Monday, March 09, 2015

On the meaning of “empathy”

In my blog last week, I remarked that scientists do not agree about what empathy involves. In fact, they give it many interpretations. In an article on its features and effects Amy Coplan gives a list of the most popular ways empathy is understood:
(A) Feeling what someone else feels
(B) Caring about someone else
(C) Being emotionally affected by someone else’s emotions and experiences, though not necessarily experiencing the same emotions
(D) Imagining oneself in another’s situation
(E) Imagining being another in that other’s situation
(F) Making inferences about another’s mental states
(G) Some combination of these possibilities.
As Coplan notes, this big number of conceptualizations of empathy is quite problematical for what are we talking about, when we use the word “empathy”? Even if one gives a clear definition in a treatise on empathy, it remains confusing that the concept can be understood in so many different ways. In this blog I cannot end the confusion, but I want to make some comments on the different meanings of empathy listed by Coplan, hoping that it helps to bring some order in the mesh, although my comments must be short.
Leaving out (G), which is a bit of a hotchpotch, we have six different interpretations. Originally the concept has been coined in Germany at the end of the 19th century, where it has been developed by Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps, who talked about “Einfühlung”. Einfühlung means something like feeling into. Let’s keep it in mind.
Take first interpretation (B): to care about someone else. I think that this interpretation of empathy is too wide. One can care about another for many different reasons and one doesn’t need to feel into the other for that, which minimally supposes some kind of emotionally sharing. Interpretation (B) needs to be specified, for example, by the other interpretations (or some of them), like (D): Imagining oneself in another’s situation. However, such an imagining must be more than simply intellectual. For instance, a judge has to assess why the suspect robbed the bank because he needed money. Such an assessment will be purely intellectual. Referring to what I said in my blogs about mirror neurons, in order to talk about empathy here, a certain kind of internal simulation of the suspect’s reasons by the judge is imperative if we want to talk about empathy. Even more, since mirror neurons are also motor neurons that start moving the muscles expressing the empathy, for instance on the face, one could talk about a kind of internal vibration in case of empathy. I think that one cannot expect that the “feeling into” of a judge goes that far. As for this, there is not much difference between imagining oneself in another’s situation and imagining being in his or her situation (=E). Also this interpretation supposes too much about what empathy is.
This “feeling into”, or “being emotionally affected by” as Copland says it, is explicitly mentioned in interpretation (C). However, thinking of the recent discovery of mirror neurons, (C) contains a contradiction, for in view of these neurons being emotionally affected involves at least a minimal experience of these emotions within by the observer. The latter is implied in interpretation (A), which sees empathy as a kind of – what I have called – “internal vibration”. But then we are already halfway interpretation (F) (namely making inferences about another’s mental states), assuming that we can use our own mental states then in order to explain the mental states of the other.
My comments on the six possible interpretations of empathy presented by Copland don’t bring us a final definition. However, they show some aspects that must be part of such a definition, explicitly or implicitly. If we see empathy with another as a kind of feeling into, then at least we share that person’s feelings, emotions and experiences in the sense that we are emotionally affected by them and simulate them internally in some way and have a kind of internal (muscular) vibration (if not an expression of the feeling on our face). In short, empathy is emotional resonance of the other within us.

Amy Coplan, “Understanding Empathy: Its features and effects”, in: Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy (see blog last week); pp. 3-18.

No comments: