The Sympathetic Formation of Reason and the Limits of Science


20 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2016 Last revised: 9 Sep 2020

See all articles by Erik W. Matson

Erik W. Matson

Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Date Written: May 10, 2016


I develop an interpretation of reason using the thought of David Hume and Adam Smith. I contend that reason in Hume and Smith can plausibly be interpreted as a kind of sensation. Reason is a sensation in that it is a sentimental conception of the relationship between two objects that impels certain interpretations. Reason is developed sympathetically in experiential contexts that not only guide but constitute reason’s operation. I comment on Hume’s talk of reason in his Treatise of Human Nature to build my interpretation. I use Smith’s work in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to develop an understanding of the sympathetic formation of reason. I briefly integrate my interpretation with talk of confirmatory bias in psychology and behavioral economics. I conclude by considering implications for scientific conversation.

Keywords: David Hume, Adam Smith, Reason, Knowledge, Confirmatory Bias, Behavioral Economics

JEL Classification: A120, B12, B4

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik W., The Sympathetic Formation of Reason and the Limits of Science (May 10, 2016). Society, Available at SSRN:

Erik W. Matson (Contact Author)

Mercatus Center at George Mason University ( email )

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Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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