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Max Scheler and Adam Smith on Sympathy

  • Adriana Alfaro Altamirano

Recent efforts to theorize the role of emotions in political life have stressed the importance of sympathy, and have often recurred to Adam Smith to articulate their claims. In the early twentieth-century, Max Scheler disputed the salutary character of sympathy, dismissing it as an ultimately perverse foundation for human association. Unlike later critics of sympathy as a political principle, Scheler rejected it for being ill equipped to salvage what, in his opinion, should be the proper basis of morality, namely, moral value. Even if Scheler's objections against Smith's project prove to be ultimately mistaken, he had important reasons to call into question its moral purchase in his own time. Where the most dangerous idol is not self-love but illusory self-knowledge, the virtue of self-command will not suffice. Where identification with others threatens the social bond more deeply than faction, “standing alone” in moral matters proves a more urgent task.

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1 See, among many others, Nussbaum, Martha, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Krause, Sharon R., Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); and Frazer, Michael L., The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Garsten, Bryan, Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

3 Walzer, Michael, “Deliberation, and What Else?,” in Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Theory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

4 See Noam Gidron and Bart Bonikowski, “Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda,” Weatherhead Working Paper Series, No. 13-0004, 2013,

5 Scheler's works are cited parenthetically with the following abbreviations: NS equals The Nature of Sympathy; F equals Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values; SPE equals Selected Philosophical Essays; EM equals The Eternal in Man.

6 See Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 7195 ; and Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 160ff.

7 Frazer, Enlightenment of Sympathy, 89.

8 The main discussions about faction in Theory of Moral Sentiments were added only to the sixth edition in 1790 (see, e.g., TMS, 155–56, 215–16, 231–32, 242, 245). Many scholars agree that these additions were influenced by the French Revolution. Still, the problem of faction is present in Smith's thought from early on. For instance, in a letter to Shelburne from 1759 (the year TMS was first published), Smith writes: “I hear there is no faction in parliament, in which I am glad of. For tho’ a little faction now and then gives spirit to the nation the continuance of it obstructs all public business and puts it out of the power of the best Minister to do much good” (cited in Winch, Donald, Adam Smith's Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978], 160). Moreover, as Winch says, the problem of faction and dissent “provides the clue to Smith's view of the colonial assemblies in America. Like the ‘troublesome jealousy’ of some small European republics, they had departed from the golden mean in becoming prey to ‘rancorous and virulent factions’” (ibid., 160). Finally, as Richard Tuck suggested to me, further evidence of the early importance of this topic in Smith's thought is David Hume's essays “Of Parties in General” and “Of Parties in Great Britain,” published in 1741: Hume and Smith were close and shared many political views and opinions. Therefore, even if many of the explicit discussions of faction appear only in later editions, and are nurtured by both the American and the French Revolutions, they find a “natural home” in TMS. That, I think, is because the socio-psychological context was already there, which corresponds to faction as a decisive political concern in Smith's thought.

9 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Raphael, D. D. and Macfie, A. L. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982), henceforth cited parenthetically as TMS.

10 The relevant sociopolitical context for Scheler's reflections is, first, the rise of mass movements in Europe, and especially in Germany. In dialogue with the works of Gustav Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde, and Sigmund Freud, Scheler argues that what he calls “emotional contagion” and “emotional identification” are forms of collective interaction that emerge distinctively—even if not exclusively—in mass movements and other “psychopathic group-movements” (NS, 16). Second, his reflections on sympathy should be read against the background the so-called spirit-of-1914 narrative. According to this narrative, the outbreak of World War I was a moment of unification and collective renewal for the German nation, which remained a rich nationalistic reference throughout World War II. For many, the experiences of August 1914 constituted a “holy” and “heroic” moment, a “rebirth through war,” in which individual and collective identities were “fused and transformed,” and the soul of the German people was purified (see Verhey, Jeffrey, The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth and Mobilization in Germany [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000]). In the second edition of Scheler's book on sympathy (NS), published in 1922 (the first one appeared in 1912), he added that his observations had been confirmed by WWI. For Scheler's changing positions regarding the spiritual meaning of the war see Davis, Zachary, “The Values of War and Peace: Max Scheler's Political Transformations,” Symposium 16, no. 2 (2012): 128–49.

11 See Luft, Sebastian and Overgaard, Søren, The Routledge Companion to Phenomenology (New York: Routledge, 2012), chap. 3; Wojtyla, Karol (John Paul, Pope II), The Acting Person (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1979); and Heidegger, Martin, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), where he calls Scheler “the strongest philosophical force in Germany, nay, in contemporary Europe, and even in contemporary philosophy as such” (50). Contemporary scholarship on Scheler has been advanced mainly under the auspices of the Max Scheler Gesellschaft and the Max Scheler Society of North America.

12 Green, Jeffrey, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

13 See note 5 above.

14 Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 447.

