Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part 1 of 3): A Proper Understanding of Sympathy

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia


A family of words and their history

The word ‘sympathy’ has its roots in Ancient Greek. The prefix sym- means “with” or “together,” as in sym-phony: a collection that makes sounds together, producing harmony or music. Pathy refers to suffering or undergoing something and being affected emotionally. Think of pathology: the study of things that people suffer: diseases. So at root, sympathy is being affected by the condition of another living being with an emotion that corresponds to that being’s condition—or at least to our perception of it. Use of this word with this meaning in English goes back as far as the 1600s. In 1757, Edmund Burke wrote: “Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in a good measure as he is affected.”

Everyone is familiar with the difference between being active and being passive: it’s the difference between your doing something and having something done to you. The nouns are ‘agent’ (a person who does something) and ‘patient’ (a person to whom something happens). There are also the abstract nouns ‘action’ and ‘passion’ (making something happen and having something happen to you). Similarly, we can affect things or be affected by them.

To fall in love is a passionate affair: something happens to you—something that can be wonderful and also painful. To feel affection for someone is also to be affected—to open the door and allow things to come in. If I open the door and allow myself to feel affection for Laura, Laura now matters to me in a new way. I’m now open (and vulnerable as well) to being affected emotionally by what Laura says and does, and to being affected by what happens to her. If something good happens in Laura’s life, I feel good about it; if something bad happens, I feel bad about it—it’s painful for me.

The philosophical theory of David Hume (1711-76)

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume defines sympathy as the capacity to be affected emotionally by what happens to a person for whom we feel affection—both the good and the bad. Hume was studying the mind (doing psychology) from the modern scientific point of view. So for him, sympathy is not some magical affinity or “energy.” It happens through the subconscious observation of facial expressions, tone of voice, gesture and posture. In other words, sympathy happens through the medium of non-verbal communication. (I use the word ‘subconscious’ to suggest that these observations are below the surface of conscious awareness. We can notice them if we make the effort, but usually we don’t. Usually, we simply feel their effect.)

Sympathy of this kind is mainly interpersonal and face-to-face, and it requires that the two people involved already have a personal connection. But we can also feel sympathy through other media. (‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium.’ We use the expression ‘the media’ to talk about the various ways or means by which we send messages.) Hume talks about the theatre; we could also talk about movies, works of fiction or poetry.

When you watch a scary movie, the normal thing to happen is that you yourself feel scared. Something is off (either with you or the movie) if you sit there unaffected, thinking something like, “Oh, if I were in that situation, I too would be scared,” or “I can understand why a person in that situation would feel fear.” There’s also something off if you don’t feel happy when Julia Roberts smiles. (If you don’t like Julia Roberts, think of someone whose smile you do find appealing.)

Whether it’s a good feeling or a bad one, happy or sad, we catch on to what someone else is feeling (or what they represent themselves as feeling) much more easily if we already have some sense of connection with him or her. And usually we develop a sense of connection with another person if they are appealing: if they appeal to us either because of their visible beauty or some beautiful character trait—their sense of humour, their courage, their loyalty as a friend, or something like that. So also, an artist has to create that sense of connection if we are to be moved by what happens to a fictional character in a movie or novel.

The last thing to be said here, so that we have a fair sketch of the whole picture, is that in general sympathy is not merely an emotional experience; it also moves us to do something. For example, adverts for charities that show children with dirty, tear-stained faces appeal to our sympathy and are designed so that we will be moved to donate some of our money. This kind of emotional response to the suffering of another living being is sometimes called “pity.”

This is usually what people nowadays think about when they hear the word ‘sympathy.’ But in the fuller picture that Hume offers, we can also be moved by good feelings. For example, if we feel affection for someone, we are usually moved to do good things for them: for example, to help them achieve their goals or to give them things they find pleasant.

The next two posts will discuss two aspects of sympathy in more detail. First, it is social and can be studied from a biological perspective—that is, it serves a function in relationships between people and in relationships between other social animals. Second, it is meant to move us—not only “move” us emotionally, but also literally move us to do something. What it should move us to do is to care authentically.

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I am introverted, strongly empathetic, a Highly Sensitive Person, and a philosopher who aims to bring clarity to concepts and encourage you to live more fully out of your own power.


  1. “For example, if we feel affection for someone, we are usually moved to do good things for them: for example, to help them achieve their goals or to give them things they find pleasant.” THIS IS WHAT WE LONG FOR FROM OTHERS AND WHAT WE SHOULD ALSO BE TO OTHERS. I AM MOST CHALLENGED. THANK YOU.

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Jens, I am happy you feel you have benefitted in some way from reading my post. A question for further thought: If I never did anything to help or to please a person named Mary, would you believe me if I claimed nonetheless to feel affection for her?

