Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Co-Lewis Simpson

Second Advisor

John Irwin Fischer


This study of sympathy is best described as an historically-grounded feminist critique in response to a contemporary critical debate. Recently, "sympathy," "compassion," and "care" have been promoted by many scholars interested in positing alternatives to a clearly masculinist ethical tradition derived from Kant, Hegel, and others. Yet missing from this work is a critical examination of the ethical tradition extending from Hume's writings in the eighteenth century to Max Scheler's in our own. My major purpose within this context is to demonstrate how sympathy functions as a major term in systems of value no less male-biased than the ethics of reason it is sometimes presumed to replace. Drawing upon insights from post-structuralist feminisms and Michel Foucault, I first examine A Treatise of Human Nature, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and eighteenth-century accounts of the sympathetic sublime. Here "mutual sympathy"--a presumably egalitarian social ideal--turns upon an identification with a principle of pleasure and power from which "woman" (or the "feminine") is clearly excluded. The moral communities promoted by Hume, Smith, Burke, and Wordsworth are, I argue, paralleled by overtly political ones in writers such as Rousseau. The discourse of sympathy thus had immediate implications for eighteenth-century women who struggled, like middle-class men, to articulate a place for themselves within the social order, and through the systems of value available to them at the time. In Part Two of this study, I examine how Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and Hannah More (despite their different political agenda) all employ the language of sympathy in compensatory arguments that women are the "natural" source of social bonds more important to the state than the "mutual sympathy" celebrated by and confined to "virtuous" men. From this historicist perspective, I pinpoint the emergence of two competing versions of community naturalized during the nineteenth century. Finally, through analyses of Max Scheler's The Nature of Sympathy and Carol Gilligan's A Different Voice, I demonstrate in the conclusion that these gendered versions of community are, for better or worse, still being promoted today.