Tag Archives: sympathy

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. )

Antarctic sympathy

While looking a little more at early modern texts that talk about sympathy, I came across this (which is apparently distinguished by being the earliest text returned in a search for ‘sympathy’ and its variants in Early English Books Online.)

Likewise néere to this Ilande is founde a kynde of fish, and also vpon the coaste of America very daungerous, also much feared and redoubted of the wilde men, for that she is a rauening fish, and as daungerous as a Lyon or a Woulfe famished: this fish is named Houperou, in their language, and eateth other fish in the water, excepting one that is as greate as a little Carpe the which foloweth him alwayes, as if there were some Sympathia or secrete loue betwene them, or else he foloweth him for to be preserued and kept sure from other fishes.

That comes from pp.117-8 of André Thevet’s The new found worlde, or Antarctike wherin is contained wonderful and strange things… (London, 1568), an English translation of his 1557 Les Singularitez de la France antarctique (EEBO-TCP record). The ‘Antarctike’ here is not the antarctic continent, but France Antarctique, a sixteenth-century French colony in Brazil.

There’s a short biography of Thevet on the English-language Wikipedia, and a rather longer one on the French-language WIkipedia, which also has an article on Les Singularitez de la France antarctique. One can also download scans of the French edition of the book from Gallica, and from a UVa site.

Swiftian sympathy

A sort of follow-up to this post on explanations that invoke sympathy. From Swift’s Tale of a Tub:

Let us therefore now conjecture how it comes to pass that none of these great prescribers do ever fail providing themselves and their notions with a number of implicit disciples, and I think the reason is easy to be assigned, for there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning.  This, if you can dexterously screw up to its right key, and then strike gently upon it whenever you have the good fortune to light among those of the same pitch, they will by a secret necessary sympathy strike exactly at the same time.  And in this one circumstance lies all the skill or luck of the matter; for, if you chance to jar the string among those who are either above or below your own height, instead of subscribing to your doctrine, they will tie you fast, call you mad, and feed you with bread and water.  It is therefore a point of the nicest conduct to distinguish and adapt this noble talent with respect to the differences of persons and of times.

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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