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Black, D.M. (2004). Sympathy reconfigured: Some reflections on sympathy, empathy and the discovery of values. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 85(3):579-595.

(2004). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 85(3):579-595

Sympathy reconfigured: Some reflections on sympathy, empathy and the discovery of values

David M. Black

Two words, sympathy and empathy, are commonly used to describe three distinguishable things. These are: i) an elementary, involuntary capacity which puts us in touch with the emotional state of another; ii) the use of ‘trial identification’ to discover, consciously or unconsciously, the emotional state of another; iii) the affect of compassion. Because these three usages have not been clearly sorted out, and because the word sympathy has been disparaged, empathy has been overused, and a variety of technical terms (including inter subjectivity, recurrent primary identification, projective identification, alpha function etc.), all of which have important specialised applications, have been used confusingly to describe functions at a much higher level of generality. This paper attempts to sort out the three meanings with reference to the history of the two words, and also to show that the use of clear general terms gives us a more intelligible linguistic base from which other matters can be considered: in particular, whether an origin can be discerned for judgements of value other than that of superego internalisation.

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