15 This is one of the reasons why the contrast with Smith is more interesting than the one with, say, Bentham or Hume.

16 This misreading might be easily explained by the fact that, as Keith Tribe holds, discussion in Germany about TMS during the second half of the nineteenth century developed in the absence of readily available copies of the work. Two German translations of TMS had been published in the eighteenth century, but, Keith says, at the time German university libraries did not routinely purchase translations of English works. Further, no new German edition was available until Eckstein's edition of 1926. This leads Tribe to conclude that “most of those who wrote in German about Theory of Moral Sentiments had not read the book” (“‘Das Adam Smith Problem’ and the Origins of Modern Smith Scholarship,” History of European Ideas 34, no. 4 [December 2008]: 518).

In Scheler's private library, there is only a German translation of the Wealth of Nations (by Max Stirner, published in 1911), but no copy of TMS. Scheler's English was not very good, so he most surely used a translation, but it is unclear which one. Most likely, it was one from a public library in Jena or Munich. However, since there are no records of their book exchange, and in Scheler's few lecture notes there seem not to be any bibliographical notes concerning Adam Smith, it is difficult to know. I very much thank Wolfhart Henckmann for his help with this information. Scheler's reading of Adam Smith might have been influenced by Gustav Störring's Moralphilosophischen Streitfragen (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann Verlag, 1903), which Scheler cites in the Ressentiment book. I thank Zachary Davis for pointing this out to me.

17 Cf. Debes, Remy, “From Einfühlung to Empathy,” in Sympathy: A History, ed. Schliesser, Eric (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 286321 , who also recognizes Scheler's “wrongheaded reading” and “dismissive tone” with respect to both Smith and Hume (313), but who does not explore the extent to which Smith can actually push back against Scheler, thereby missing what I see as the real contrast between them.

18 Wertnehmung is a term coined by Scheler, which combines value (Wert) with perception (Wahrnehmung).

19 However, they are different from sensations. For Scheler, against Kant, cognition is not exhausted by sensation and understanding. Values are data of intuition, which are yet not sensible in character. That is why he calls them “material a priori” (see F, 45–80).

20 To illustrate briefly: joy and sorrow correspond to spiritual values, such as the beautiful or the holy; the feeling of health and illness, to the vital value of well- or ill-being; and the feelings of pleasure and pain, to the values of the agreeable and the disagreeable. For further details, see F, 101–11.

21 On the issue of Smith's “sophisticated emotivism,” or “qualified moral objectivism,” see Griswold, Charles, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 129–30, and chap. 4.

22 To put it in more technical terms, sympathy, I think, is closer to Scheler's Fühlen (feeling) than to his Gefühlen (feeling-states). For this distinction, see F, 253–64, and Ferran, Íngrid Vendrell, Die Emotionen: Gefühle in der realistischen Phänomenologie (Berlin: Akademie, 2008), 205–10.

23 Cf. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 302n10, who states that Smith associates sympathy with contagion of feeling. I think this is imprecise, but probably not wrong, if by that she means (as I think she does) that Smith requires us actually to experience the feeling of the person that we sympathize with.

24 See, e.g., Schneck, Stephen, Person and Polis: Max Scheler's Personalism as Political Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).

25 By “pathological” I mean just passive as opposed to active; related to the senses, instead of to the spirit.

26 See note 10 above.

27 Cf. Aaltola, Elisa, “Varieties of Empathy and Moral Agency,” Topoi 33, no. 1 (2013): 243–53. Aaltola associates Smith with a “projective” notion of sympathy, which leads her to attribute to it the potential drawbacks of “feed[ing] atomism and detachment” (246). My analysis highlights the opposite danger.

28 Scheler interpreted the rise of fascism in Europe, and specifically among German youth, as a “reversal” of values, in which spiritual values were subverted in favor of vital values. Such vital dimension corresponds, in turn, to the “intermediate region” which—as we have seen—is activated, in his view, in cases of emotional contagion and identification. See Davis, Zachary, “A Phenomenology of Political Apathy: Scheler on the Origins of Mass Violence,” Continental Philosophy Review 42, no. 2 (2009): 149–69.

29 Griswold has rightly denominated Smith's pedagogical strategy as the “internalization of spectatorship.” Cf. Vivienne Brown's suggestive interpretation, according to which we find in Smith (at least in the TMS) a much richer notion of agency than I allow here, based on a distinction between action and judgment, and how they are respectively affected (or not) by motives. See Brown, Vivienne, “Agency and Discourse: Revisiting the Adam Smith Problem,” in Elgar Companion to Adam Smith, ed. Young, Jeffrey (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2009), 5272 .

30 This is not to say that self-love is always bad, but that its corrupted or delusory version is. See Brown's discussion of Smith's Stoic interpretation of self-love, according to which “love for oneself” can become the basis for loving others, and thus cannot be conceived merely as an individualistic concern ( Brown, Vivienne, Adam Smith's Discourse: Canonicity, Commerce, and Conscience [London: Routledge, 1994], 9596). Still, my point is that, without the appropriate moral treatment, for Smith, self-love becomes the main source of moral trouble. This does not seem to be true for Scheler.

