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Attributes of Compassion


Empathy by Toby K


Despite its linguistic roots in ancient Greek, the concept of empathy is of recent intellectual heritage. Yet its history has been varied and colorful, a fact that is also mirrored in the multiplicity of definitions associated with the empathy concept in a number of different scientific and non-scientific discourses. In its philosophical heyday at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, empathy had been hailed as the primary means for gaining knowledge of other minds and as the method uniquely suited for the human sciences, only to be almost entirely neglected philosophically for the rest of the century. Only recently have philosophers become again interested in empathy in light of the debate about our folk psychological mindreading capacities. In the second half of the last century, the task of addressing empathy was mainly left to psychologists who thematized it as a psychological phenomenon and process to be studied by the method of the empirical sciences. Particularly, it has been studied by social psychologists as a phenomenon assumed to be causally involved in creating prosocial attitudes and behavior. Nevertheless, within psychology it is at times difficult to find agreement of how exactly one should understand empathy; a fact of which psychologists themselves have become increasingly aware. The purpose of this entry is to clarify the empathy concept by surveying its history in various philosophical and psychological discussions and by indicating why empathy was and should be regarded to be of such central importance in understanding human agency in ordinary contexts, in the human sciences and for the constitution of ourselves as social and moral agents. 

1. Historical Introduction

The psychologist Edward Titchener (1867–1927) introduced the term “empathy” in 1909 into the English language as the translation of the German term “Einfühlung” (or “feeling into”), a term that by the end of the 19th century was in German philosophical circles understood as an important category in philosophical aesthetics. Even in Germany its use as a technical term of philosophical analysis did not have a long tradition. Various philosophers certainly speak throughout the 19thcentury and the second half of the 18th century in a more informal manner about our ability to “feel into” works of arts and into nature. Particularly important here is the fact that romantic thinkers, such as Herder and Novalis, viewed our ability to feel into nature as a vital corrective against the modern scientific attitude of merely dissecting nature into its elements; instead of grasping its underlying spiritual reality through a process of poetic identification. But in using mainly the verbal form in referring to our ability to feel into various things they do not treat such an ability as a topic that is worthy of sustained philosophical reflection and analysis. Robert Vischer was the first to introduce the term “Einfühlung” in a more technical sense—and in using the substantive form he indicates that it is a worthy object of philosophical analysis—in his “On the Optical Sense of Form: A contribution to Aesthetics” (1873).

It was however Theodor Lipps (1851–1914) who scrutinized empathy in the most thorough manner. Most importantly, Lipps not only argued for empathy as a concept that is central for the philosophical and psychological analysis of our aesthetic experiences. His work transformed empathy from a concept of philosophical aesthetics into a central category of the philosophy of the social and human sciences. For him, empathy not only plays a role in our aesthetic appreciation of objects. It has also to be understood as being the primary basis for recognizing each other as minded creatures. Not surprisingly, it was Lipps's conception of empathy that Titchener had in mind in his translation of “Einfühlung” as “empathy.”

In order to appreciate the philosophical motivation for focusing on empathy one has to keep in mind the intellectual context within which an account of aesthetic perception took place at the end of the 19th century. According to the dominant (even though not universally accepted) positivistic and empiricist conception, sense data constitute the fundamental basis for our investigation of the world. Yet from a phenomenological perspective, our perceptual encounter with aesthetic objects and our appreciation of them as being beautiful—our admiration of a beautiful sunset, for example—seems to be as direct as our perception of an object as being red or square. By appealing to the psychological mechanisms of empathy, philosophers intended to provide an explanatory account of the phenomenological immediacy of our aesthetic appreciation of objects. Lipps conceives of empathy as a psychological resonance phenomenon that is triggered in our perceptual encounter with external objects. More specifically, these resonance phenomena are triggering inner “processes” that give rise to experiences similar to ones that I have when I engage in various activities involving the movement of my body. Since my attention is perceptually focused on the external object, I experience them—or I automatically project my experiences—as being in the object. If those experiences are in some way apprehended in a positive manner and as being in some sense life-affirming, I perceive the object as beautiful, otherwise as ugly. In the first case, Lipps speaks of positive; in the later of negative empathy. Lipps also characterizes our experience of beauty as “objectified self-enjoyment,” since we are impressed by the “vitality” and “life potentiality” that lies in the perceived object (Lipps 1906, 1903 a,b. For the contemporary discussion of empathy's role in aesthetics see particularly Breithaupt 2009; Coplan and Goldie 2011 (Part II); Curtis & Koch 2009; and Keen 2007).

