, lies all the jelly of a Body drowned in the generall flood? What cohaerence, what sympathy, what dependence maintaines any relation, any correspondence, between that arm that was lost in Europe, and the legge that we lost in Afrique or Asia, scores of yeers betweene?17

While painters have, “with some horrour,” portrayed the human frame as skeleton, Donne continues in another sermon, “no pencil can present to us” the body in “the dissolution of the grave”: neither “that excrementall jelly that the body is made of at first, [nor] that jelly which the body dissolves to at last.”18 Sympathy here has nothing to do with fellow-feeling or with prosocial behavior—nothing to do, we might even say, with life. It points instead to a mysterious power of postmortem recombination. As was true for Shaftesbury, the key analogy is with art rather than science, but the problem remains a material one: the disintegration, dispersal, and recombination—the sympathetic “cohaerence”—of physical matter. As Brian Cummings notes, Donne’s conception of sympathy “is semantically equivalent to the sheer difficulty of physical interpretation; it is the very opposite of the inherent transparency of emotion.”19

It is important to recognize the profound disagreement at this time, in British and continental circles, over whether or not human thought and action were motivated by a moral faculty or sense, or rather by a violent and amoral self-interest. In his 1651 Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) had shocked his contemporaries by characterizing the “condition of meer Nature” as perpetual antagonism: a “warre of every one against his neighbor.”20 The basic state of nature—including human nature—is, in Hobbes’s view, aggression. That claim ignited tensions regarding the question of innate human goodness, but those who would later argue against him needed modern scientific, rather than ancient or purely doctrinal, justification for their claims. As Michael L. Frazer notes, “since the debate between sentimentalism and the selfish system was over the empirical realities of human psychology, it could only be resolved by empirical means.”21 During the late 17th and 18th century, in the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, works by David Hume and Adam Smith reflected this new demand for empiricist philosophical explanations of the natural world, including sympathy, which was promoted in this period of energetic debate to a privileged aspect of human nature. Both Hume and Smith rejected systems-thinking (the use of a priori assumptions) and the speculative method that held sway in contemporary philosophical thought, insisting instead that sympathy was fundamentally an act of imagination, and emphasizing the homology between the sympathetic imagination and other, seemingly disparate mental acts. Smith’s description of sympathy as imaginatively inhabiting the perspective of an impartial spectator, or Hume’s account of causal inference in formulating beliefs—the mental act of linking effects to causes, like smoke to fire—made sympathy at once a complex and advanced mental process as well as fundamental to basic forms of human thinking and therefore utterly commonplace. It is, for both of these influential thinkers, a means by which humans generate the mental habits necessary for life in human society.22 When Hume refers to a “general point of view,” or when Smith describes “going along with others” in a kind of imaginative mental companionship, each articulates a conception of sympathy that is abstract, generalizing, and sociable. “All men endeavour in some measure to common themselves, and to bring down their selfish passions to something which their neighbor can go along with,” Smith writes.23 Achieving a common ground, a compromise formation or a shareable middle, is the cornerstone of sympathetic sociability.

Sympathy for these thinkers is therefore not simply a mechanism for sharing feelings, but a mental capacity and a habit of mind that people use to predict outcomes and form beliefs about natural processes, including human behavior. Mediating across a collection of friends, acquaintances, strangers, and even purely imagined persons, sympathy in 18th-century philosophical works was tied primarily to aspects of society or humanity writ large, not individual personality. It was thoroughly ethical, even when it also was bound to material processes and experiential life. Those who studied it focused on the ways in which sensory data was collected and how it formed lasting impressions that shaped shared behaviors, feelings, and beliefs. Such insights enabled these thinkers to theorize one of the most important issues of their time and ours: what enables social life to function, and what’s gone wrong when it breaks down.