      • Hi there sorry for the late response. First of all I read the Bible and this is one of the things I’m personally guilty of like I sincerely feel sorry for someone else having trouble yet all I could do was feel sorry..what I’m pointing out to is that if it’s in our hands or ability to help them in some ways that would really help others than words then we can say we have put empathy into action. The Bible says in this example, if you see someone hungry and say God bless you without giving him food to eat? What will kind words or even warm hugs do to ease his hunger?

  2. Hello Nina

    I think empathy enables a person to understand, help and motivate other that going through a bad time, achieving grate cooparation and understanding among the individuals who constitute a society.
    But we must also consider assertiveness I think there is a kind of relationship
    Assertiveness is expressed at the right time, and appropriately ideas and feelings both positive and negative in relation to a situation.
    Therefore, empathy and assertiveness are communication skills that enable better social adaptation, even though both skills differ.
    Assertive individual defends his own convictions, however empathic individual understands the convictions of others. However, they should respect and tolerate all ideas that arise in the discussion regarding a particular situation.

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Mario, Thanks for your comment. First, I think the word ’empathy’ is best used in a narrow sense to describe a therapeutic technique that psychologists, therapists, nurses and counsellors use in their work. Yes, if you learn this technique, you can use it with your friends to some extent. But in general I don’t want to confuse a friendship relationship with a therapy relationship. Second, it seems you’re saying that in society we need people who speak with conviction AND people who listen carefully. Yes, that sounds right. Freedom of speech is useless if everyone is talking and no one is listening!

  3. Thank you for interesting and informative wtiting. I believe my first comment is lost. Lost in translation 🙂 anyway. I ll comment again then in the follow up essays. Greetings from NL !

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Hello Houtan, Yes, I think your comment was lost; I did not see it. Please try again in future. We can all benefit from thoughtful comments and discussion. Thanks for trying! Don’t give up or give in! Best wishes from Nina

  4. Hi Nina and Jade,
    Hope you both are in good health. I am also Introvert. Honestly I love this kind of article with lot of heart feelings.You are a philosopher, in this extra ordinary article with strong reference and word combination became very interesting. I am unable to find suitable word to express myself involve in this article. This may be the right way connecting like minded people. Hope to see more article, which could be helpful to the modern society.

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Thank you Abdul for your comment. I am happy you find it interesting. Not everyone is interested in words, their history and relationships, but I am and I’m glad you are too! Look for the next post in this series soon. Best wishes from Nina

  5. Hi Nina
    Well, I think that since the “sympathy” comes from the ancient language, in different modern languages has a different meaning.
    For example, in Russian, sympathy(“sympathetic”) means “nice” if the topic is about person’s character.
    If we talk about appearance,”sympathetic” it’s not beautiful, but also not an ordinary person.
    To express such feelings and concepts like:to being affected emotionally,to worry together,to suffer together, are a detached words.
    Thus different meaning entails a different understanding of the concept.

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Thank you Roman for your comment. Yes, one word can have many different meanings. Any also in English, as you seem to know, a person can be described as ‘sympathetic,’ because they are appealing in some way, so it’s easy for us to participate in their feelings…that is, to sympathise with them. For me, it doesn’t matter so much what word you use; the important thing is the theory attached to the word. The question is whether the theory helps us to understand human behaviour better or not. I hope to continue the discussion when the then next post in this series comes out. Best wishes from Nina.

      • You mean the practical value of Hume’s theory in everyday life?

        .On my view, there are two types of philosophers:
        1. who mostly asked questions.
        2. who mostly find answers.

        May I ask the question?
        In your opinion, what type does Hume belong?

        • Nina Lalumia

          Roman: Hume was deliberately trying to imitate Newton. The way Newton developed his theory of gravity to explain and predict how bodies move and interact, Hume aimed to develop a theory of human behaviour. I think his theory does explain a lot. And he was one of the first people to apply the scientific method to human behaviour. So he is one of the founders of what we now call “psychology,” which develops theories based on carefully collected data. This is how we increase our knowledge and understanding. This is much better than “philosophy” if by that you mean just giving any opinion that happens to pop into your head.

        • I can not answer in the corresponding post, so I will answer here.

          I absolutely agree with you on the issue of the importance of the heritage of Hume as a discoverer and founder of psychology.

            Defending the philosophy I want to add that
            philosophy loses its area of distribution and is a natural process, because of the development of natural sciences. Nevertheless, the philosophy is the bearer of a certain type of thinking, which is used in all the sciences and in psychology as well.

          Best wishes from Roman

        • Nina Lalumia

          Thank you Roman. I agree that philosophy has a stance of its own, and that it should not collapse into the natural sciences. I do think however that a philosopher should always take the findings of the natural sciences seriously. So for example I can’t see how a philosopher is qualified to address questions in ethics if he or she does not make reference to human biology and evolution. But of course philosophy is the place for fundamental disagreements, so there are plenty of philosophers who would disagree with what I just said. So the discussion continues…as long as we continue!