In his Aesthetik, Lipps closely links our aesthetic perception and our perception of another embodied person as a minded creature. The nature of aesthetic empathy is always the “experience of another human” (1905, 49). We appreciate another object as beautiful because empathy allows us to see it in analogy to another human body. Similarly, we recognize another organism as a minded creature because of empathy. Empathy in this context is more specifically understood as a phenomenon of “inner imitation,” where my mind mirrors the mental activities or experiences of another person based on the observation of his bodily activities or facial expressions. Empathy is ultimately based on an innate disposition for motor mimicry, a fact that is well established in the psychological literature and was already noticed by Adam Smith (1853). Even though such a disposition is not always externally manifested, Lipps suggests that it is always present as an inner tendency giving rise to similar kinaesthetic sensations in the observer as felt by the observed target. In seeing the angry face of another person we instinctually have a tendency of imitating it and of “imitating” her anger in this manner. Since we are not aware of such tendencies, we see the anger in her face (Lipps 1907). Despite the fact that Lipps's primary examples of empathy focus on the recognition of emotions expressed in bodily gestures or facial expressions, his conception of empathy should not be understood as being limited to such cases. As his remarks about intellectual empathy suggest (1903b/05), he regards our recognition of all mental activities—insofar as they are activities requiring human effort—as being based on empathy or on inner imitation (See also the introductory chapter in Stueber 2006).

The above explication of empathy constitutes Lipps' core concept of empathy. In this respect one could rightfully call Lipps one of the first proponents of simulation theory (and proposing a position that is very similar to the version of simulation theory advocated currently by Goldman 2006). Unfortunately, in Lipps one finds also a much broader sense of empathy that is not compatible with the notion of empathy as a form of vicarious imitation. Lipps talks about a “universal apperceptive empathy” and a general “empathy of nature.” He even utilizes empathy in order to explain certain perceptual illusions. In these contexts, the term “empathy” refers to any mental activity on part of the observer that is triggered in the perceptual encounter with an external stimulus and that has to be understood as being constitutive for our comprehension of an object qua object. Here one should think of mental activities that are, for example, required to see a line as a line or mental activities that are necessary to grasp events within nature as being events in a causal nexus (Lipps 1912/13). Rightfully, this liberal employment of the term found no takers, since in its wider usage the concept of empathy looses all of its distinctiveness. Everything and nothing seems to have to do with empathy.

2. Empathy and the Philosophical Problem of Other Minds

Lipps's core concept of empathy and his claim that empathy should be understood as the primary epistemic means for our perception of other persons as minded creatures were highly influential and were the focus of a considerable debate among philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century (Prandtl 1910, Stein 1917, Scheler 1973). Even philosophers who did not agree with Lipps's specific explication, found the concept of empathy appealing because his argument for empathy was closely tied to a thorough critique of what was widely seen at that time as the only alternative for conceiving of knowledge of other minds, that is, Mill's inference from analogy. This inference is best understood as describing the steps that enable us to attribute mental states to other persons based on the observation of their physical behavior and our direct experience of mental states from the first person perspective. Traditionally, the inference from analogy presupposes a Cartesian conception of the mind according to which access to our own mind is direct and infallible, whereas knowledge of other minds is indirect, inferential, and fallible. More formally one can characterize the inference from analogy as consisting of the following premises or steps.

i.) Another person X manifests behavior of type B.
ii.) In my own case behavior of type B is caused by mental state of type M.
iii.) Since my and X's outward behavior of type B is similar, it has to have similar inner mental causes. (It is thus assumed that I and the other persons are psychologically similar in the relevant sense.)
Therefore: The other person's behavior (X's behavior) is caused by a mental state of type M.

Like Wittgenstein, but predating him considerably, Lipps argues in his 1907 article “Das Wissen von fremden Ichen” that the inference from analogy falls fundamentally short of solving the philosophical problem of other minds. Lipps does not argue against the inference from analogy because of its evidentially slim basis, but because it does not allow us to understand its basic presupposition that another person has a mind that is psychologically similar to our own mind. The inference from analogy thus cannot be understood as providing us with evidence for the claim that the other person has mental states like we do because within its Cartesian framework we are unable to conceive of other minds in the first place. For Lipps, analogical reasoning requires the contradictory undertaking of inferring another person's anger and sadness on the basis of my sadness and anger, yet to think of that sadness and anger simultaneously as something “absolutely different” from my anger and sadness. More generally, analogical inference is a contradictory undertaking because it entails “entertaining a completely new thought about an I, that however is not me, but something absolutely different” (Lipps 1907, 708, my translation).

Yet while Lipps diagnoses the problem of the inference of analogy within the context of a Cartesian conception of the mind quite succinctly, he fails to explain how empathy is able to provide us with an epistemically sanctioned understanding of other minds or why our “feeling into” the other person's mind is more than a mere projection. More importantly, Lipps does not sufficiently explain why empathy does not encounter similar problems to the ones diagnosed for the inference from analogy and how empathy allows us to conceive of other persons as having a mind similar to our own if we are directly acquainted only with our own mental states. The fundamental problem for Lipps's defense of empathy as primary method of knowing other minds consists in the fact that he still conceives of empathy within the context of a Cartesian conception of the mind tying our understanding of mental affairs and mental concepts essentially to the first person perspective (See Stueber 2006).