Sympathy, Empathy, and Literary History

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a flourishing of literary forms for which the force and significance of human feeling was paramount. In Britain, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) were among the most popular sentimental, proto-Romantic novels featuring sentimental heroes and plots designed to showcase the cultivation of powerful sentiments. Like the gothic, another enormously popular and related mode at this time, the sentimental capitalized on the new fascination with the entwined intellectual, psychological, and emotional motivations of human actors, the passions and beliefs that drove them to act in the ways that they did. In the German context, Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) emphasized the importance of the individual whose behaviors reflected his emotional state, in this case the Weltschmerz or world-weariness that plagued those stymied by conventional morality and social mores. In France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïsw (1761) argued similarly for the value of personal authenticity and liberty over prescriptive rules. The altruism that is associated with sympathy (and later, with empathy) is not, in these works, preeminent. In Germany and France (and in some English Romantic poetry), the sentimental revolution involved instead the breaking of the chains of stifling convention; in less rebellious (because recently defeated) Britain, it was often put to use in capturing and recording how ideas are converted into felt, experiential impressions. Sir Walter Scott’s sometimes politically ameliorative historical fictions are powered less by a factual rendering of the past than by the desire to bring into vivid life a full range of historical actors and the panorama of sentiments they embodied. Such new uses of, and new ways of valuing, emotion were concomitant with those developments in British and continental philosophy that brought emotion into the domain of epistemology. Whereas René Descartes (1596–1650) had considered emotion a category of volition (i.e., of action or the will), empiricist philosophy from John Locke (1632–1704) forward “shifted feeling from the realm of volition to the realm of understanding.”24 As Adela Pinch explains, passions and ideas were no longer seen as opposing forces, but instead as dynamically entangled. Empiricism could allow “emotion to be a way of knowing” precisely because the mechanism of sympathy, as in Hume’s formulation, converts ideas into their corresponding impressions, into “force”—a transformation that, in turn, makes force “the quality of the mind’s attention to its own ideas.”25 Emotion had become both a way of thinking and a means for adjudicating one’s own and others’ relation to the world.

Feeling thus intersects with the literary, and with new ideas of the fictive, in a broad cultural sense, since both the imaginative activity of sympathy and that of reading literature involve what Ian Duncan calls a “double consciousness”: an awareness that overt fictionality, the probabilistic rather than guaranteed factuality, forms the experiential basis of the real. “Oscillating between alienated reflection and absorption in the illusory surfaces of life, mediating rather than resolving a radical contradiction, generative of a melancholic enjoyment,” this double consciousness “characterizes the subjective effect of a work of fiction at the very moment when fiction, negotiating between the ideologically prestigious domains of knowledge and belief, begins to claim rhetorical autonomy in mid-eighteenth-century Great Britain.”26 According to Duncan, it is Hume who endows the fictive with “philosophical legitimation,” as an authentic representation of common life, which is itself “a consensually reproduced fiction.”27 The relationship between sympathy, fiction, and ordinary reality is here firmly established. And because, at this time, it tended also to legitimate ordinary persons, places, and events, the novel emerges as the privileged genre for rendering this nexus of philosophical, aesthetic, and ethical concerns.

The rise of fictional realism in 19th-century Britain can thus be understood in relation to prior proto-realist or nonrealist forms as well as to the consolidating work that both sympathy and realism were called upon to perform. In the American context, William Wells Brown’s The Power of Sympathy; or, the Triumph of Nature (1789), among the first published American novels, pitted passion against the intellect in advocating for the newly independent nation’s fictions to cultivate the principles of republicanism in a populace eager to elevate itself above a dissipated British aristocracy. Though aspects of this project are aesthetic and generic—“nature” or realism triumphing over the manufactured and dangerous passions characteristic of other, more irrational genres and eras—sympathy in 19th-century America (and in Britain) was also strongly bound up in nationalist projects. This was, by intention, an expansive enterprise. Works by women authors, such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s New-England Tale (1822), featured strong female characters combining sense with sensibility to navigate the perils of the marriage market. The repetitiousness and conventionality of these plots did not diminish their popularity but were instead integral to their widespread appeal. Between the 1850 publication of Susan Warner’s didactic sentimental novel Wide, Wide World, a national bestseller, and the appearance of Augusta Evans Wilson’s St. Elmo in 1867, “one formula blockbuster after another dominated the market.”28 Such works drew on a sophisticated rhetoric of sympathetic feeling to advocate in their “lowbrow” fictions for social reforms of many kinds. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1851–1852) put sentimental and melodramatic modes to use in the cause for abolition. Langston Hughes (1902–1967) later described Stowe’s novel as a “moral battle cry.”29 Sympathy was no longer primarily used for describing material affinities or forces of nature but had become a term of human judgment, necessary for evaluations of both virtue and of taste. For women authors, especially, this association of virtuous sympathetic compassion, aesthetic taste, and feminine authorship (especially of novels) positioned women advantageously as keen observers and stewards of a newly domesticated and feminized sensus communis over which their influence was deemed both natural and necessary.

