“[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.
References: 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.
Edith Stein. Jew by birth. Catholic by conversion. Philosopher. Martyr. Saint.
Instead of posting yet another biography of Edith Stein (a great resource can be found here), what I want to post is about how her philosophy, particularly her dissertation, was affected by her life’s experience. Indeed, at the background of her great work was her personal experience.
Are We Really Alone? An online article caught my attention. The title is Edith Stein: Are We Really Alone? and was written by Jeffrey McLeod, PhD. I read the article and have gained some insights into the life of the saint. Early in the article, McLeod talked about how Edith Stein was a “rising star,” and how she, during a war, voluntarily served as a Red Cross nurse aid at a military hospital and a year after this service, wrote her dissertation. Further on, he talked about the saint’s philosophical view on empathy and the person.
“As a nurse, Edith Stein learned that we can know the inner experience of others directly. In her dissertation, based off this experience, she constructed a compelling response to modern skepticism (McLeod).”
McLeod is saying that Edith Stein’s philosophy was directly influenced by her service as a nurse aid. She didn’t write just for academic purposes. Instead, she wrote her dissertation with the inspiration and valuable insights of her service.
Edith Stein directly experienced the reality of human suffering. You can just imagine what she witnessed and went through in the hospital. There were certainly soldiers who were screaming in pain, who came with incomplete body parts, who lost so much blood, who were amputated, and who lost their consciousness. Just imagine her taking care of the sick and the wounded. Just imagine her witnessing the loss of life. She witnessed first-hand the pain, grief, suffering, and the brokenness of these soldiers.
Her dissertation On the Problem of Empathy was a product of this personal experience. She was perhaps asking how she could have a genuine experience of the patients. She certainly could feel their pain, grief, and suffering. How and why could she feel for the patients, she might have asked. The result, of course, was a phenomenological presentation of empathy as a genuine recognition of the other person’s experience, a counteraction against the prevalent view in her time that true knowledge is impossible.
Being Human Grounding in the phenomenological analysis of empathy, Edith Stein explained how a person can gain direct knowledge of another person, how an “I” can truly know another “I.” For her, this experience of another person is not a logical inference, but a truly personal experience. So, instead of a self-absorbed ego, Edith Stein presented a self that can have a genuine relationship with another self, where care is possible. For Edith Stein, this is being human. The value of her work, then, is not limited to being an academic paper. Rather, it has an immense implication about the truth of the human person and the possibility of truly human socialization.
It is also notable that her work as a nurse was voluntary. This just shows that Edith Stein really had a heart for the sick and the wounded. Her dissertation was just an academic expression of her already good heart.
Edith Stein might be a gifted intellectual, but her life indicated a truly human side of her. She didn’t only voluntarily work as a nurse, she also incorporated her insights in her dissertation.
Empathy is an “experience of foreign consciousness (Stein 1989, 11).” [emphasis added]
Just briefly, I want to explain the concept of experience because for one thing, it holds massive importance in the field of phenomenology, and another thing, it is crucial in the analysis of empathy. For Edith Stein, empathy is a sui generis experience.
“Experience, in a phenomenological sense, includes not only the relatively passive experiences of sensory perception, but also imagination, thought, emotion, desire, volition and action. In short, it includes everything that we live through or perform (Mastin).”
Phenomenologically speaking, then, experience is everything that happens interiorly in our life. When we’re thinking, sensing, desiring, deciding, this means that we are experiencing. It simply is part of our life.
If we employ the phenomenological reduction (a term that I’ll explain some other time), we’ll arrive at the fundamental structure of subject-experience-object. In this case, experience is our way of grasping the world (object). We have access to the world because we are an experiencing subject. Conversely, the world presents itself to us through experience. Experience, thus, is a fundamental part of our being-in-the-world.
So, experience is not an inward relation, even if it’s in the interior of one’s life. This means that it doesn’t exist solely for the subject, the one experiencing. Rather, it has an outward way of relation. A subject’s experience is always toward something. Thus, whenever we experience (i.e., thinking, sensing, desiring, etc.), it is always about something, an object. This is what is called intentionality, which I’ll tackle some other time.
Experience is mostly taken for granted. But if we analyze it, we’ll arrive at the recognition that it is a fundamental part of life, in which if it isn’t existing, we can’t relate with others, the environment, and the world.
“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.)
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).
I’m XhenEd, and this is my blog. I won’t state my real name here as I intend to be semi-anonymous.
This is not my first blog. I had created a few blogs in the past, but they were never successful. Hopefully, with this one, given my fresh perspective about blogging, I won’t be overwhelmed by blogging expectations.
I’m 26 years old. Single. Male. NGSB (No Girlfriend Still Blessed :p ). Religious. Simple. Quiet. Introvert. INFP. Melancholic-Choleric. Smiling person. Lover of theology and philosophy. The Feast Tagum Sunday attendee (Light of Jesus Family). Singles Light Group member. A resident of Tagum City, Davao del Norte, Philippines.
Since 2017, I’ve been a part-time College Instructor, hired to teach philosophy subjects. Mostly, I teach basic logic and ethics. But there are instances where I teach subjects not in line with philosophy. This is okay. At least, I’m learning new things.
Since 2015, I’ve been a graduate student of the Ateneo de Davao University, my alma mater. I’m currently taking up master’s in philosophy. Just last year, in September, I passed my comprehensive exam. This month, I will be enrolling for my thesis.
This blog is a personal blog. I’m keeping this to track my progress as a graduate student. It will mainly be about my thoughts on my master’s thesis. This is also to force me to write and think more deeply. There might also be documentation (photos and videos) about my thesis journey. My focus will be on St. Edith Stein’s phenomenology of empathy.
As you may have noticed, the title of the blog is Empathy. Empathy here does not connote the typical meaning. For Edith Stein, empathy is not an emotion or feeling, but an experience. Indeed, it is an experience of the other’s experience. This is the term I wish to explore. Empathy is mainly discussed in Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy, her PhD dissertation. I wish to analyze empathy and see it in the perspective of the young Edith. This is a phenomenological analysis of empathy.
If you like the saint, or like to explore her concept of empathy, or just inclined in the field of phenomenology, then you’re welcome to read my blog. Or if you just like to journey with me in my thesis writing, then feel free to be my follower. Beware, though, my blog might be very philosophical. But I do wish my blog to be interactive. You may comment on my posts. Constructive criticisms are always welcome on my blog.
Note, though, that I’m not an expert. I know much about philosophy because that’s my field, but I do not claim to be an expert. I’m a master’s student. There’s still so much to learn. Also, my apologies for my noobish blogging. I’ll try to be good at blogging, but I intend not to fall into the trap of too much expectation of blogging. I’m trying to avoid being overwhelmed again.
My goal for this blog is to see the development of my thoughts and ideas. I will post until I earn my master’s degree in philosophy.