Wittgenstein's critique of the inference from analogy is in the end more penetrating because he recognizes that its problem depends on a Cartesian account of mental concepts. If my grasp of a mental concept is exclusively constituted by me experiencing something in a certain way, then it is impossible for me to conceive of how that very same concept can be applied to somebody else, given that I cannot experience somebody else's mental states. I therefore cannot conceive of how another person can be in the same mental state as I am because that would require that I can conceive of my mental state as something, which I do not experience. But according to the Cartesian conception this seems to be a conceptually impossible task. Moreover, if one holds on to a Cartesian conception of the mind, it is not clear how appealing to empathy, as conceived of by Lipps, should help us in conceiving of mental states as belonging to another mind.

Within the phenomenological tradition, the above shortcomings of Lipps's position of empathy were quite apparent (see for example Stein 1917, 24 and Scheler 1973, 236). Yet despite the fact that they did not accept Lipps's explication of empathy as being based on mechanisms of inner resonance and projection, authors within the phenomenological tradition of philosophy were persuaded by Lipps's critique of the inference from analogy. For that very reason, Husserl and Stein, for example, continued using the concept of empathy and regarded empathy as an irreducible “type of experiential act sui generis” (Stein 1917, 10), which allows us to view another person as being analogous to ourselves without this “analogizing apprehension” constituting an inference of analogy (Husserl 1963, 141). Scheler went probably the furthest in rejecting the Cartesian framework in thinking about the apprehension of other minds, while keeping committed to something like the concept of empathy.[1] (In order to contrast his position from Lipps, Scheler however preferred to use the term “nachfühlen” rather than “einfühlen.”) For Scheler, the fundamental mistake of the debate about the apprehension of other minds consists in the fact that it does not take seriously certain phenomenological facts. Prima facie, we do not encounter merely the bodily movements of another person. Rather, we are directly recognizing specific mental states because they are characteristically expressed in states of the human body; in facial expressions, in gestures, in the tone of voice, and so on. (See Scheler 1973, particularly 232–258; For a succinct explication of the debate about empathy in the phenomenological tradition consult Zahavi 2010)

Nevertheless, philosophers in the phenomenological tradition never provided a philosophically comprehensive account of mental concepts that would allow us to see them as part of an intersubjectively accessible practice in which we interpret, predict, and explain the behavior of other agents. Certainly, a few of our mental concepts, particularly concepts of emotions, could be easily understood as being definable in light of the characteristic bodily expressions associated with specific mental states. But not all mental concepts can be defined in this manner, particularly the central folk psychological concepts of belief and desire. Besides an unfamiliarity with the phenomenological literature, the lack of a comprehensive account of mental concepts should be viewed as the main systematic reason of why the idea that empathy is the primary means of understanding other minds has never been taken seriously in the analytic tradition of philosophy until very recently and why the theory theory position has been so dominant in philosophical circles after the decline of behaviorism. (For further reasons to reject empathy as a primary means of understanding other minds see also section 3 of this entry.) Theory theorists conceive of our understanding of mental concepts as being constituted by an implicit grasp of their role in a folk psychological theory and its law-like psychological generalizations. They conceive of the attribution of mental states to other people as a theoretical inference. We infer the existence of mental states from behavioral evidence together with knowledge of theoretical principles that link the existence of mental states to such evidence in a complex fashion. In suggesting that attributing a mental state to another person is a theoretical inference based on the use of a theory and available evidence, theory theorists also propose an alternative to the traditional inference from analogy; an alternative that philosophers like Lipps or Scheler never even considered in their defense of empathy. Moreover, theory theorists are not without conceptual resources to account for the phenomenological fact that we seem to directly grasp another person's mental states by looking at his facial expressions. For them, such phenomenological directness in the apprehension of particular mental states can be explicated in terms of our familiarity with a folk psychological theory. (For a critical discussion see Stueber 2006).

2.1. Mirror Neurons, Simulation, and the Discussion of Empathy in the Contemporary Theory of Mind Debate

The idea that empathy— particularly empathy understood as inner imitation — is the primary epistemic means for understanding other minds has been revived in the 1980's by simulation theorists in the context of the interdisciplinary debate about folk psychology; an empirically informed debate about how best to describe the underlying causal mechanisms of our folk psychological abilities to interpret, explain, and predict other agents. (See Davies and Stone 1995). In contrast to theory theory, simulation theorists conceive of our ordinary mindreading abilities as an ego-centric method and as a “knowledge poor” strategy, where I do not utilize a folk psychological theory but use myself as a model for the other person's mental life. It is not the place here to discuss the contemporary debate extensively, but it has to be emphasized that contemporary simulation theorists vigorously discuss how to account for our grasp of mental concepts and whether simulation theory is committed to Cartesianism. Whereas Goldman (2002, 2006) links his version of simulation theory to a neo-Cartesian account of mental concepts, other simulation theorists develop versions of simulation theory that are not committed to a Cartesian conception of the mind. (Gordon 1995a, b, and 2000; Heal 2003; and Stueber 2006, 2012).