31 In a sharp interpretation, Samuel Fleischacker has argued that self-deception, and not akrasia, is the real problem that the impartial spectator is meant to address (True to Ourselves? Adam Smith on Self-Deceit,” in The Adam Smith Review, vol. 6, ed. Forman-Barzilai, Fonna [London: Routledge, 2011], 7592 ). However, notice that self-deception is not the same as lack of self-knowledge. They differ crucially on what the object of knowledge is. In Fleischacker's account, self-deceit happens when I misuse my moral resources, and talk myself into what I already know is not my ideal and my standard (88–89). So, even if, with Fleischaker, one acknowledges a cognitive problem at the root of partiality in Smith's treatment, it would still be different from Scheler in two respects: first, self-deceit regards, for Smith, not knowledge about myself, but about my standard of morality. For Scheler, on the contrary, self-knowledge concerns me as a person, and not as a rational being capable of having standards or forming judgments (see F, 371–86). Second, even if the problem is put in terms of self-deceit, it is still true, I think, that, for Smith, self-love (and not illusory self-certainty) constitutes the main reason behind it.

32 See Fricke, Christel and Føllesdal, Dagfinn, Intersubjectivity and Objectivity in Adam Smith and Edmund Husserl: A Collection of Essays (Frankfurt: Ontos, 2012).

33 It could be argued that, in Smith, a long-term approach is given priority mainly for the sake of prudence, but without, for that reason, allowing it to have the last say in all kinds of situations. However, I do not think this rejoinder is valid, since Smith gives a consistent treatment of time—one that favors a long-term approach—not only in the context of prudence, but also of duty and of utility. See, for example, TMS, 190. I thank Charles Griswold for helping me to clarify this point.

34 Cf. Leonidas Montes's very interesting interpretation, according to which the virtue of self-command in Smith should not be traced to the Stoic tradition of apatheia, but to the Socratic doctrine of enkrateia. The latter refers to an enabling and empowering notion of inner power and rule over oneself, rather than to self-control, suppression and, restraint (Adam Smith as an Eclectic Stoic,” in Adam Smith Review, vol. 4, ed. Brown, Vivienne [Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2008], 3056 ).

35 Cf. Frazer's defense of Smith on this point, which consists, as I said, in showing that his version of sentimentalism “fully appreciates the distinctions among individuals in a way Hume's public-interest-based theory fails to do” (Enlightenment of Sympathy, 90).

36 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 163–64.

37 Ibid., 166. Rawls takes the idea from Thomas Nagel.

38 Ibid.

39 For a recent discussion of this topic see Zwolinski, Matt, “The Separateness of Persons and Liberal Theory,” Journal of Value Inquiry 42, no. 2 (2008): 147–65.

40 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 166.

41 For Scheler on the particularity of moral judgment, see F, 203–32.

42 See the recent work by the psychologist Paul Bloom, “Against Empathy,” Boston Review, September 10, 2013, Accessed November 22, 2016.

43 Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 325.

44 I did so as a recent college graduate, for a project sponsored by the Freie Universität Berlin to investigate the administration of criminal justice in Mexico City. I conducted twenty-seven in-depth interviews with trial court judges who specialized in criminal cases.

45 Which means seeing someone as an “end whose good is to be promoted” (Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 321).

46 Interestingly, the voice of conscience in Smith has been interpreted (and with reference to the exact same passage in TMS) along Kantian lines instead. See Fleischacker, Samuel, “Adam Smith and Cultural Relativism,” Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics 4, no. 2 (2011): 33.

47 To be clear, in Smith, general rules are not the only, or the main, moral resource available. For a good discussion of the role of general rules, see Fleischacker, “True to Ourselves?,” 84–88.

48 This could convey the idea that the good is self-evident, welcoming therefore all sorts of moral, religious, and political fundamentalism. I think that would be a misinterpretation. Just as someone with a “trained ear” can actually find more things in a melody than those who are not familiar with music, conscience is an “organ” that needs training, to be able to deliver its message with all its subtlety.

49 See both Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, 88–91, who argues that Smith's theatrical scheme preserves the distance between myself and the impartial spectator standpoint; and Brown, Adam Smith's Discourse, chap. 3, where she argues that, hermeneutically, TMS “displays a radical doubt concerning the viability of the spectator mechanism,” precisely on account of the impossibility of achieving complete identification with the “man within” (251–56). Brown also argues that there is textual evidence that Smith himself was skeptical of the desirability of such a complete identification (255). Still, a concern about individuality is certainly absent from the picture.

50 Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, 105.

I am very grateful to Richard Tuck, Michael Frazer, Michael Rosen, Danielle Allen, and six anonymous reviewers for their helpful advice and constructive criticism. I wish also to thank the participants of the Political Theory Workshop at Harvard University, and those of the XIII International Conference organized by the Max-Scheler-Gesellschaft at the University of Verona.

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