Hume, Sympathy, and So On

UFO Breakfast’s discussion of Hume on sympathy made me pull out my old Oxford Press edition of the Treatise (its cover is a very striking and very antiquarian shade of brown). Deleuze describes how partiality in people’s sympathies makes a unified polity difficult. The two Deleuze quotes in this entry are on the mark on how sympathy is steered by culture, but there’s a point buried in there about how sympathy is generated that marks it as far more fundamental.

Hume’s theory of mind was one of raw sense data being apprehended and copied into the mind with no intermediation. When Hume mixes his perception theories with his conception of sympathy, he indicates that sympathy is a survival instinct, not so much egoistic as a necessary mechanism for coping in the world:

I own the mind to be insufficient, of itself, to its own entertainment, and that it naturally seeks after foreign objects, which may produce a lively sensation, and agitate the spirits. On the appearance of such an object it awakes, as it were, from a dream: The blood flows with a new tide: The heart is elevated : And the whole man acquires a vigour, which he cannot command in his solitary and calm moments. (353)

Hume discusses how sympathies are extended over time for consistency’s sake, and how these trends underly family, custom. The regulation of sympathy is determined by the environment and pre-existing conditions, but the tendency is innate, or as close as Hume will come to that term. The application of sympathy is based on “resemblance and contiguity,” which give rise to family, friendship, etc.

When Hume talks about his most skeptical moments, when “I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv’d of the use of every member and facility,” his solutions are all social: “I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends.” This is less of a moral or political issue than an existential one.

Though Hume sets sympathy in opposition to selfishness and egoism, it seems to exist more at the level of his theories of mind rather than those of culture: being necessitates external sympathy. Sympathy seems to exist below the level of self-interest.

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