Moreover, neuroscientific findings according to which so called mirror neurons play an important role in recognizing another person's emotional states and in understanding the goal-directedness of his behavior have been understood as providing empirical evidence for Lipps' idea of empathy as inner imitation. With the help of the term “mirror neuron,” scientists refer to the fact that there is significant overlap between neural areas of excitation that underlie our observation of another person's action and areas that are stimulated when we execute the very same action. A similar overlap between neural areas of excitation has also been established for our recognition of another person's emotion based on his facial expression and our experiencing the emotion. (For a survey on mirror neurons see Gallese 2003a and b, Goldman 2006, chap. 6; Keysers 2011; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004; and particularly Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia 2008). Since the face to face encounter between persons is the primary situation within which human beings recognize themselves as minded creatures and attribute mental states to others, the system of mirror neurons has been interpreted as playing a causally central role in establishing intersubjective relations between minded creatures. For that very reason, the neuroscientist Gallese thinks of mirror neurons as constituting what he calls the “shared manifold of intersubjectivity” (Gallese 2001, 44). Stueber (2006, chap. 4)—inspired by Lipps's conception of empathy as inner imitation—refers to mirror neurons as mechanisms of basic empathy;[2] as mechanisms that allow us to apprehend directly another person's emotions in light of his facial expressions and that enable us to understand his bodily movements as goal-directed actions. The evidence from mirror neurons—and the fact that in perceiving other people we use very different neurobiological mechanisms than in the perception of physical objects—does suggest that in our primary perceptual encounter with the world we do not merely encounter physical objects. Rather, even on this basic level, we distinguish already between mere physical objects and objects that are more like us (See also Meltzoff and Brooks 2001). The mechanisms of basic empathy have to be seen as Nature's way of dissolving one of the principal assumptions of the traditional philosophical discussion about other minds shared by opposing positions such as Cartesianism and Behaviorism; that is, that we perceive other people primarily as physical objects and do not distinguish already on the perceptual level between physical objects like trees and minded creatures like ourselves. Mechanisms of basic empathy might therefore be interpreted as providing us with a perceptual basis for developing an intersubjectively accessible folk psychological framework that is applicable to the subject and observed other (Stueber 2006, 142–45. It needs to be acknowledged however that this interpretation of mirror neurons crucially depends on the assumption that the primary function of mirror neurons consists in providing us with a cognitive grasp of another person's actions and emotions; an assumption that has met with some criticism more recently from researchers inside and outside of the neuroscientific community. For the debate about mirror neurons see particularly Allen 2010, Borg 2007, Csibra 2009, Debes 2010, Goldman 2009, Hickok 2008, Iacoboni 2011, Jacob 2008, and Stueber 2012a)

Yet it should be noted that everyday mindreading is not restricted to the realm of basic empathy. Ordinarily we not only recognize that other persons are afraid or that they are reaching for a particular object. We understand their behavior in more complex social contexts in terms of their reasons for acting using the full range of psychological concepts including the concepts of belief and desire. Evidence from neuroscience shows that these mentalizing tasks involve very different neuronal areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal cortex, and the cingulate cortex. (For a survey see Kain and Perner 2003; and Frith and Frith 2003). Low level mindreading in the realm of basic empathy has therefore to be distinguished from higher levels of mindreading (Goldman 2006). It is clear that low level forms of understanding other persons have to be conceived of as being relatively knowledge poor as they do not involve a psychological theory or complex psychological concepts. How exactly one should conceive of high level mindreading abilities, whether they involve primarily knowledge poor simulation strategies or knowledge rich inferences is controversially debated within the contemporary debate about our folk psychological mindreading abilities(See Davies and Stone 1995, Gopnik and Meltzoff 1997, Gordon 1995, Curry and Ravenscroft 2002, Heal 2003, Nichols and Stich 2003, Goldman 2006, and Stueber 2006). Simulation theorists, however, insist that even more complex forms of understanding other agents involve resonance phenomena that engage our cognitively intricate capacities of imaginatively adopting the perspective of another person and reenacting or recreating their thought processes (For various forms of perspective-taking see Coplan 2011 and Goldie 2000). Accordingly, simulation theorists distinguish between different types of empathy such as between basic and reenactive empathy (Stueber 2006) or between mirroring and reconstructive empathy (Goldman 2011). Interestingly, the debate about how to conceive of these more complex forms of mindreading resonates with the traditional debate about whether empathy is the unique method of the human sciences and whether or not one has to strictly distinguish between the methods of the human and the natural sciences. Equally noteworthy is the fact that in the contemporary theory of mind debate voices have grown louder that, in light of insights from the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions in philosophy, assert that the contemporary theory of mind debate fundamentally misconceives of the nature of social cognition. They claim that on the most basic level empathy should not be conceived of as a resonance phenomenon but as a type of direct perception. (See particularly Zahavi 2010; Zahavi and Overgaard 2012, but Jacob 2011 for a response). More complex forms of social cognition are also not to be understood as being based on either theory or empathy/simulation, rather they are better best conceived of as the ability to directly fit observed units of actions into larger narrative or cultural frameworks (See Gallagher 2012, Gallagher and Hutto 2008, Hutto 2008, and Seemann 2011, but Stueber 2011 and 2012a for a defense of empathy. For skepticism about empathic perspective-taking understood as a complete identification with the perspective of the other person see also Goldie 2011). Regardless of how one views this specific debate it should be clear that ideas about mindreading developed originally by proponents of empathy at the beginning of the 20th century can no longer be easily dismissed and have to be taken seriously.

