CONFERENCE: EMPATHY, SYMPATHY AND COMPASSION. THE DYNAMICS OF OTHER-ORIENTED EMOTIONS.
APRIL 13th-14th 2018, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURG, PA.
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
SATURDAY APRIL 14th: UNIVERSITY CLUB, 123 UNIVERSITY PLACE, PITTSBURGH PA, 15260
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.