Tag Archives: strings

Cavendish, strings, and sympathy

At one point, ‘sympathy’ seems to have been (largely?) a name for a physical phenomenon, and a certain sort of explanation of that phenomenon (see this earlier post on More and Mersenne). Over time, ‘sympathy’ seems to have become more exclusively used to describe a psychological phenomenon (e.g., Hume, Smith). I’m curious about how sympathy moved from being one thing to the other. Even Hume uses an ancient example of physical sympathy to illustrate the psychological sort: “As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest; so all the affections readily pass from one person to another, and beget correspondent movements in every human creature” (Treatise 3.3.1.7). Well before Hume, however, we seem to find find Margaret Cavendish, in an early poem, explicitly making the connection between the two sorts of sympathy.

According as the Notes in Musicke agree with the Motions of the Heart, or Braine, Such Passions are produced thereby.

IN Musicke, if the Eighths tun’d Equall are,
If one be strucke, the other seemes to jarre.
So the Heart-strings, if equally be stretch’d,
To those of Musick, Love from thence is fetch’d.
For when one’s strucke, the other moves just so,
And with Delight as evenly doth go.

(Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (London, 1653), p.40. )

Sympathy, spirits, and strings

[Cross posted from Modsquad.]

This post brings me back to my earlier themes of materialism and panpsychism. But it largely developed from my trying to understand one of Henry More’s examples. More believed there to be incorporeal substances, including human minds, ghosts, and a further spirit quite unlike the others, the spirit of nature. More’s central argument for the existence of a spirit of nature relied on a series of examples of phenomena that could (allegedly) only be explained with reference to such a spirit.

One such phenomenon was the sympathetic resonance of unison strings. Roughly speaking, given two strings that are tuned to the same note, if the first is sounded, the second will start to sound the note as well, even though it has not been plucked or otherwise touched itself. As More puts it, there is a power that “makes strings that be tuned Unisons (though on several Instruments) the one being touched, the other to tremble and move very sensibly, and to cast off a straw or pin or any such small thing laid upon it” (More 1659, 451).

More was far from the first philosopher to notice this phenomenon. The example occurs in such diverse places as Plotinus’s Enneads (4.4.40-4, quoted at Gouk 1999, 87), and Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (Bacon 1627, 72). Hume later used it to help illustrate his psychological sort of sympathy. Of most immediate relevance, however, is a discussion in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle.

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