3. Empathy as the Unique Method of the Human Sciences

At the beginning of the 20th century, empathy understood as a non-inferential and non-theoretical method of grasping the content of other minds became closely associated with the concept of understanding (Verstehen); a concept that was championed by the hermeneutic tradition of philosophy concerned with explicating the methods used in grasping the meaning and significance of texts, works of arts, and actions. (For a survey of this tradition see Grondin 1994). Hermeneutic thinkers insisted that the method used in understanding the significance of a text or a historical event has to be fundamentally distinguished from the method used in explaining an event within the context of the natural sciences. This methodological dualism is famously expressed by Droysen in saying that “historical research does not want to explain; that is, derive in a form of an inferential argument, rather it wants to understand” (Droysen 1977, 403), and similarly in Dilthey's dictum that “we explain nature, but understand the life of the soul” (Dilthey 1961, vol. 5, 144). Yet Droysen and authors before him never conceived of understanding solely as an act of mental imitation or solely as an act of imaginatively “transporting” oneself into the point of view of another person. Such “psychological interpretation” as Schleiermacher (1998) used to call it, was conceived of as constituting only one aspect of the interpretive method used by historians. Other tasks mentioned in this context involved critically evaluating the reliability of historical sources, getting to know the linguistic conventions of a language, and integrating the various elements derived from historical sources into a consistent narrative of a particular epoch. The differences between these various aspects of the interpretive procedure were however downplayed in the early Dilthey. For him, grasping the significance of any cultural fact had to be understood as a mental act of “transposition.” Understanding the meaning of a text, an action, or work of art requires us to relate it to the primary realm of significance; that is, our own mental life accessible through introspection. (See for example Dilthey 1961, vol. 5, 263–265). Even though Dilthey himself never used the empathy terminology, his position certainly facilitated thinking about understanding as a form of empathy. No wonder then, that at this time the concepts of empathy and understanding were used almost interchangeably in order to delineate a supposed methodological distinction between the natural and the human sciences. (See Stueber 2006 for a more extensive discussion).

Ironically, the identification of empathy and understanding and the associated claim that empathy is the sole and unique method of the human sciences also facilitated the decline of the empathy concept and its almost utter disregard by philosophers of the human and social sciences later on, in both the analytic and continental/hermeneutic traditions of philosophy. Within both traditions, proponents of empathy were—for very different reasons—generally seen as advocating an epistemically naïve and insufficiently broad conception of the methodological proceedings in the human sciences. As a result, most philosophers of the human and social sciences maintained their distance from the idea that empathy is central for our understanding of other minds and mental phenomena. Notable exceptions in this respect are R.G. Collingwood and his followers, who suggested that reenacting another person's thoughts is necessary for understanding them as rational agents (Collingwood 1946, Dray 1957 and 1995). Notice however that in contrast to the contemporary debate about folk psychology, the debate about empathy in the philosophy of social science is not concerned with investigating underlying causal mechanisms. Rather, it addresses normative questions of how to justify a particular explanation or interpretation.

3.1. The Critique of Empathy in the Context of a Hermeneutic Conception of the Human Sciences

Philosophers arguing for a hermeneutic conception of the human and social sciences insist on a strict methodological division between the human and the natural sciences.[3] Yet they nowadays favor the concept of understanding (Verstehen) and reject the earlier identification of understanding and empathy for two specific reasons. First, empathy is no longer seen as the unique method of the human sciences because facts of significance, which a historian or an interpreter of literary and non-literary texts are interested in, do not solely depend on facts within the individual mind. Within the philosophy of history, for example, it has become the established consensus that a historian is not and should not be bound by the agent's perspective in telling the story about a particular historical event or a particular period that he is interested in. Historians necessarily surpass the conceptual categories of the agent, since the significance of historical events is constituted not only by an agent's intentions but by their long range and at times unintended consequences (Danto 1965). Similarly, philosophers such as Hans Georg Gadamer, have argued that the significance of a text is not tied to the author's intentions in writing the text. In reading a text by Shakespeare or Plato we are not primarily interested in finding out what Plato or Shakespeare said but what these texts themselves say. Moreover, like the significance of any historical event, the significance of a literary text is dependent on its effect on subsequent generations and its meaning supervenes on its own interpretive history. (Gadamer 1989; for a critical discussion see Skinner (in Tully 1988); “Introduction” in Kögler and Stueber 2000; and Stueber 2002).