As Stowe’s subtitle suggests, the moral seriousness accorded to personal sentiment gave rise to a new interest in contemporary and native, local, or folk aesthetic models, as opposed to classical or neoclassical models, and to common, middle class (or at least non-aristocratic) protagonists whose lives were newly considered proper subjects for art. William Wordsworth’s lyric poems exemplify the belief that the most ordinary, even the most marginal of human lives was worthy of serious attention. Poems such as “The Idiot Boy,” “We Are Seven,” and “The Mad Mother,” in Lyrical Ballads (1798), coauthored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, reflect a fascination with not-fully-rational or non-normative mental states—that of children and of so-called idiots and madmen (both idiocy and madness were serious pseudoscientific terms at the time)—and seek to explain alternative or unusual forms of thought. How does one sympathize with—feel with, think with, or even understand—those whose cognitive processes prove radically different from one’s own? Writers in 19th-century Britain and America grappling with this question were participating in a mass cultural-anthropological turn which centered general humanity (as opposed to the heroic and exceptional, the metaphysical, or the divine) as the privileged object of study. Responding in part to the conditions of empire—which brought many different societies, with sometimes radically different cultural habits and practices, into view—as well as to the mass migrations of the citizenry into metropolitan centers such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, London, and New York, the preoccupation with perception, and the democratizing practice of “reading” others (such as members of other social types or economic classes), thus had practical necessity that went beyond more purely philosophical attempts to bring religious and scientific explanations of human morality and behavior into some workable correspondence.

Empathy, Affect, and Literary Criticism

Given this rich history, and the outsized role played by empathy in contemporary scientific and philosophical debates, no one article can account fully for the vast literature on sympathy and empathy in literary criticism. The remainder of this article will focus on a few representative approaches to both empathy and affect in order to demonstrate some of the ways in which these concepts have come to matter to contemporary scholars of the literary.

To begin with ethics: writers have long been divided about whether or not empathy—specifically, an eroding of the boundary between self and world, self and other—should serve as a basis for ethics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Emile, had questioned the sentiment of pity for another: “if the enthusiasm of an overflowing heart identifies me with my fellow-creature, if I feel, so to speak, that I will not let him suffer lest I should suffer too, I care for him because I care for myself,” he writes; the “love of others . . . spring[s] from self-love.”30 Empathy (if we can call it that) is both “pre-reflective” and selfish, a form of self-love rather than altruistic care. In the mid-20th century, psychological experiments attempted to peel apart the idea of sympathetic projection from empathetic sociality and interpersonal relations. As Susan Lanzoni points out,

psychologists began to differentiate “true” empathy, defined as the accurate appraisal of another’s thoughts or feelings, from what they called “projection.” In 1955, Reader’s Digest defined the term, which was new to the public outside of academia, as the “ability to appreciate the other person’s feelings without yourself becoming so emotionally involved that your judgment is affected.”31

Empathy in this instance is not identified with a complete merging of self and other but rather with the kind of distance associated heretofore with sympathetic judgment.

The lack of consensus around the meaning of empathy and empathy’s value and limits continues to cause confusion. But in the early 20th century, some of the most revolutionary innovations in the literary and visual arts reflected a widespread fascination with the then-new concept of empathy that seemed amenable to the dissolution of aesthetic conventionalities and hard-held boundaries. Empathy and modernist aesthetics developed in tandem. The impressionistic method in painting, as exemplified in Claude Monet’s 1872 Impression, Sunrise, was later adapted by novelists intent on blurring the boundaries between foreground and background, inside and outside—and self and other—and grounded a preoccupation with the life of the human psyche. In literary circles, the scientific concept of empathy was adapted to explain tendencies that distinguished modern authors from Victorian. Formal techniques such as free indirect discourse (FID) and stream-of-consciousness, developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were widely seen as enabling an empathetic, knowing closeness to develop between readers and fictional characters. Henry James (1843–1916), Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), James Joyce (1882–1941), and other prominent modernists relied heavily on FID as a technique for eliminating the intrusive, omniscient narrators associated with the 19th-century novel from Jane Austen (1775–1817) to George Eliot (1819–1880). They capitalized on one of FID’s most profound and strange effects, a blending of empathetic identification with characters with an irony that distances readers from them. In place of an ostensibly hierarchical and definitively prosocial sympathy of the sort exemplified by Eliot’s all-knowing narrators, the language effects of FID and stream-of-consciousness were attempts at a more egalitarian and empathetic mode of representation. Subsequently, as books such as Empathy and the Psychology of Literary Modernism (2014) and Modernist Empathy: Geography, Elegy, and the Uncanny (2019) demonstrate, modernist methods for disintegrating illusory or false borders between persons, spaces, and times have been seen as both pushing the project of empathy forward—by assuming the value of such breakdowns and cross-transmissions—and, at the same time, calling into question the very possibility of empathy, in undermining the distinctions that keep self and other, self and world, apart.

