“Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion. The Dynamics of Other-Oriented Emotions”

April 13, 2018 - 1:30pm to April 14, 2018 - 6:00pm


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. Crucially, aside from stimulating a broad academic debate on these social emotions, our proposed cross-disciplinary investigation will allow us to apply our findings in our social interactions within the University environment, and help us contribute to the emotional wellbeing of our colleagues and peers who participate in campus life. 

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.  

Through our joint investigation we will be better able to appreciate the complex dynamics of compassion and kindred emotions, develop a greater awareness of their impact on the various contexts of our lives, and consider how they might inform our social interactions in appropriate ways.     


TO REGISTER, PLEASE EMAIL pittsburghempathyconference@gmail.com





1.30-2.30pm  Registration & Coffee
2.30pm   Welcoming Remarks
2.45 -3.45pm  Keynote speech: Prof. Peter Meineck, Professor of Classics in the Modern World, 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 Dr. Jacques Bromberg, Assistant Professor in Classics, University of Pittsburgh: “Empathy and Probability in Early Greek Speechcraft”
5.00-6.00pm Vivian Feldblyum, Graduate Student in Philosophy, 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, Dep. of Theater Arts, University of Pittsburgh: “Demonstrating the Actor’s Process. Empathic Projection in Sophocles’ Ajax”
7.30pm Dinner with Participants



9.00am Continental Breakfast

Session II: Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

9.30-10.30am Christina Hoenig, Assistant Professor in Classics, University of Pittsburgh: “Augustine and the Metaphysics of Compassion”
10.30-11.30am Simo Knuuttila, Professor of Theology, Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, 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, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy, Duke University:“Anger: The Most Destructive Emotion”
2.00-3.00pm Meredith Long, Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh:“Compassion and Immigration Policy Preferences”
3.00-3.15pm  Coffee Break
3.15-4.15 Wayne Wu, Associate Professor and Associate Director, Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, Carnegie Mellon University:“Emotion and Attention: Tuning to the Social World”
4.15-5.15pm Epilogue & Closing Discussion: Christian Wildberg, Princeton/ Mellon Professor in Classics, University of Pittsburgh:“On the Struggle for Empathy”
6.00pm Dinner with Participants


This event is sponsored by: University of Pittsburgh Humanities Center, University of Pittsburgh Provost's Healthy U Initiative, University of Pittsburgh Faculty Research and Scholarship Program, Department of Classics, Department of Philosophy, Joint Graduate Program in Classics, Philosophy and Ancient Science, Department Political Science, Department of Theater Arts.