Sympathy pp 113-134 | Cite as

Sympathy and Understanding

  • Craig Taylor
Part of the Swansea Studies in Philosophy book series


Sympathy, I am claiming, is a primitive response to another’s suffering which is partially constitutive of our understanding of what it is to suffer as a human being. However, as will be clear by now, human suffering may take many complex forms beyond the simple case of physical distress that I considered in the case of the wounded German soldier in Chapter 1. Isaac Babel’s account of the despair of the nurse Sashka as discussed in Chapter 6 is obviously one such complex case. But here also I contend the failure of the Cossacks to understand Sashka’s despair, and so to understand what life is like for her, involves a failure to be moved in certain ways by her despair, that is, it involves a failure of sympathy. Further, I take this example to illustrate one way in which, as Gaita puts it, `different perspectives [may] be mute … [how] the humanity in them will not be fully present to us’. But there is another general way in which the humanity of another may not be fully present to us – an account of which is central to explaining the role of sympathy in the moral life. Sashka’s perspective is mute because the Cossacks’ sense of what a human life might involve is limited to what can be incorporated into their warrior ethic. However, in a very different kind of case, another’s perspective may be mute because we do not see them as fully human in the first place, do not see their thoughts and feelings as like our own. Here too, I suggest, our failure of understanding involves a failure of sympathy. More precisely, I argue in this chapter that sympathy is constitutive of our understanding of ourselves in this way as one among many, and, further, that this understanding of our relations with others is itself essential to any adequate account of the moral life.


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© Craig Taylor 2002

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  • Craig Taylor

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