Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Sympathy and Metaphors of Imagination in Smith and Hume

Fiori Stefano, University of Torino

Although Smith’s and Hume’s notions of imagination are related, the two authors dealt with imagination in different terms. For both, this is an elusive concept, and, rather than theoretically defining what imagination is, they aimed at showing how it works. For both authors imagination is related to sympathy. Hume emphasises that agents easily feel and communicate similar sentiments by means of sympathy. Human beings – he maintains – are similar, and “this resemblance must very much contribute to make us enter into the sentiments of others” (Hume Treatise: 318). By contrast, Smith points out the complex role exerted by sympathy in overcoming what may be called “conceptual (and moral) discontinuity”. This emerges in three circumstances: 1) in Smith, imagination and sympathy are tools which make it possible to reduce psychological and emotional distances among individuals, although these distances are never completely eliminated. Both perspectives are connected to the fact, as Fleischacker (2012, see also Darwall (1998), Rasmussen 2018, pp. 90-94) remarks, that Smith described sympathy and imagination in terms of “projection”, while Hume described them in terms of emotional “contagion”. This entails that Smith confers a more active role to imagination since its role consists in understanding and conceptualising the situation of others. In this perspective, Smith seems to move away from the tradition developed in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries which considered “sympathy” as a sort of communication by contact. 2) Sympathy and imagination reduce the distance between “impartial spectator” and agent. 3) Imagination is a tool that, by identifying connections among objects or phenomena, allows to interpret the world as an order, without “gap or interval” (HA II.7:41). In this way, in metaphorical and conceptual sense, objects or phenomena cease to appear distant. In short, the nature of relationships among agents, between the impartial spectator and the agent, and among phenomena shows how in Smith imagination is a device necessary to resolve the problem of “discontinuity” because, if discontinuity prevails in moral and economic sphere, no order is possible. Smith’s analysis was often achieved by means of conceptual metaphors, because the work of scientific and moral imagination could not be described in analytic terms. He used metaphors whose meanings were different with respect to those involved by previous authors.


Keywords: Sympathy, imagination, Adam Smith, David Hume

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