Sympathies and Antipathies

29 May 2009 - 30 May 2009

CRASSH Seminar Room, 17 Mill Lane

Registration for this conference is now closed.


Ildiko Csengei, Pembroke College, Cambridge (
Paul White, HPS and Cambridge University Library (

Once a fundamental concept in early-modern medicine and philosophy, sympathy has re-emerged as a subject of investigation in a wide range of modern disciplines. The long history of sympathy is marked by extensive transmission between fields, from astronomy to medical theory, from moral treatises to the novel, from psychoanalysis and literature to neuro-psychology and criminology. It is one of the aims of our conference to begin to chart this territory in which early-modern and enlightenment models of fellow-feeling, compassion, and commiseration are taken up in modern science, fiction, film, and social policy; and to explore how these models are re-worked in conjunction with new constructs like empathy, altruism, and humanitarianism. Thus alongside a historical understanding of sympathy and its cognates, we wish to investigate how these concepts become normative, yet ambivalent, social formations today. In bringing together researchers from diverse disciplines, we shall also address methodological questions acutely problematised in the study of feelings and affects: the legacy of objectivity in the sciences and the humanities, the transmission of sympathy across cultures, the break-down and suppression of other-regarding feelings at the time of war, violence, and genocide, and the appeal to or the erasure of affects in the rise of disciplines.

Papers will address these specific topics:
-    the co-presence of altruism and cruelty in human nature
-    the secret of sentimental tearjerkers from the eighteenth century to modern cinema
-    the heritage of eighteenth-century moral thought
-    literary representations of sympathy
-    the question of affect and professional neutrality in medicine and criminology
-    the place of empathy and altruism in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy
-    the role of the media in humanitarian activity
-    the scientific basis for altruistic behaviour as seen in today’s most recent bio-medical research
-     self and other: tolerance, intolerance, othering, and discrimination
-    sympathy and politics; individual and collective evildoing; war, violence, genocide
-    the poetics and aesthetics of sympathy
-    society, sociability and the sympathetic bond
-    the debate on compassion fatigue, or when the sight of suffering becomes too familiar

Confirmed speakers:

Dr Fay Bound Alberti, History, Queen Mary
Dr Carolyn Burdett, English, Birkbeck
Dr Ildiko Csengei, English, Cambridge
Dr Thomas Dixon, History, Queen Mary
Prof Christopher Frith, Neuropsychology, UCL
Dr Loraine Gelsthorpe, Criminology, Cambridge
Dr Emma Mason, English, Warwick
Dr Ayesha Nathoo, Clare Hall, Cambridge
Prof Tilottama Rajan, English, Western Ontario
Prof Keith Tester, Sociology, Hull
Heather Tilley, English, Birkbeck
Dr Sylvana Tomaselli, History and Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge
Prof Arne Johan Vetlesen, Philosophy, Oslo
Dr Margot Waddell, Psychoanalyst, Inst. of Psychoanalysis and Tavistock Clinic
Dr Paul White, History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge and University Library

Round table panellists:

Peter De Bolla, English, Cambridge
Rhodri Hayward, History, Queen Mary
Jonathan Lamb, English, Vanderbilt
Dean Mobbs, Neuroscience, Cambridge
Marianne Noble, English, American University

Administrative contact: Sam Mather


Friday 29 May



Registration and coffee


Welcome address


Session 1: Histories of sympathy
Chair: Marianne Noble

Sylvana Tomaselli (History and Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge)
Lessons from the C18th: David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke on sympathy

Thomas Dixon (History, Queen Mary)
Neither selfish nor altruistic: sympathy and resignation in Darwin and Eliot

Carolyn Burdett (English, Birkbeck)
Feeling ourselves elsewhere: minds, bodies, aesthetics and the coining of empathy 



14.00- 15.45

Session 2: Emotional Response
Chair: Jonathan Lamb

Emma Mason (English, Warwick)
Rhythmanalysis: hearing feeling in poetry

Paul White (HPS and Cambridge University Library)
When sympathy becomes sentimental

Keith Tester  (Sociology, Hull)
Conspicuous kindness 


Coffee break


Session 3: Empathy in Practice
Chair: Rhodri Hayward

Margot Waddell (Psychoanalyst, Inst. of Psychoanalysis and Tavistock Clinic)
Meaning and emotion: a contemporary psychoanalytic view

Loraine Gelsthorpe (Criminology, Cambridge)
Sympathies and antipathies: neglected features of crime  and criminal justice

Ayesha Nathoo (HPS, Cambridge)
Expectations of giving 


Drinks reception at CRASSH


Dinner  at Pembroke College, The Old Library 

Saturday 30 May



Session 4: Body, Mind and Feeling
Chair: Dean Mobbs

Fay Bound Alberti (History, Queen Mary)
The heart of sympathy: embodying affect in medicine and culture

Heather Tilley (English, Birkbeck)
Francis Lieber’s symphenomena: the quest for language’s  emotional origins at the mid-nineteenth century

Chris Frith (Neuropsychology, UCL)
The neural basis of empathy and altruism  




Session 5: Antipathies
Chair: Peter de Bolla

Ildiko Csengei (English, Pembroke College, Cambridge)
The politics of sympathy

Tilottama Rajan (English, Western Ontario)

Arne Vetlesen (Philosophy, Oslo)
The role of antipathies in collective evildoing 




Session 6: round table and discussion

Dr Peter De Bolla (English, King's College, Cambridge)
Dr Rhodri Hayward (History, Queen Mary, London)
Prof. Jonathan Lamb (English, Vanderbilt University)
Dr Dean Mobbs (Neuroscience, University of Cambridge)
Prof. Marianne Noble (English, American University)