Sympathy in a Biological Context

Charles Darwin and William McDougall
  • Lauren Wispé
Part of the Perspectives in Social Psychology book series (PSPS)


In this chapter we will consider how sympathy functions in the systems of Charles Darwin, the evolutionist, and William McDougall, the psychologist. Darwin did not make clear exactly what he meant by the concept of sympathy, but he was clear that it played an important role in his evolutionary theory—especially in the development of the social and moral capacities. In this sense, and perhaps in other ways, he seems to have been influenced by Adam Smith. McDougall, on the other hand, was quite clear about the meaning and operation of sympathy in his theory of instincts. His is a more circumscribed (but a much clearer) conceptualization of sympathy. It was a special adaptation developed for his theory of instincts, which served to socialize them and broaden their base of operation. Instincts could now be stimulated by exposure to others’ instinctive reactions. The idea must owe something to Hume. Hume said that the perception of the expression of others’ emotions can be enlivened into the emotion itself. McDougall was saying that the perception of the emotional expressions of conspecifics can ignite the corresponding emotion and the instinct of which it is a part. It is a brilliant exercise in conceptualization, and the basic observation by both Hume and McDougall probably contains an element of hard truth. We turn first to the works of Charles Darwin.


Moral Behavior Moral Sentiment Active Sympathy Primary Emotion Impartial Spectator 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lauren Wispé
    • 1
  1. 1.University of OklahomaNormanUSA

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