Varieties of Empathic Experience

Varieties of Empathic Experience

"Empathy" has of late late become a kind of buzzword in both popular and intellectual culture. Part of this study will analyze the complex of reasons to which this should be attributed. It will also document various understandings of the term and probe the ideas of those who contest its very possibility.

Far more prevalent, however, are the views of many thinkers (Rifkin, Pinker, Singer, for example) who argue that in an age of globalization the human community is growing ever closer and our empathetic capacities becoming ever greater and universal. In many ways, this view is problematic given its elision of a fundamental and largely neglected dimension of the empathetic dimension: its political structuring. The present work will examine the ways in which empathy is politically channeled and directed, encouraged or blocked, according to diverse cultural, ideological, racial, religious, ethnic, geographical and other pertinent factors. Specific cases such as apartheid South Africa, the Holocaust and the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict will be examined but the aim is to provide a more generalizable political economy of empathy.

Typically, organized empathic impulses proceed according to official narratives and regimes of power. These however seldom achieve hermetic status thus leaving room for a degree of moral agency and dissent. 0ne ethical impulse behind this study is thus a plea to expand and enlarge our range of empathetic, humanizing impulses. Yet, clearly, there are limits to the role that empathy can play; there may even be moments in both individual and collective life where empathy can be dysfunctional. Additionally the possible role of empathy in conflict resolution needs to be examined. To what degree is it a precondition or a result? Indeed, the possibility needs to be investigated that empathy may be irrelevant, even harmful, to a just settlement. Compassion and justice may clash.

This project thus seeks to investigate the permutations, humanizing potential and possible limits that characterize the complex notion of empathy and its ambiguous political economy.

Steven E. Aschheim is Emeritus Professor of History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem where he taught Cultural and Intellectual History in the Department of History since 1982 and held the Vigevani Chair of European Studies. He also acted as the Director of the Franz Rosenzweig Research Centre for German Literature and Cultural History. He has spent sabbaticals at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and in 2002-3 was the first Mosse Exchange Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. During September-October 2005 he taught at Columbia University as the Max Kade Distinguished Visiting Scholar of German Studies. He has also taught at the University of Maryland, Reed College, the Free University in Berlin and the Central European University in Budapest. He taught at the University of Toronto in 0ctober 2008 and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor from September-December 2009. He served as a Research Fellow at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research in the summer of 2010 and in April-March 2011 was the Stan Gold Visiting Professor of Jewish History at Trinity College, Dublin. In 2013-2014 he will be a Fellow of the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice at New York University School of Law. He is married, has three children - and three grand-daughters and a grandson!


He is the author of Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German-Jewish Consciousness, 1800-1923 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) which has been translated into German and Hebrew; Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (New York: New York University Press, 1996); In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans and Jews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001); Scholem, Arendt, Klemperer: Intimate Chronicles in Turbulent Times (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), which has also appeared in Italian, and Beyond the Border: The German-Jewish Legacy Abroad (Princeton University Press, 2007). He is the editor of the conference volume, Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), also translated into Hebrew. His new book At the Edges of Liberalism: Junctions of European, German and Jewish History (Palgrave Macmillan) appeared in June 2012.

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