      • Hi Nina !
        Thank you for informative answer.
        Again, I agree with you .
        No doubt it is very difficult to overestimate the importance of interaction between philosophy and the natural sciences. As a result of this interaction, all science must reach the highest level and are mutually enriched.
        You very precisely defined philosophy as a place for the fundamental contradictions.

        When are you going to publish Part 3?

        Best wishes from Roman

  6. Arnina Gandes Reply

    Hello Nina and Jade !
    It’s nice to having ” Sympathy ” as our main discussion . I think this article help us to find the real meaning of it . Moreover we can relate it to our experience The problem is sometimes not all people can realize sense of symphaty in their heart .iwould like to share story about symphaty with another readers. Have a nice day 🙂

  7. Thank you for nice and informative article. I think this sympathy must be that empathy, jade wrote about.

    If we define sympathy as such that it also relates to good and happy emotions then we probably deviate from the original meaning of together suffering, unless suffering would mean undergo and thus would encompass joy too.

    Further, I wonder if we (one) should include ” to move” into the definition. I mean, I can emotionally suffer in respect of sth. that’s happened even to myself without doing or being moved to do sth. about it. I can just consciously decide to sit and suffer, whereas suffering itself is, or at least seems to be, beyond my conscious decision. …

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      I repeat: there are two kinds of things: things that we do and things that are done to us. The things we do are known in philosophy as actions; the things that are done to us, or that happen to us, are known as passions. One of the things that can happen to us is that something makes us feel happy; other times, things can make us feel sad. These are emotions. According to Hume’s theory, we can catch on to the emotions of other people–all kinds of emotions, the happy and the sad. To your second point: of course, when you experience an emotion, you can chose to act or not act. You might be moved to tears by an advert put out by a charity for starving children, but then decide not to donate any money. Yes, the motion in e-motions in human beings is not automatic. But in general, these are the kinds of things that motivate us to act: our desires, our fears, and our emotions.

  8. Hello Nina,

    Well, I have more unique & interesting lovely Ladies to read thought provoking post from!
    I can say, I do have a well developed sense of Empathy; for me, it is almost like a form of “E.S.P.” I can feel the pain of others even if I don’t know them well, & though I don’t “actually” feel sensations I feel the hurt Spirit.

    I did NOT, always have this, neither was I born with it.

    Up until 2001 I actually never cried, did not know or understand pain of the emotions, liken it to a foreign language- all jibberish.
    In Feb. 2001 I was thrown into a “storm of the soul”, losing my 1st Cousin to breast cancer, then in Mar losing 4 of my closest friends, 3 passed away & the 4th had to leave without goodbye.
    I believe God allowed this to happen to me so I would later instinctively feel others pain in a way I could never feel before.

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you find the post interesting. As for your experience, I reckon we are all changing and have the possibility to develop new skills and abilities in response to new circumstances. It sounds as though you are learning and experiencing more, which is generally a good thing. But is does come with a price…that you are now open to more feelings, including pain and grief. Personally, I think it is worth the price to participate more fully in the human condition. But still I am sorry you had to go through so much loss. Keep reading and learning! Best wishes from Nina

  9. Hi Nina
    Not sure what to write here. Sometimes I find it difficult to be first to comment.
    I don’t give as nuch as I should. I did give to the red cross for disaster relief at the end of 2015. But disasters happen every day and that isn’t even a drop in a bucket load of disasters. Then they have the ads for sick kids from 3rd world countries and abused animals in shelters. Then there’s the Home I grew up in as a teen, oh they’ve allready gone bankrupt in 2010 to late. The pity ads are there to cause one to feel guilty and I don’t like to seem them, they are very disturbing.

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Tommy, thanks for your comment. It sound like you have a very lively sense of sympathy. This allows you to care about a lot of situations in the world where people are suffering. My own opinion is that that can be a good thing, but also there is a need to keep your own balance and your own strength. I also am hesitant to respond to adverts by giving money, because I don’t know how the money is going to be used. One question is: Will the money be used to help give people skills and resources to take of themselves, or will it be used to make them more dependent on other people? Keep reading the other posts coming out in this series where this kind of question is discussed. Best wishes, Nina

  10. So basically the meaning of sympathy covers a range from “to feel compassion” to “to like”.
    That’s interesting, the sympathy in Hungarian means only “to like” or “to find somebody appealing”, but the Hungarian corresponding word for sympathy, I mean the synonym could be literally translated as “passion of similarity” or “passion of relatedness”.
    Consequently we could say we can feel sympathy to somebody who is considered connected to us, but the empathy means purely compassion.
    Maybe it is just playing with words 🙂

    • Nina Lalumia Reply

      Thank you Gergely for your message. I do find it interesting how these words and concepts travel and differ across different languages. However, for me the most important thing is the theory–whatever word you use for it. The question that really interests me is whether the theory helps us to better understand human behaviour. And I think Hume’s theory does help us understand things better–both the “good” (for example, helping a friend who is going through a difficult time) and also the “bad” (for example, why people continue going to war with other groups of people). Keep reading and learning! Best wishes, Nina

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