Empathetic Understanding

Today I will continue my discussion of Self and Other, and move on to the second part of the book which carries the title Empathic Understanding.

My defence of a minimalist conception of experiential selfhood doesn’t merely target no-self accounts, but also the kind of social constructivism according to which the self is through and through socially constructed, and for whom all self-experience is intersubjectively mediated. But here is a worry. Isn’t the notion of an experiential self overly Cartesian and doesn’t a strong emphasis on the first-personal character of consciousness run the risk of prohibiting a satisfactory account of intersubjectivity? Shouldn’t one rather argue for the co-constitution of self and other or perhaps opt for the view that one only obtains the self-relation constitutive of selfhood by being socialized into a publicly shared space of normativity? I reject these proposals, and the task of the second part of Self and Other is to show that a defence of experiential selfhood and a focus on first-personal self-acquaintance doesn’t have to go hand in hand with the view that the experiences of others are not manifest or present or given in any straightforward sense to us. In fact, rather than preventing a satisfactory solution to the problem of other minds, I would consider the notion of an experiential self a precondition for any plausible account of intersubjectivity.

During the second decade of the 20th century, a number of phenomenologists including Husserl, Stein, Scheler and Walther were engaged in intense discussions about how best to analyze and characterize the nature and structure of empathy. A central portion of Empathic Understanding is taken up by a detailed investigation of the multi-layered analyses of empathy found in these authors. I discuss the importance they assigned to embodiment and expressivity and clarify the relation between empathy and related phenomena like emotional contagion, sympathy and emotional sharing. Although these thinkers did not agree on everything, there is still a sufficient amount of overlap between their respective theories to warrant talking about a distinct phenomenological account of empathy, one that differs rather markedly from recent attempts to explain empathy in terms of mirroring, mimicry, imitation, emotional contagion, imaginative projection or inferential attribution. More specifically, the phenomenologists conceived of empathy as a distinct other-directed form of intentionality, one that allows the other’s experiences to disclose themselves as other. One noteworthy feature of their proposal is that it while remaining firmly committed to the first-personal character of consciousness also highlights and respects what is distinctive about the givenness of others. Dennett’s repeated characterization of classical phenomenology as an autophenomenology is consequently mistaken. One might even say that, for phenomenologists, empathy provides a special kind of knowledge by acquaintance. It is not the standard first-person acquaintance, but rather a distinct other-acquaintance. Just as we ought to respect the difference between thinking about a lion, imagining a lion, and seeing a lion, we also ought to respect the difference between referring linguistically to Emil’s compassion or sadness, imagining in detail what it must be like for him to be compassionate or sad, and being empathically acquainted with his compassion or sadness in the direct face-to-face encounter. In the latter case, our acquaintance with Emil’s experiential life has a directness and immediacy to it that is not shared by whatever beliefs I might have about him in his absence.

I next elaborate the phenomenological account of empathy further by discussing a number of objections it has recently encountered. What does it mean to say that empathy provides a direct access to the minds of others and to what extent is such a claim compatible with the idea that social understanding is always contextual? To what extent does the insistence on the experiential accessibility of other minds commit one to an untenable form of behaviourism? And to what extent is the phenomenological proposal really distinct from existing simulationist and theory-theory accounts of social cognition?

Some have claimed that the only way to solve the problem of intersubjectivity and avoid a threatening step towards solipsism is by conceiving of the difference between self and other as a founded and derived difference, a difference arising out of undifferentiated anonymous life. However, such a ‘solution’ does not solve the problem of intersubjectivity: it dissolves it. To speak of a fundamental anonymity prior to any distinction between self and other obscures that which has to be clarified, namely intersubjectivi­ty understood as the relation between subject­s. On the level of such fundamental anonymity, there is neither individuation nor selfhood, but there is also no differentiation or otherness, and consequently no room for either subjectivity or intersubjectivity. To put it differently, any claim regarding a fundamental level of undifferentiation does not only threaten the notion of a self-given subject, but also the notion of an irreducible other. This is, of course, why I think that rather than impeding a satisfactory account of intersubjectivity, an emphasis on the inherent and essential individuation of experiential life must be seen as a prerequisite for getting the relation between self and other right.


In my view, the phenomenological account of empathy can be of relevance for contemporary discussions of social cognition, but it is also important to recognize its limitations. Empathic understanding can be one-sided. It can occur without any kind of reciprocation on the part of the other. But doesn’t this arguably miss something rather crucial about the self-other relation? Isn’t one of the unique features of other experiencing subjects the fact that they have a perspective of their own, and not just upon the world of objects, but also upon us as well? In the final part of the book, I move on to consider a more reciprocal kind of self-other relation and I also discuss some salient examples of socially mediated forms of self(-experience).