In the tradition of sensibility, to be without sympathy is to be without humanity. The capacity to sympathize is an indispensable quality in the person of sensibility. Although the word's meaning includes compassion, sympathy broadens into wider connotations because of its basis in physiology.

Sympathy in the eighteenth century and earlier was used to discuss the believed correspondences between body parts--one might find a reference to a sympathetic relation between the stomach and the kidneys (OED). The idea of correspondence extended to any affinities and suggested harmony or concord of feelings or temperament, as well as the capacity of entering into another's feelings. "Sympathy must be considered as a sort of Substitution, by which we are put in the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected," wrote Burke in 1756.

Such fellow-feeling is, of course, vital to the philosophy of sensibility, which held that the ability to feel as another feels creates the bonds that seal community. Many writers attempt to explicate the workings of sympathy by dwelling on, for example, the role of the imagination in exciting sympathy; the imagination connection also inspires considerations of fiction's potential role in creating sympathetic relations.

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