Empathy and sympathy as tactile encounter

J Med Philos. 1981 Feb;6(1):25-43. doi: 10.1093/jmp/6.1.25.


Empathy and sympathy are feeling-acts which bring the self into direct encounter with other persons. In empathy a self grasps the affective act of another self; in sympathy xn persons apprehend a common object while immersed in similar feeling acts. Since touch is the paradigmatic sense for bringing what is felt into proximity with feeling, structural affinities between touch and these feeling acts can be shown. This relationship has been obscured by classical theories of touch in which it is interpreted on analogy with the other senses. When the subject of touch is seen as the living body in a whole, the full range of its possible relationships to affective states can be explored. In this connection the theories of touch of Aristotle, Berkeley and Condillac are critically evaluated. While none recognizes the uniqueness of touch, each sees difficulties in incorporating touch in a general theory of sense. In the course of the exposition pity is distinguished from empathy and sympathy and a criticism of Nietzsche's ressentiment theory offered.

MeSH terms

  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Philosophy*
  • Sensation
  • Touch*