Empathy is a term one gets to hear in their everyday life. Carl Rogers (1969), defined empathy as “to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition.” But there are so many issues with this definition. First, this definition entails there should be one “self” and one “another”. But what divides this self from the other? Empathy comes with its own conditionality. We are usually empathetic towards people who are related to us or similar to us. So how much of the “other” are they really, when they are an extension of our self, and we are extensions of them? It is not possible to have a self that is absolutely objective. In a conversation, for example, I give some part of me to the so-called other, and the other contributes some of his/her part into myself. So how valid is the distinction between the self and the other?
There are other issues with the concept as well. Fagiano (2016), going into the various intricacies of empathy, put the question of whether empathy is a moral good? He first goes into the nuances of the present conception of empathy. Suppose I am to see a fruit seller whose fruits have fallen on the road, and there are cars continuously honking at her. I would perhaps mimic the facial expression of the person, arising from empathetic contagion, empathetic distress and empathetic mimicry (e.g. Batson, 1991). I might even sow some empathetic concern, although I may not act to help her. So, just merely having an empathetic concern considerable enough to be called a moral act? Is empathy a necessity for morality? Or can all the experiences above be described as empathy? What about perspective taking as a form of empathy?
For Michael Stole (2010), for instance, “empathy involves having the feelings of another (involuntarily) aroused in ourselves, as when we see another person in pain”. Sympathy, for him, is feeling for someone when we feel for someone who is experiencing pain. He considers empathy as “the cement of the moral universe” as it helps one to understand approval and disapproval. This approval and disapproval works as a new reference-fixing, with regard to what is right and what is wrong. This approval and disapproval needs the mechanism of empathy to focus on the moral agent rather than the consequences of action. Empathy does not presuppose a moral judgement, but is a gateway to understand moral utterances, moral mean and the location of the judgement in the formation of the moral universe. But this definition, according to Fagiano, is non-relational and does not capture the complexities of the situation. What if one were to be empathetic to others, but only with the intention of being deceitful and manipulative? Moreover, this idea of empathy is biased and partial in that it is only imparted to the ones who are similar to us.
Amy Coplan (2014), is another theorist of empathy, who believes that empathy should be conceptualized in a narrow manner. According to her, real empathy is “a complex imaginative process through which an observer simulates another person’s situated psychological states while maintaining clear self-other differentiation”. Thus arises three features – affective matching, other-oriented perspective taking and clear self-other differentiation. Since she considers this as real empathy, the ones that are not but may be considered as one are her concepts of pseudo-empathy and emotional contagion. Pseudo-empathy is when we think we feel the other, but in reality end up bringing in our own biases. Emotional contagion is mimicking the expressions and feelings of the other. Real empathy is the only way to the experiential world of the other. She bases these distinctions on certain neurocognitive study that differentiate among these three concepts in terms of our brain function, without citing the contrary evidences. Fagiano also believes that she refuses to take into consideration the context and consequence of the actions. I think that her clear-cut distinction of self-other is problematic as established above. While in pseudo empathy she brings in the concept of personal bias, I don’t see how any kind of empathy can be free from these personal subjective realities.
Finally, Fagiano, himself favours the pluralistic understanding of empathy, taking into consideration what history and previous literature had to say about it. He also considers classification of empathy as cognitive and emotional, distinctly, also becomes uneasy by the fact that it assumes the duality of emotions and reason. So, by taking into account the pluralistic view of empathy, both these aspects are brought in together, with a historically rich data. He cites Herder’s (1774) definition of sicheinfuhlen which is understanding the similar or radically different experiences of another through the process of imaginative feeling (sichhineinfuhlen) into the time, place and context of the other.
Giving a biological perspective, he cites Jean Decety and Michalska (2012) to conclude that empathy involves various brain structures and subways not just limited to the cortical region, but also sub-cortical pathways, the brainstem, stimulation of the automatic nervous system, and the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, along with endocrine system regulating emotions feelings and bodily states.
