Another disagreement with Lipps arises. And it is the case of the “feeling of oneness.” While Stein believes that there is a feeling of oneness, but it is not the position of Lipps.
For Lipps, there is a feeling of oneness, in the sense that the empathizer and the empathized become one. In other words, their experiences become exactly the same. Following this, there would a suspension of my real self due to the experience of empathy. I become the other.
However, Stein would say that Lipps’ position could not stand if “reflection” is brought into the picture. Sure, I might not have been aware of my own self when empathizing or that I was so absorbed into the empathized experience, but when I come to my senses and reflect about the experience, I know that the experience was non-primordial. So, in the end, what I experience as an empathizer is not mine, but another’s.
So, in contrast, Stein would say that properly speaking the feeling of oneness is the case of “we-feeling.” We-feeling means enriched sympathy. In other words, it is the act of sympathy enriched by empathy. This is proper to a group setting, where there are several members feeling the same feeling over the same event. The feeling of oneness here is when we know each other’s feelings to the point where each one of us identifies with the “we” (i.e. the group) rather than with ourselves.
Watching a concert together, then feeling the same intense feeling, and reacting in the same way is an example of this feeling of oneness.
Although empathy is a progression, Stein would say that empathy might not be fulfilled. It might stay at the first level which is merely an awareness of some foreign experience.
Stein fleshes out this empathic non-fulfillment in the discussion she brings about Lipps’ position. Lipps says that this non-fulfillment is due to “negative empathy.” Negative empathy means some of my experiences (i.e. any personal reasons) that prevent me from fulfilling an empathic experience. He contrasted this with positive empathy wherein my experiences add to the probability of the full experiencing of empathy. For Lipps, this negative empathy that is in me is the reason that sometimes I cannot fully empathize with someone.
For Stein, on the other hand, empathic non-fulfillment is due to a case of “cogito,” or the focus of one’s attention. I cannot fulfill empathy when I am not focusing my glance on the other’s unique experience. Because of the many impulses from the outside, I have to select which to focus on. And this means that not all, not even the other individual, can become the object of my attention. To fully empathize with someone, thus, I have to turn my attention to the foreign experience, and focus on it.
In her doctoral dissertation On the Problem of Empathy, Edith Stein brings into the discussion Lipps’ account of empathy, appreciating its merits while at the same time being critical. Doing this, Stein further clarifies the essence of empathy.
While she agrees that empathy is an “inner participation,” Stein disagrees with the radical interpretation that in empathy there is a tendency for “full experiencing,” that the empathized experiences become the empathizer’s own experiences. It is as if their experiences collide and become one.
Of course, Stein would say that this is not the case because my experiences are my own, and the other’s experiences remain his or her own. This is the non-primordial character of empathy. I do not become the other, and the other does not become me. Individuality is preserved even in the most intimate level of empathy.
Stein says that Lipps conflated the fulfilling explication of empathy and the relationship of primordiality and non-primordiality. It is not that in empathy the foreign experience become my own, but rather this foreign experience may motivate me to produce other acts, which are primordial to me (e.g. sympathy).
Aside from the claim that empathy is primordial, Stein would contend that empathy is non-primordial. The question now is, in what sense?
According to Edith Stein, empathy is non-primordial in its content. Her first warrant for this is that there are acts that are non-primordial in content. She brings into the discussion the acts of memory, fantasy and expectation, which are primordial as an act, but non-primordial in content.
Now, her second warrant is that in empathy, while the act is primordial, the experience is foreign (i.e. not mine). Stein says that the object of empathy is precisely another subject, which is wholly different from me. In contrast to the contents of my other acts which I claim to be mine, the experience in empathy is someone else’s.
This specific non-primordiality (i.e. grasping the experience of another individual) makes Stein think that empathy is a sui generis act of perception.
The act of empathy is a primordial experience. It is an act that I, as the subject, do. Indeed, it is my act.
The primordiality of the act of empathy is part of Edith Stein’s general claim that empathy is “an experience of foreign consciousness in general.” She breaks down this claim into two sub-claims: (1) empathy is a primordial act (or “originary” for some texts) and (2) empathy is a non-primordial experience.
Stein opens up the claim of primordiality with a warrant that the object of empathy is in the “here and now.” In other words, in the act of empathy, the object directly faces me, without any mediation. Stein’s ground for this is the “seeing” of the pain of someone in the bodily expression of pain. This perception of someone’s pain is direct and immediate. She supports the warrant in saying that outer perception (i.e. the act that grasps physical expressions) does not give us the experience of pain.
So, for Stein, empathy is primordial as an act, analogous to outer perception. It is primordial because it is a present experience (i.e. happening here and now) when executing. Thus, when I empathize with someone, I directly perceive the experience of the individual without any detour to anything.