In the wake of modernist aesthetics’ global impact, literary forms that did not reflect the privileged ambitions and experimentation of the modernists were routinely excluded from serious study. As the techniques of empathetic narration were deemed superior to that of the (Victorian, hierarchical) sympathetic variety, so literary forms associated with popular rather than “high” art, with a primarily female readership, or with denigrated forms of feeling were dismissed by literary criticism—a criticism that arose alongside and in response to modernist aesthetics and that continued to privilege its tendencies well into the 20th century. The New Criticism, for instance, endorsed some of the most strongly held ideas about what novels should and should not do inherited from Henry James, who championed the idea of disinterested observation. Feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s began a massive reevaluation of the role of emotion in literary interpretation (and canon formation), reviving interest in neglected or rejected literary forms, often those popularized by women authors. Nina Baym, in her Woman’s Fiction, for instance, vitalized the study of the American sentimental tradition by focusing on “formulaic” works by 19th-century women writers who did not fashion themselves practitioners of great art.32 As the century progressed, these women authors would reject the morbid seduction plots popularized at the turn of the century, replacing stories of dangerous and overwhelming passions with more benign lessons of “sympathy and benevolent fellow-feeling,” and activities that were understood to be “grounded by Enlightenment thinkers in the universal psychological capacity of all human beings to respond to others’ distress.” As Baym shows, this shift made sentimentality “compatible with universal Reason”: this discourse of sentimentalism “is constructed not as evasive self-absorption,” she writes, “but as a practical philosophy of community designed to operate in a variety of social contexts to complement or modify social interactions that are otherwise calculating and instrumental.”33 Sympathy here is a world-building force that tames and diverts self- and world-obliterating passions into privileged channels of feeling whose end is neither unruly self-expression nor annihilation but predictable and shareable abstract and rational thought.

More recently, the revival of ethical criticism in literary studies has been seen as a response to postmodern criticism’s successful eradication of ethics from a formal, structural methodology that dominated literary critical and theoretical circles for much of the 20th century. Yet the role of empathy in ethical and aesthetic judgment continues to be debated by contemporary scholars of the literary. As the authors of “Against Empathy” argue, ethical criticism as an aspect of literary study “must extend its scope beyond the ethics of narrative empathy,” since the ethical merits of an empathy understood primarily vis-à-vis aesthetic experience remains far from obvious.34 Empathy, in other words, remains suspect as an ethical model because it is hardly certain that art should be a primary source of, or catalyst for, prosocial behavior. Their analysis of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996), a novel whose protagonist is based on a historical figure, Grace Marks—a Canadian servant convicted (perhaps wrongly) of the 1843 murder of her employer and his housekeeper—exposes the darker side of any attempt to plumb the depths of other psyches in the quest for truth, certainty, or understanding. In order to comprehend the morally ambiguous Grace with empathy, “readers must reconstruct” her image, “so that she seems ‘like them’ in some crucial aspects, a person whose identity is stable and coherent and with whom it is possible to identify.” In this way, they argue, readers are prone to “lose sight of Grace’s singularity. An empathetic reading cannot welcome Grace’s elusive subjectivity and face the suffering she articulates.”35

Contemporary philosophers in the field of virtue ethics, like Martha Nussbaum, who claim that reading fiction can induce empathetic, prosocial behavior must also contend with the continuance of selfishness, irrationality, and human cruelty well beyond the supposed triumph of an Enlightenment that was supposed to diminish, if not eradicate, these aspects of human behavior. The virtues of empathy came deservedly under attack in the aftermath of the World Wars, when, for instance, the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), denounced any aestheticized politics that presumes the prima facie value of collective feeling, since populations can be susceptible to emotional manipulation. National feeling, collective and shared, can be used to ruthless, murderous ends. As Peg Birmingham puts it, “for Arendt, the sentiment of pity or empathy has an inherent cruelty” precisely because it is a sentiment and can therefore be enjoyed.36 More recently, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), whose family was decimated by World War II, maintains a positive view of the passions while developing an ethical system based on a theory of radical otherness. Because it is much easier to empathize with those like us, and easy, therefore, to refuse empathy to those who are not, what is needed is an ethics that takes the “irreducible alterity” of others as its starting and end point.37 Disavowing the promise of inhabiting the other’s point of view as an always potentially corrupt and projective enterprise, Levinas argues instead for an idea of others as radically inassimilable, unimaginable, and alien—precisely not available for sympathetic or empathetic occupation or for imaginative projection. For Saidiya Hartman, representations of the violence inflicted on slave bodies in slave narratives—and in literary studies of them—provide stark encounters that dramatize “the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator”: the only thing “more obscene than the brutality unleased at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body in endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible.”38 Given this, she asks: “how does one give expression to these outrages without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence of the benumbing spectacle?” How does one distinguish between the kind of witnessing that would involve acknowledging “the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities for pain” and that which would make us “voyeurs,” at once “fascinated and repelled” by such spectacles?39 Is empathy involved in only the first of these alternatives, or in both?