The above considerations, however, do not justify the claim that empathy has no role to play within the context of the human sciences. It justifies merely the claim that empathy cannot be their only method, at least as long as one admits that recognizing the thoughts of individual agents has to play some role in the interpretive project of the human sciences. Accordingly, a second reason against empathy is also emphasized. Conceiving of understanding other agents as being based on empathy is seen as an epistemically extremely naïve conception of the interpretation of individual agents, since it seems to conceive of understanding as a mysterious meeting of two individual minds outside of any cultural context. Philosophers, influenced by considerations of Heidegger and also the later Wittgenstein, have started to think of individual agents as socially and culturally embedded creatures and have started to conceive of the mind of individual agents as being socially constituted. Understanding other agents thus presupposes an understanding of the cultural context within which an agent functions. Moreover, in the interpretive situation of the human sciences, the cultural background of the interpreter and the person, who has to be interpreted, can be very different. In that case, I can not very easily put myself in the shoes of the other person and imitate his thoughts in my mind. If understanding medieval knights, to use an example of Winch (1958), requires me to think exactly as the medieval knight did, then it is not clear how such a task can be accomplished from an interpretive perspective constituted by very different cultural presuppositions. Making sense of other minds has, therefore, to be seen as an activity that is a culturally mediated one; a fact that empathy theorists according to this line of critique do not sufficiently take into account when they conceive of understanding other agents as a direct meeting of minds that is independent of and unaided by information about how these agents are embedded in a broader social environment.(See Stueber 2006, chap.6, Zahavi 2001, 2005; for the later Dilthey see Makreel 2000. For a critical discussion of whether the concept of understanding without recourse to empathy is useful for marking an epistemic distinction between the human and natural sciences consult also Stueber 2012b).

3.2. The Critique of Empathy within the Context of a Naturalist Conception of the Human Sciences

Philosophers, who reject the methodological dualism between the human and the natural sciences as argued for in the hermeneutic context, are commonly referred to as naturalists in the philosophy of social science. They deny that the distinction between understanding and explanation points to an important methodological difference. Even in the human or social sciences, the main point of the scientific endeavor is to provide epistemically justified explanations (and predictions) of observed or recorded events (see also Henderson 1993). At most, empathy is granted a heuristic role in the context of discovery. It however can not play any role within the context of justification. As particularly Hempel (1965) has argued, to explain an event involves—at least implicitly—an appeal to law-like regularities providing us with reasons for expecting that an event of a certain kind will occur under specific circumstances. Empathy might allow me to recognize that I would have acted in the same manner as somebody else. Yet it does not epistemically sanction the claim that anybody of a particular type or anybody who is in that type of situation will act in this manner.

Hempel's argument against empathy has certainly not gone unchallenged. Within the philosophy of history, Dray (1957), following Collingwood, has argued that empathy plays an epistemically irreducible role, since we explain actions in terms of an agent's reasons. For him, such reason explanations do not appeal to empirical generalizations but to normative principles of actions outlining how a person should act in a particular situation. More recently, similar arguments have been articulated by Jaegwon Kim (1984, 1998). Yet as Stueber (2006, chap. 5) argues such a response to Hempel would require us to implausibly conceive of reason explanations as being very different from ordinary causal explanations. It would imply that our notions of explanation and causation are ambiguous concepts. Reasons that cause agents to act in the physical world would be conceived of as causes in a very different sense than ordinary physical causes. Moreover, as Hempel himself suggests, appealing to normative principles explains at most why a person should have acted in a certain manner. It does not explain why he ultimately acted in that way. Consequently, Hempel's objection against empathy retain their force as long as one maintains that reason explanations are a form of ordinary causal explanations and as long as one conceives of the epistemic justification of such explanations as implicitly appealing to some empirical generalizations.

