Two weeks ago I published the photo above by way of illustration for my blog. I had taken it especially for this occasion and it was supposed to express the idea of empathy. But does it really do? Empathy is a complex notion that has got many different interpretations. We have seen this yet in my blog last week. Within limits it is a bit arbitrary what meaning we should give it. However, I think that one thing has become clear from my discussion: Empathy refers to a kind of reflection of another’s emotion or experience within me. After the discovery of the so-called mirror neurons this needn’t be something vague but we can give it a physical foundation, as I have done so in my blogs as well. Empathy makes that I am a bit like the other whose feeling I reflect. Empathy can reflect all kinds of feelings, from cheerfulness until sorrow and a lot in between.
In a photo I can express only one kind of empathy; I cannot express empathy in general. Even then, I think now that the blog photo two weeks ago is not to the point, for it doesn’t show a kind of reflection of the feeling of one person in another person. This doesn’t mean that the photo is a complete failure, for it does express something that is often confused with empathy (so also by me). We see a hand on a shoulder in a gloomy picture (it’s on purpose that I had made the photo rather dark and that I had made it black-and-white). But such a hand on a shoulder is generally not supposed to mean that the “hand-person” has the same feeling as the “shoulder-person” but that former is concerned about the latter and that the former cares for the latter. In other words, the photo expresses sympathy.
Although sympathy and empathy are related, they are different. For explaining this, let me quote Stephen Darwall’s definition of sympathy. According to him, sympathy “is a feeling or emotion that (a) responds to some apparent threat or obstacle to an individual’s good or well-being, (b) has that individual himself as object, and (c) involves concern for him, and thus for his well-being, for his sake.” In short, sympathy refers to feelings for another person that is in a difficult situation and needs help or support. Nothing of all this is necessary for empathy. The other doesn’t need to be in trouble or have a difficult time. I can also share the joy another experiences (for having passed an exam successfully, for instance), and I am happy because the other is happy. I can also feel empathy when I am watching a play in a theatre. I just feel, also if I don’t have a personal relation to the other. In case of sympathy I am concerned for the other but not because I reflect the feeling of the other within me but for his or her sake. I care for the other also when I don’t have the feeling of the other. For instance, the mother of a person I know has died and I am present at the funeral for expressing my sympathy, but this doesn’t imply that I am sad. I simply show care for my acquaintance because I know that my presence will be very much appreciated by him. Being worried or concern are words that best express our feelings when we have sympathy for someone. Therefore we can say, in philosophical terms, that when we have sympathy we see the other from a third-person perspective, because we know what the other feels but we do not necessarily share this feeling, unlike in the case of empathy which supposes a first-person perspective, for only by becoming the same as the other in a certain way, we can know what the other feels.