Conference : Empathy, Sympathy and Compasion



Empathy, sympathy and compassion are emotions that help initiate a meaningful relationship between the individual and the outside world. They affirm and express an individual’s sense of belonging to his or her environment, and can help strengthen the coherence of a wider social fabric. If expressed towards those who do not participate in one’s own community, they may help remove perceived boundaries and divisions. At the same time, one may wish to stop short of considering these benevolent other-directed emotions as reliable sources of, or attendants upon, virtuous and reasonable action. Indeed, they might be seen as subjective impulses that hinder, rather than help, an accurate assessment of a given situation, and perhaps be to the detriment of the compassionate agent, and/or of the individual affected by it.
An inquiry into our understanding of empathy, sympathy, compassion and related emotions, into our manner of expressing or not expressing them, and into the value we attach to them, will yield insights into the cultural and societal norms at play in our lives. These insights, in turn, will help us reflect on the role and responsibility we wish to assign to the individual in relation to his or her immediate environment and beyond.
It is our aim to undertake such an inquiry by addressing several foundational questions: Can we arrive at commonly shared concepts or definitions of empathy, sympathy and compassion, given that these terms are easily used at random and indiscriminately? What are the prerequisites that enable us to feel, and express, these emotions? What is the relationship between the person experiencing and acting upon them, and the person at the receiving end? What impact do they have upon both agent and patient and their wider environment, and whose wellbeing ought to be prioritized? Finally, how may we incorporate these emotions into our own social environment in such a way as to reflect the values we assign to them?
We will approach these questions from a range of academic perspectives. Initially, we will trace the nature and role of benevolent other-oriented emotions in Western Classical culture by examining literary and visual scenarios as displays of emotions where more systematic accounts are unavailable. Moreover, we will consider early scientific definitions and theories of the emotions under focus, and then set these Classical concepts in dialogue with our contemporary notions, exploring recent scientific evaluations and pondering the role of compassionate action in current ethical, social and political theory. 

Friday April 13th: 7th Floor Auditorium, Pitt Alumni Hall, 4227 5th Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15260

1.30-2.30pm    Registration & Coffee
2.30pm            Welcoming Remarks
2.45 -3.45pm   Keynote: Peter Meineck, NYU: “Ancient Empathy in Action: The Absorbing Drama of the Polis”
3.45-4.00pm    Coffee Break
Session I: Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion in Classical Antiquity
4.00-5.00          Jacques Bromberg, University of Pittsburgh: “Empathy and Probability in Early Greek Speechcraft”
5.00-6.00pm    Vivian Feldblyum, University of Pittsburgh: “Aristotle on Kindness, Pity, and Natural Friendship”
6.15-6.30pm    Break with Refreshments
6.30-7.15pm    Performance by Christopher Staley, University of Pittsburgh: “Demonstrating the Actor’s Process. Empathic Projection in Sophocles’ Ajax”
7.30pm            Dinner with Participants

9.00am             Continental Breakfast
Session II: Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
9.30-10.30am  Christina Hoenig, University of Pittsburgh: “Augustine and the Metaphysics of Compassion”

10.30-11.30am   Simo Knuuttila, University of Helsinki, Finland: “Compassion in Late Medieval Moral Psychology”
11.45-1.00pm  Lunch with Participants
Session III: Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion. Other-Oriented Emotions in Contemporary Contexts.
1.00-2.00pm    Owen Flanagan, Duke University: “Anger: The Most Destructive Emotion”
2.00-3.00pm    Meredith Long, Lecturer, University of Pittsburgh: “Compassion and Immigration Policy Preferences”
3.00-3.15pm    Coffee Break
3.15-4.15         Wayne Wu , Carnegie Mellon University: “Emotion and Attention: Tuning to the Social World”
4.15-5.15pm    Epilogue: Christian Wildberg, Princeton/ University of Pittsburgh: “On the Struggle for Empathy”
6.00pm            Dinner with Participants

To register, please email
Travel grants are available for student participants – apply soon.

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