Empathy as a Response

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“[In sensual empathy,] the bodily expressions of the other person draw me into her presence and by way of this process I not only attend to but also spontaneously follow her experiences through (Svenaeus 2018, 757).”

I want to briefly reflect on this supposed reality, that in empathy, the other person, through her bodily expressions, draws me to her. There is thus an invitation coming from the other person. It is a presupposition, then, that the other person is inviting me to share with her experience. Empathy is a kind of response to this kind of invitation.

In empathic experience, the other person asks me (not necessarily literally) to come and be with her. She invites me to experience what she is experiencing. She expresses that I should understand what she is feeling.

If I see my friend smiling, for example, and eager to talk about how blessed she is, I may understand that she is joyful. But even without her telling me to come to her, I would be drawn to share with her experience because of empathy. Through this “invitation,” I may thus follow her experience and may become joyful myself because she is joyful. I am responding to her experience.

The same thing happens if I see one of my friends crying in the corner. Without her seeing me, I am drawn to share with her experience. I may now come to her and ask, “What’s wrong?” Then she may open up to me about her problem. I am merely responding to the implicit invitation to come to her and understand what she is feeling.

Empathy, then, is a kind of response because I am responding to the other person’s invitation to share with her experience.

Svenaeus, Fredrik. 2018. “Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Sensual and Emotional Empathy.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 17 (4). Springer Netherlands: 741–60. doi:10.1007/s11097-017-9544-9.


A Sui Generis Experience

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Empathy is a sui generis experience.

“Empathy, for Stein, is a sui generis form of intentional experience directed upon the mental, or better, the experiential life of others. Put differently, empathy is a genuine other-directed experience (Szanto and Moran 2015, 450).”

For Edith Stein, empathy is not an emotion, fantasy, memory, or simulation. Rather, empathy is an experience distinct from the other forms of experience. It is, thus, a class of its own.

According to phenomenology, every experience is directed toward something. When we are experiencing, it is always about something, an object. We do not just experience out of the vacuum. An experience, by phenomenological definition, is intentional.

An empathic experience is intentional. It is other-directed. Empathy is directed toward the experience of the other person. When we empathize with another, we experience what the other person is experiencing. The object of empathy is, therefore, the experience of the other person.

For example, if I see my friend laughing out loud, I can directly experience his joy. I empathize with him. This is not a simulation of my friend’s experience, nor an interpretation of what is happening. It is, rather, a fundamental recognition or understanding of my friend’s experience of joy. I know that my friend is joyful because I am experiencing his joy, myself.

I experience not a joy that comes from me, but my friend’s. I’m not experiencing this joy as if it is my own, but rather I experience the lived experience of joy of my friend. So, this joy I experience in my friend is non-primordial (not happening in me). But my experience of my friend’s experience of joy is primordial (happening in me). This kind of experiencing is what Edith Stein means by empathy.

Borden (2003, 29) sums this up nicely, “Empathy is thus a two-sided experience: it is both our own and announces an experience that is not, and has never been, our own.” This is what makes empathy unique. It is a genuine experience of another person’s experience.

(This is just a rough sketch of my understanding of empathy, indeed a very short one. I still have to understand this concept deeply because I might be wrong in my interpretation.)

Borden, Sarah. 2003. Edith stein. Outstanding Christian Thinkers. London: Continuum.

Szanto, Thomas, and Dermot Moran. 2015. Introduction: empathy and collective intentionality – the social philosophy of edith stein. Human Studies 38, no. 4 (Winter 2015), https://www.jstor.org/stable/24757458 (accessed January 17, 2019).