Yet despite these serious concerns, empathy remains an invaluable concept for 21st-century thinkers in an array of fields and disciplines. Empathy’s centrality to an extraordinarily wide range of discourses speaks to its unique significance across disciplines and to its usefulness as a bridge concept linking divergent methodologies and objects. Tracking empathy—and related categories of emotion more broadly—across these different discourses can illuminate cross-disciplinary borrowings and overlaps, as for instance between literary criticism and science. Contemporary work in empathy and animal biology, psychology, and related fields may search out the biological, evolutionary, and biochemical origins of empathy, but these studies also often make use of narratives in their explanatory frameworks, even as they push empathy into nearly all quarters beyond the aesthetic—from attempts to isolate mirror neurons, theorized to be responsible for empathy in animals and humans, to the development of empathy-training exercises that increasingly are a required part of medical school education. Though the reliance of contemporary science writing on literary techniques has been less well studied (or acknowledged), such cross-pollination was once common and is seeing a resurgence in fields such as the medical humanities. A 2013 special issue of the journal Science & Education opens by remarking, “The most extraordinary fact about the need for a discussion of the relationship between Science and Literature, is that it needs discussing.”40 While the conjunction of science and philosophy, science and history, seems to require neither explanation nor defense, the same easy association is not assumed for literature and science, despite evidence that exemplary figures such as Galileo and Copernicus “leveraged the rhetoric of their era . . . in order to promote their theories,” or that the pioneering work of James Hutton, the late-18th-century geologist, was written at a time when Romantic aesthetics and geology were coevolving.41 In facing contemporary global challenges, some scholars have found in empathy a strategy for social and political involvement. The economist Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, argues that “global empathy” is needed to combat climate change, while in Zero Degrees of Empathy the neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen argues that the “erosion of empathy is an important global issue related to the health of our communities, be they small (like families) or big (like nations).”42

Literature scholars who study science writing are aware of how deeply the discourses of science, literature, and the emotions intersect. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), for instance, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) had no reservations about hearkening back to poets such as Wordsworth in his study of the embodied emotional responses of infants, animals, and what Darwin calls “the insane,” those who are “liable to the strongest passions, and give uncontrolled vent to them.”43 Yet even as he extends this list of non- or not-fully-rational humans to nonhuman animals, Darwin continues to invoke those earlier, more complex and perfectible forms of sympathy, as when he contends that vivid thoughts of “days [that] will never return” cause us “to sympathize with ourselves in our present, in comparison with our former, state.”44 Here an advanced, thoroughly imaginative sympathy, like that “even with the imaginary distresses of a heroine in a pathetic story, for whom we feel no affection, [yet who] readily excites tears,” meets that other, more bodily “sort of sympathy” ascribed to the “connection between the muscles” of a dog’s legs and hindquarters.45 And it was Darwin who proclaimed “humanity to the lower animals,” indeed to “all sentient beings,” as “one of the noblest [virtues] with which man is endowed.”46 As Gillian Beer notes in her seminal Darwin’s Plots, even as Darwin sought to overturn “the anthropocentric view of the universe” held by major writers such as John Milton (1608–1674), so as to emphasize instead the analogousness of animals and humans, he saw in these writers (and in Milton in particular) a reflection of his own commitment to nature’s “profusion, density, and articulation of the particular,” and he drew from them a vital sense of “how much could survive, how much could be held in common and in continuity with the past.”47 Similarly, George Levine demonstrates in Darwin Loves You that the post-Darwinian world—a world of shattered faith in an orderly, divinely designed cosmos—was not the bereft, disenchanted place it has been made to seem. If that world no longer housed a “transcendental spirit,” a deity, it was “yet laden with value,” and entailed “a deeply emotional, a ‘visceral,’ response to the workings of nature.” The world Darwin describes is replete with new “consolations,” new sources of wonder, like those involved in the “very act of trying to understand the world materially and naturalistically” by way of “the activity of feeling.”48 Scientific understanding is not unfeeling; it involves “caring for, or loving the world.”49 In Darwin’s writing, as in scholarship on Darwin and his vast cultural legacies, biological life depends for its articulation and expression on the language of emotion and on the literary.

