Empathy (In General)

According to Edith Stein, empathy is “the experience of foreign consciousness in general, irrespective of the kind of the experiencing subject or of the subject whose consciousness is experienced (p. 11).”

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

I constantly go back to this definition of empathy because I believe, and obviously, it is crucial for my thesis. The Steinian definition of empathy given above is broad. It is probably because Edith Stein was establishing it as an act revealing the presence of other individuals. Precisely, this is the background in which Stein explored empathy. It was the fact that, as Stein pointed out in her dissertation, the subject has an awareness of other individuals. How this is so, the act of empathy is the answer. So, for Stein, regardless of the nature of the subjects, the knowledge and experience they have with each other are based on the act of empathy.

*All of the above is based on Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy.

The Three Acts of Perception (A Picture)

My mentor drew an illustration to show how the three acts of perception are different from each other.

The act of outer perception grasps the physical attributes of things.

The act of inner perception grasps one’s own psychic life.

The act of empathy grasps the other subject’s psychic life.

Outer Perception, Inner Perception and Empathy

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

My mentor told me to differentiate the three acts of perception: outer perception, inner perception and empathy. Below is the text I sent to my mentor.

On her On the Problem of Empathy, Edith Stein presents three acts of perception. These are empathy, outer perception and inner perception. These three acts are acts of pure consciousness.

Outer perception is a form of perception that grasps the physical attributes of concrete beings. This is what Stein said about outer perception: “Outer perception is a term for acts in which spatio-temporal concrete being and occurring come to me in embodied givenness. This being has the quality of being there itself right now; it turns this or that side to me and the side turned to me is embodied in a specific sense. It is primordially there in comparison with sides co-perceived but averted (On the Problem of Empathy, 6).” Outer perception, then, is an act that announces to the subject that there is another embodied concrete being before it. This is without mediation. Through the act of outer perception, the subject directly recognizes the object. The object is “there itself right now” before the subject. The object is directly present before the subject. Moreover, the act of outer perception grasps the whole object, its whole embodiment, even when there may be parts not shown. The subject, for example, may see a ball from a certain angle, so it has a limited view of the ball, but the subject is directly aware that it is seeing the whole embodiment of the ball. Through outer perception, thus, the subject can directly recognize embodied objects.

Inner perception is a form of perception that grasps the psychic life of one’s own self. Stein said, “To consider ourselves in inner perception, i.e., to consider our psychic ‘I’ and its attributes, means to see ourselves as we see another and as he sees us (On the Problem of Empathy, 88).” This means that inner perception is an act that directly perceives the subject’s psychic life. It is making oneself the object of one’s own inquiry. When it does this, it discovers its own attributes. The attributes that are perceived are the subject’s capacities. Remembering, perceiving, willing and moving are some of these attributes. Stein said, “Further, I may view my experiences in such a way that I no longer consider them as such, but as evidence of the transcendence of my individual and its attributes. My recollections announce my memory to me; my acts of outer perception announce the acuteness of my senses (not to be taken as sense organs, of course); my volition and conduct announce my energy, etc. And these attributes declare the nature of my individual to me. We can designate this viewing as inner perception of self (On the Problem of Empathy, 29-30).” So, when the subject perceives its own self through inner perception, it perceives its individuality and the attributes of this individuality.

Empathy, according to Edith Stein, is a sui generis form of perception. Even if it is still a perception, it is a class on its own, and therefore it is not an outer perception nor an inner perception. Empathy is the act that grasps or comprehends the other subject’s psychic life. The object, then, of empathy is the other subject. “Empathy is the form of perception in which ‘foreign experience is comprehended’ (Stein 2008). The object of empathic experience is consciousness that belongs to an I that is not the empathizer’s own (Burns, From I to You to We, 3).” In this sense, empathy would mean direct access to the experiential life of the other subject. When one empathizes with another subject, the empathizer grasps the experience of this other subject. Empathy, then, is a unique act because of the fact that the experience of the empathizer is primordial, while at the same time, the content of this experience is non-primordial. The content is non-primordial in the sense that the psychic life that is grasped is foreign in nature. Empathy, thus, is a pure act announcing the presence of another subject.

Empathy is similar to outer perception, but different from inner perception, in the sense that empathy’s object is another subject. In other words, what is being grasped through empathy is a concrete being other than oneself.

Empathy is similar to inner perception, but different from outer perception, in the sense that empathy targets the psychic life of the other subject. In other words, what is being grasped through empathy are experiences, but that these are not one’s own.

P.S. Surprise! I’m back to my blog! No need for a lengthy explanation. 🙂
P.P.S. The above text is my attempt to differentiate the three acts of perception, and therefore might be inaccurate or outright incorrect.

Empathy as a Response

Image by Ben Scherjon from Pixabay

“[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.

What I’ve Understood So Far

Just a few minutes ago, I emailed my mentor a summary of what I have understood so far in my readings. Below is the content of the doc file I attached in the email. I will now await for his comments, insights and corrections.

Sir, so far, this is the summary of what I have read and understood in my readings. I have written in words what I have made in a mind map.

Empathy is an experience of another person’s experience. So, it is first of all an experience. Indeed it is a primordial experience (coming from the “I”) of a non-primordial experience.

Is the experience here a cognition or affection? The primordial experience is a cognition, rather than affection.

If it is a cognition, is the experience an imagination, contagion, simulation, inference, or a perception? Experience is a perception.

If it is a perception, is the experience an outer perception, inner perception, or a different kind of perception? Experience is a sui generis kind of perception. This means that what is perceived by the primordial experience is not physical, but rather the emotional states of another person.

Empathy thus has its object the emotional states of another person. In other words, what is being perceived are feelings. These feelings are non-primordial in nature since they are not mine, but rather the other person’s.

Feelings have four dimensions. These are depth, reach, duration, and intensity. In depth, there are five different kinds of feelings of the other person. These are sensual feelings, general feelings, moods, spiritual feelings, and sentiments.

Only the spiritual feelings (emotions) and sentiments disclose the value systems of the other person. Spiritual feelings disclose world values, while sentiments disclose personal values.

Empathy has three levels. First level is called awareness, where I see or apprehend the person before me. This is done through the senses. The second level is called focus, where I am moved to follow the person’s emotional experience. And the third level is called comprehension, where I have a relatively complete understanding of the person’s emotional experience. Empathy, though, doesn’t have to include the three levels. I may stop on the first or second level, due to various circumstances (e.g. apathy on my part, busyness, or the other person doesn’t want to be disturbed).

Empathy has two types. The first type is sensual. The second type is emotional. Empathy always starts in the sensual type, grasping the other person’s body language. Emotional empathy may happen when I have reached the third level of empathy. The third level of empathy is said to be a springboard for emotional empathy.

I will have to read again and read more, sir. I might have misunderstood some of the concepts. I haven’t dwelt into detail the meaning of emotional empathy, the four dimensions of feelings and the kinds of feelings. I have to read about values and their connection to feelings and empathy, in general.

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).