Once more with feeling: The Scottish Enlightenment, sympathy, and social welfare

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This article examines the concept of ‘sympathy’ that is prominent in the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment, especially David Hume and Adam Smith, attempting to tease out some of its implications for issues of social welfare. After commenting on the rediscovery of the interest in ‘sentiment’ in recent work on the Scottish Enlightenment, I look more closely at the differences in the concept of sympathy as formulated by Hume and Smith. I contrast Hume’s more mechanistic with Smith’s more performative conceptualisation. However, Hume and Smith both argued that sympathy is biased towards those we are closest to, and towards the fortunate and powerful. Taken seriously, their notion of sympathy does not just advise benevolence and generosity, but points to one of the reasons why such sentiments are often skewed and not in themselves adequate to support ideals of social welfare. The limitations of sentiment suggest the necessity of more structural remedies to social exclusion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-223
Number of pages13
JournalEthics and Social Welfare
Issue number3
Early online date20 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2016


  • Adam Smith
  • David Hume
  • Scottish Enlightenment
  • sympathy
  • social welfare


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