In sum, both sympathy and empathy are concepts with rich histories and continuing pertinence, yet—and because of this—they can be difficult to study. In 20th- and 21st-century scholarship, it is as common to find the terms sympathy and empathy used interchangeably as it is to see them radically opposed; to find empathy used by critics to describe a concept that was designated sympathy by the authors studied; to see both characterized as if they were themselves emotions, rather than imaginative and embodied capacities for emotional sharing; and to see either concept treated as though its meaning were self-evident, requiring little definition or explanation. Empathy, in particular, has been understood as either the profoundest of human or animal capacities in enabling societies to cohere and altruism to flourish, or (as Paul Bloom writes in Against Empathy) as irrational and biased, a conduit of prejudice and a spark igniting atrocity and war.50 Any study of sympathy and empathy must dwell in a host of contradictions and confusions, not least the difficulty that can arise in identifying as empathy forms of experience that predate the term’s 1909 entry into the English language (Bloom, in identifying the roots of the pernicious empathy he describes, heads straight to the source: the Scottish Enlightenment and Adam Smith). The present article, too, at times moves freely between discussions of sympathy or empathy and feeling and emotion, from empathy aesthetics to empathy in neuroscience, in ways that reflect both the diversity of thought on these topics and the challenges to writing about any of them from one historical period, or even one text, to the next. Add to this contemporary scholarly disagreement about how feelings, emotions, and affects should be distinguished and defined, and the student of empathy will find additional challenges to her study. Yet this is not reason to abandon interest in sympathy and empathy. They remain two extraordinarily powerful concepts with deep histories and immense transdisciplinary value.

Discussion of the Literature

Literary studies of sympathy in British, American, and Continental European thought tend to center on the 18th and 19th centuries, as this was the period when the concept came under serious scrutiny and gained new prominence. Work on Britain tends to be historicist in its methodology and typically treats philosophical and philosophical-scientific texts alongside literary ones, with an emphasis on the philosophy of David Hume and the novels of George Eliot (whose eloquence on the value of sympathy is well known), and on Romantic poetry and aesthetics, sentimental fiction, and the realist novel. The novel is a privileged form in such accounts. As the ability to share the feelings of others became a shared cultural value, novelistic representations of character were newly prized as providing a training ground for real-world acts of ethical sociability. More broadly, wildly popular and increasingly accessible works of fiction at this time, in Britain and America, featured highly sentimental protagonists—as in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) or Maria Susanna Cummins’s The Lamplighter (1854)—who were also seen as ordinary (often middle-class) persons available for widespread identification in ways that royals and the extraordinary figures of Romance were not. Works of criticism such as Fred Kaplan’s Sacred Tears, Julie Ellison’s Cato’s Tears, or Anne Vincent-Buffault’s The History of Tears (which treats the 18th and 19th centuries in France) not only vitalized the study of once denigrated modes like sentimentality, but also made that study self-evidently necessary to understanding this period in the West. “Most Victorians believed that the human community was one of shared moral feelings, and that sentimentality was a desirable way of sharing feeling and of expressing ourselves morally,” Kaplan writes.51 Nearly all studies of sentimentality in Britain, Europe, and America in this period reference Hume and Smith in establishing the philosophical matrix for the simultaneous rise of sympathy and of the modern understanding of the fictive—see, for instance, Catherine Gallagher’s Nobody’s Story.52 Studies of the American context at this time are far more likely to make race a central feature of their arguments, as in, for instance, Molly Rogers’s Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, a hybrid work of history and imaginative writing examining daguerreotypes of seven South Carolina slaves commissioned by the esteemed Swiss American naturalist Louis Agassiz, or Naomi Geyser’s On Sympathetic Grounds, an interdisciplinary study of race, gender, and affect in 19th-century North America.53