Despite these concessions to Hempel, Stueber suggests that empathy (specifically reenactive empathy) has to be acknowledged as playing a central role even in the context of justification. For him, folk psychological explanations have to be understood as being tied to the domain of rational agency. In contrast to explanations in terms of mere inner causes, folk psychological explanations retain their explanatory force only as long as agents' beliefs and desires can also be understood as reasons for their actions. The epistemic justification of such folk psychological explanations implicitly relies on generalizations involving folk psychological notions such as belief and desire. Yet the existence of such generalizations alone does not establish specific beliefs and desires as reasons for a person's actions. Elaborating on considerations by Heal (2003) and Collingwood (1946), Stueber suggests that recognizing beliefs and desires as reasons requires the interpreter to be sensitive to an agent's other relevant beliefs and desires. Individual thoughts function as reasons for rational agency only relative to a specific framework of an agent's thoughts that are relevant for consideration in a specific situation. Most plausibly—given our persistent inability to solve the frame problem—recognizing which of another agent's thoughts are relevant in specific contexts requires the practical ability of reenacting another person's thoughts in one's own mind. Empathy's central epistemic role has to be admitted, since beliefs and desires can be understood only in this manner as an agent's reasons. (See Stueber 2002, 2003 and 2006, chaps. 4 and 5). For similar reasons, Stueber (2006, chap. 6) argues that, while the above objections to empathy from hermeneutic philosophers limit the scope of empathy within the social sciences, they do not imply that empathy has no role to play in our understanding of individual agency. Accordingly, the fact that we at times experience imaginagive resistance in our attempt to understand others should be understood as indirectly confirming the thesis that empathy is the implicit default method for understanding individual agency that at times however needs to be supplemented by various theoretical and narrative strategies (For a discussion see Henderson and Horgan 2000, Henderson 2011, and Stueber 2008, 2011a). Within the context of anthropology, Hollan and Throop argue that empathy is best understood as a dynamic, culturally situated, temporally extended, and dialogical process actively involving not only the interpreter but also his or her interpretee (Hollan 20012; Hollan and Throop 2008, 2001; Throop 2010).

4. Empathy as a Topic of Scientific Exploration in Psychology

The discussion of empathy within psychology has been largely unaffected by the critical discussion and negative view of empathy that became prevalent in mainstream philosophical circles until the 1980's. Rather, psychologists were more influenced by the positive evaluation of empathy by philosophers from the beginning of the century. Empathy related phenomena were in general understood as playing an important role in interpersonal understanding and as causal factors motivating humans to act in a prosocial manner. Indeed by the time philosophers were ready to retire the empathy concept, psychologists tried to investigate empathy in an experimentally rigorous manner. Throughout the early 20th century, but particularly since the late 1940's, empathy has been an intensively studied topic of psychological research.

As psychologists themselves have become increasingly aware, the empirical investigation of empathy has been hindered (particularly in the beginning) by conceptual confusions and a multiplicity of definitions of the empathy concept. (See for example Davis 1994; Eisenberg and Strayer 1987; and Batson 2009). Within social psychology, this state of affairs is due to the fact that the empathy concept merged with and completely replaced the multi-dimensional concept of sympathy used by earlier psychologists and philosophers (Wispe 1986, 1987, and particularly 1991). Whereas the emphasis in the philosophical discussion—outside the context of aesthetics—lay on empathy's cognitive role in providing us with knowledge of other minds, the concept of sympathy was primarily situated within the context of moral psychology and moral philosophy. In the works of David Hume and Adam Smith, sympathy referred to a family of psychological mechanisms that would allow us to explain how an individual could be concerned about and motivated to act on behalf of another human being. Given its focus on human social motivation, it is no wonder that within this context one did not only stress cognitive abilities to understand other persons. One also referred to our emotional reactivity in encountering another person, particularly when perceiving another person's suffering or distress.[5]

More broadly one can distinguish two psychological research traditions studying empathy related phenomena; that is, the study of what is currently called empathic accuracy and the study of empathy as an emotional phenomenon in the encounter of others. The first area of study defines empathy primarily as a cognitive phenomenon and conceives of empathy in general terms as “the intellectual or imaginative apprehension of another's condition or state of mind,” to use Hogan's (1969) terminology. Within this area of research, one is primarily interested in determining the reliability and accuracy of our ability to perceive and recognize other persons' enduring personality traits, attitudes and values, and occurrent mental states. One also investigates the various factors that influence empathic accuracy. One has, for example, been interested in determining whether empathic ability depends on gender, age, family background, intelligence, emotional stability, the nature of interpersonal relations, or whether it depends on specific motivations of the observer. (For a survey see Ickes 1993 and 2003; and Taft 1955). A more detailed account of the research on empathic accuracy and some of its earlier methodological difficulties can be found in the

Supplementary document on the Study of Cognitive Empathy and Empathic Accuracy.

Philosophically more influential has been the study of empathy defined primarily as an emotional or affective phenomenon, which psychologists in the middle of the 1950's started to focus on. In this context, psychologists have also addressed issues of moral motivation that have been traditionally topics of intense discussions among moral philosophers. They were particularly interested to investigate (i) the development of various means for measuring empathy as a dispositional trait of adults and of children and as a situational response in specific situations, (ii) the factors on which empathic responses and dispositions depend, and (iii) the relation between empathy and pro-social behavior and moral development. Before discussing the psychological research on emotional empathy and its relevance for moral philosophy and moral psychology in the next section, it is vital to introduce important conceptual distinctions that one should keep in mind in evaluating the various empirical studies.