Fagiano then tries to understand the concept of empathy toward objects. The Germans had emphasised this long ago. Herder (1774), for example, states – feel yourself into everything – in order to understand the world. Robert Vischer (1873), considered empathy as the unconscious projection of one’s body and soul into the form of objects. This object-focused meaning helps us delve deeper into the relational nature – thus, also stating that nothing stands in isolation. If I can see my life reflecting on a piece of art, or if I can sense what emotion the art is portraying, it would be a way of empathy.
Throughout the above definitions, there are certain factors impacting empathy that could be seen. First is that we feel empathetic towards those with whom we share some similarity. Empathy cannot occur if we do not have respect for self. It establishes norms of reciprocity – what I do for someone, someone would do that for me too. This is often a destructive pattern of thought and may be perceived as selfish. But what is selfish and what is selfless?
There is also the question of whether empathy means becoming selfless. Is being selfless possible – to completely do away with who one is? And if it is, indeed, possible, is it a good principle – to completely lose one’s own essence? For example, if a friend is crying, do I lose my control and cry with her, too, in order to show my empathy? Or should I exercise some restrain and try to understand her situation? Thus, empathy could be understanding the feelings of another, but with some control. Just as one cannot see the water by being inside the tank, one cannot empathize without being outside of it. After all, I cannot understand what I don’t see.
Empathy also requires a correct usage of words. For example, asking “why” questions may make the other person defensive. Diffusing it with “what happened” instead is important. Instead of stating “you disturbed me”, one could replace that with “I felt disturbed”.
Lastly, empathy calls for a check on one’s automatic negative thoughts. If a person from Delhi, having no idea of North East India, involuntary gets thoughts of things like – Chinese, beef, sexually available – while meeting me, can he/she be empathetic towards me? Can I, having formed such biased and rigid perception of a certain set of people from a certain region (say), be ever empathetic towards them?
Apart from these factors, there are issues in such conception of empathy too. One is what Fagiano termed as discursive power. In the discourse of being empathy, empathy is usually perceived as being given by someone powerful to someone who is weak. In this power-relation, isn’t one making an empathetic person superior? Second is – by being empathetic, are we lpsing our individuality, our uniqueness? And by being empathetic to another, are we robbing them of their “human-ness” too? Are we establishing ourselves as a superhuman – which is a farce? And if we are interfering with someone’s human-ness, shouldn’t it call for moral and social sanction?
Perhaps these debates surrounding empathy would never end. But in such turmoil, I have formed certain perceptions of my own. I have been very influenced by teachings of Bhagwat Gita (which is the English translated version, hence my learning may not very reflective of the original script). We are all part of one entity, whether we like to see it as Lord Krishna, or the Brahman. All of us are, hence, connected to one another. The self is reflected in the other, and the other is also within myself. Hence, empathy is perhaps an anglicized term referring to what ancient India had known since time immemorial (if it is possible for time to be indeed, immemorial). I have to take care of myself. And if I am in others, I have to care for others as well.
My experiences are not mine alone. If I exist in the other, and the other exists in me, we have a shared experience. What I do today may impact different people at different points of time. If I use vehicles and pollute the air, this will impact the future generation – people who are yet to be born. What my ancestors did – for example, built a certain entity at that certain place, where I took birth – has not just impacted but also significantly shaped who I am. I never met them. They were long gone before I was born. And yet it impacts me. We are connected to all the other souls that transcends the boundaries of time. I wouldn’t want to call it empathy. I feel this word robs me of the transcendental feelings that I undergo when I put it this way. I experience the other in my own way, contributed by what part of the other’s self resides in me. I am ultimately the other, because we all come from the same place – for me it is the ultimate energy – we are all made of the same energy – that can neither be created nor destroyed.
1. Bharadwaj, I. (2017). Empathy, Emotions and Social Processes. [Class Lecture].
2. Fagiano, M. (2016). Pluralistic Conceptualization of Empathy. The Journal of Speculative philoshophy, 30(1), 27-44.
3. Prakash, A. (2017). Empathy, Emotions and Social Processes. [Class Lecture].
Mitakshara Medhi is a graduate of Lady Shri Ram College (Psychology), Delhi University.
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