Literary studies of empathy are wider ranging by design, dealing with every literary historical period and many national literatures, and are far more influenced than are studies of sympathy by cognitive scientific methods and research. Empathy studies can be highly interdisciplinary, a reflection of the concept’s importance across disciplines. Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel is a cornerstone text in this regard, combining narratology, neuroscience, moral philosophy, reading studies, developmental and social psychology, and cognitive literary studies, among others.54 Yet searches of empathy yield over 8,000 hits in book titles on Amazon’s website alone, and serious scholarly treatments of empathy are numerous across disciplines. The 2014 anthology Rethinking Empathy through Literature is representative in offering chapters on topics ranging from novel reading, pain, empathetic noise, neuroscience, autism, animals, and statistics; literary figures such as personification, character, irony, and paradox; authors ranging from Henry Fielding (1707–1754) to Émile Zola (1840–1902), Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), James Baldwin (1924–1987), and Joan Didion (1934–); and historical figures such as the American psychologist June Etta Downey (1875–1932) and Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951), a poor African American woman whose cervical cancer cells were taken and used without her consent to produce what is known as the HeLa immortal cell line.55 Hume is cited, but equally to contemporary scholars such as Lauren Berlant (an American literature scholar of culture and affect), Jean Decety (a French American neuroscientist), and Lisa Zunshine (a British literature scholar specializing in cognitive approaches); the index contains lengthy entries for cognitive empathy, cognitive psychology and dual-process models of human cognition, mirror neurons, Person Perception Networks, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis, revealing strong affiliations between empathy studies and neurocognitive methods.

Further Reading

  • Barton, Roman Alexander, Alexander Klaudies, and Thomas Micklich, eds. Sympathy in Transformation: Dynamics between Rhetorics, Poetics and Ethics. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018.
  • Boudreau, Kristen. Sympathy in American Literature: American Sentiments from Jefferson to the Jameses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
  • Breithaupt, Fritz. The Dark Sides of Empathy, translated by Andrew B. B. Hamilton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019.
  • Chandler, James. An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  • Coplan, Amy, and Peter Goldie, eds. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack, eds. Mapping the Ethical Turn: A Reader in Ethics, Culture, and Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
  • Frazer, Michael L. The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Gallagher, Catherine. Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Hayot, Eric. The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Hoffman, Martin L. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Lanzoni, Susan. Empathy: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969.
  • Mallgrave, Harry Francis, and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds. Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893. Santa Monica, CA: The Getty Center for the History of Art, 1993.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Pascual, Nieves, and Antonio Ballesteros González, eds. Feeling in Others: Essays on Empathy and Suffering in Modern American Culture. Berlin: LIT, 2008.


  • 1. Like the terms “sympathy” and “empathy,” “feeling” and “emotion” are for some thinkers interchangeable, and for others not. For Charles Altieri, working in the field of aesthetic philosophy, for instance, “feeling” more closely resembles Lockean sensations, while “emotions” are necessary for producing narratives of self-formation and self-understanding. For Antonio Damasio, working in the field of neuroscience, on the other hand, “emotions” name the process whereby a stimulus triggers thoughts and evaluative judgments, and these in turn produce physiological responses. “Feeling” comes next and is, for Damasio, the more self-conscious term; it names the mental representation—the awareness—of that embodied experience. The present article treats these distinctions loosely in an effort to acknowledge the shifting and conflicted nature of their meanings. See Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003); and Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1994).

  • 2. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

  • 3. See, for instance, Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason, “Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats,” Science 334, no. 6061 (2011): 1427–1430. On the biological origins of empathy, see Parts III (“Evolutionary Biology”) and IV (“The Science of Altruism”) in Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue, ed. Stephen Garrard Post, Lynn G. Underwood, Jeffrey Schloss, and William B. Hurlbut (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Current scientific and psychological literature on empathy is voluminous. See, for instance, Frans B. M. de Waal, “Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy,” Annual Review of Psychology 59, no. 1 (2008): 279–300; and Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, eds., Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 4. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 342, no. 5156 (2013): 377. On Barthes’s distinction between readerly and writerly texts, see Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1975).

  • 5. For a fuller account, see Rae Greiner, “1909: The Introduction of the Word ‘Empathy’ into English,” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga.

  • 6. Edward B. Titchener, Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought-Processes (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 181.

  • 7. On “motional empathy,” see Benjamin Morgan, “Critical Empathy: Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics and the Origins of Close Reading,” Victorian Studies 55, no. 1 (2012): 33 and passim.

  • 8. Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody (London: John Wyat, 1709), 223 and passim.

  • 9. Cooper, The Moralists, 224.

  • 10. The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, s.v. “Sympathy” (1989).

  • 11. John Jones, The Arte & Science of Preserving Bodie & Soule in Healthe, Wisedome, and Catholike Religion (London: Ralph Nevvberie and Henrie Bynneman, 1579), n.p.

  • 12. Pliny the Elder, The Historie of the VVorld: Commonly Called, the Naturall Historie of C. Plinius Secundus, Book 24, trans. Philemon Holland (London: Adam Islip, 1634), 175–176.