Anyone reading the emotional empathy literature has to be struck by the fact that empathy tended to be incredibly broadly defined in the beginning of this specific research tradition. Stotland, one of the earliest researcher who understood empathy exclusively as an emotional phenomenon, defined it as “an observer's reacting emotionally because he perceives that another is experiencing or is about to experience an emotion” (1969, 272). According to Stotland's definition very diverse emotional responses such as feeling envy, feeling annoyed, feeling distressed, being relieved about, feeling pity, or feeling what Germans call Schadenfreude(feeling joyful about the misfortune of another) have all to be counted as empathic reactions. Since the 1980's however, psychologists have fine tuned their understanding of empathy conceptually and distinguished between different aspects of the emotional reaction to another person; thereby implicitly acknowledging the conceptual distinctions articulated by Max Scheler (1973) almost a century earlier. In this context, it is particularly useful to distinguish between the following reactive emotions that are differentiated in respect to whether or not such reactions are self or other oriented and whether they presuppose awareness of the distinction between self and others. (See also the survey in the Introduction to Eisenberg/Strayer 1987, and the introduction in Stueber 2006)

  1. Emotional contagion: Emotional contagion occurs when people start feeling similar emotions caused merely by the association with other people. You start feeling joyful, because other people around you are joyful or you start feeling panicky because you are in a crowd of people feeling panic. Emotional contagion however does not require that one is aware of the fact that one experiences the emotions because other people experience them, rather one experiences them primarily as one's own emotion (Scheler 1973, 22). A newborn infant's reactive cry to the distress cry of another, which Hoffman takes as a “rudimentary precursor of empathic distress” (Hoffman 2000, 65), can probably be understood as a phenomenon of emotional contagion, since the infant is not able to properly distinguish between self and other.
  2. Affective Empathy: More narrowly and properly understood, empathy in the affective sense is the vicarious sharing of an affect. Authors however differ in how strictly they interpret the phrase of vicariously sharing an affect. For some, it requires that the empathizers and the persons they empathize with need to be in very similar affective states (Coplan 2011; de Vignemont and Singer 2006; Jacob 2011). For Hoffman, on the other hand, it is an emotional response requiring only “the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another's situation than with his own situation” (Hoffman 2000, 30). According to this definition, empathy does not necessarily require that the subject and target feel similar emotions (even though this is most often the case). Rather the definition also includes cases of feeling sad when seeing a child who plays joyfully but who does not know that it has been diagnosed with a serious illness (assuming that this is how the other person himself or herself would feel if he or she would fully understand his or her situation). In contrast to mere emotional contagion, genuine empathy presupposes the ability to differentiate between oneself and the other. It requires that one is minimally aware of the fact that one is having an emotional experience due to the perception of the other's emotion, or more generally due to attending to his situation. In seeing a sad face of another and feeling sad oneself, such feeling of sadness should count as genuinely empathic only if one recognizes that in feeling sad one's attention is still focused on the other and that it is not an appropriate reaction to aspects of one's own life. Moreover, empathy outside the realm of a direct perceptual encounter involves some appreciation of the other person's emotion as an appropriate response to his or her situation. To be happy or unhappy because one's child is happy or sad should not count necessarily as an empathic emotion. It cannot count as a vicarious emotional response if it is due to the perception of the outside world from the perspective of the observer and her desire that her children should be happy. My happiness about my child being happy would therefore not be an emotional state that is more congruent to his situation. Rather, it is an emotional response appropriate to my own perspective on the world. In order for my happiness or unhappiness to be genuinely empathic it has to be happiness or unhappiness about what makes the other person happy. (See Sober and Wilson 1998, 231–237; for a useful discussion see also H. Maibom 2007). It is exactly for this reason that perspective taking has been traditionally conceived of as a mechanism of empathy. Yet it has to be admitted that empirically both forms of emotional responses are very often intertwined.

  3. Sympathy: In contrast to affective empathy, sympathy is not an emotion that is congruent with the other's emotion or situation such as feeling the sadness of the other person's grieving for the death of his father. Rather, sympathy is seen as an emotion sui generis that has the other's negative emotion or situation as its object from the perspective of somebody who cares for the other person's well being (Darwall 1998). In this sense, sympathy consists of “feeling sorrow or concern for the distressed or needy other,” a feeling for the other out of a “heightened awareness of the suffering of another person as something that needs to be alleviated.” (Eisenberg 2000a, 678; Wispe 1986, 318; and Wispe 1991).

    Whereas it is quite plausible to assume that empathy—that is, empathy with negative emotions of another or what Hoffman (2000) calls “veridical empathic distress”—under certain conditions (and when certain developmental markers are achieved) can give rise to


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