  • 13. Pliny, The Historie of the VVorld, 176.

  • 14. Johannes Baptista Van Helmont, De Magnetica Vulnerum Curatione, cited in The Evolution of Modern Medicine, by Sir William Osler (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1922), 141.

  • 15. Van Helmont writes: “For he who has once recovered from that disease hath not only obtained a pure balsaamical blood, whereby for the future he is rendered free from any recidivation of the same evil, but also infallibly cures the same affection in his neighbour . . . and by the mysterious power of Magnetism transplants that balsaam and conserving quality into the blood of another” (Van Helmont, De Magnetica, 141).

  • 16. Sir Walter Scott, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” in The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott (Frankfurt: H. L. Broenner, 1826), 12.

  • 17. John Donne, “A Sermon Preached at the Earl of Bridgewaters House in London at the at the Marriage of His Daughter, the Lady Mary, to the Eldest Sonne of the L. Herbert of Castle-iland, Novemb. 19 1627. Sermon I,” in Fifty Sermons, by John Donne (London: Marriot and Royston, 1649), 3.

  • 18. John Donne, “Sermon XIIII. Preached at Lincolns Inne,” in Donne, Fifty Sermons, 113.

  • 19. Brian Cummings, “From Sympathy to Empathy: Donne and Milton,” in Sympathy in Transformation: Dynamics between Rhetorics, Poetics and Ethics, ed. Roman Alexander Barton, Alexander Klaudies, and Thomas Micklich (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 115.

  • 20. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Andrew Cooke, 1651), n.p.

  • 21. Michael L. Frazer, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 20.

  • 22. Feeling oneself to be of the same mind as others enabled continuous, mundane reality to take shape. More than this, picturing or “mirroring” the minds of others was, for many of these writers, the activity that enabled having a mind of one’s own.

  • 23. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. David Daiches Rafael and Alexander Lyon Macfie (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982), 22, 141, and passim; David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1896), n.p. On Hume’s general point of view and the question of human character, see Christine M. Korsgaard, The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 24. Adela Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 17.

  • 25. Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion, 18.

  • 26. Ian Duncan, Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 123.

  • 27. Duncan, Scott’s Shadow, 124.

  • 28. Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870, 2nd ed. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), xi.

  • 29. Steven C. Tracy, ed., A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 9.

  • 30. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or, Education, trans. Barbara Foxley (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1921), n.p.

  • 31. Susan Lanzoni, “A Short History of Empathy,” The Atlantic, October 15, 2015.

  • 32. Baym, Woman’s Fiction, ix.

  • 33. Baym, Woman’s Fiction, xxx.

  • 34. Tammy Amiel-Houser and Adia Mendelson-Maoz, “Against Empathy: Levinas and Ethical Criticism in the 21st Century,” Journal of Literary Theory 8, no. 1 (2014): 200.

  • 35. Amiel-Houser and Mendelson-Maoz, “Against Empathy,” 210.

  • 36. Peg Birmingham, Hannah Arendt and Human Rights: The Predicament of Common Responsibility (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 51.

  • 37. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2007), passim.

  • 38. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.

  • 39. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 3.

  • 40. George N. Vlahakis, Kostas Skordoulis, and Kostas Tampakis, “Introduction: Science and Literature Special Issue,” Science & Education 23 (2014): 521.

  • 41. Vlahakis, Skordoulis, and Tampakis, “Introduction,” 522.

  • 42. Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (New York: Penguin, 2009), passim; and Simon Baron-Cohen, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty (London: Allen Lane, 2011), 124.

  • 43. Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (New York: D. Appleton, 1897), 13.

  • 44. Darwin, The Expressions of the Emotions, 215.

  • 45. Darwin, The Expressions of the Emotions, 215, 122.

  • 46. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton, 1871), 97.

  • 47. Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 3rd ed. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 32.

  • 48. George Levine, Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 24–25.

  • 49. Levine, Darwin Loves You, 25.

  • 50. Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: Ecco, 2016).

  • 51. Fred Kaplan, Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 3; Julie Ellison, Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); and Anne Vincent-Buffault, The History of Tears: Sensibility and Sentimentality in France (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991).

  • 52. Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

  • 53. Molly Rogers, Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); and Naomi Geyser, On Sympathetic Grounds: Race, Gender, and Affective Geographies in Nineteenth-Century North America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

  • 54. Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  • 55. Meghan Marie Hammond and Sue J. Kim, eds., Rethinking Empathy through Literature (New York: Routledge, 2014).