The Primordiality of Empathy

The act of empathy is a primordial experience. It is an act that I, as the subject, do. Indeed, it is my act.

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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.

The Act of Reflection

Reflection is a special term in phenomenology. Edith Stein uses it to mean a “looking-at” the experience itself, especially of the experience of empathy.

The acts of the subject are considered experiences. Perceiving the laptop in front of me is an experience. Empathizing with my mother about the slowness of the internet connection is an experience. Reflection, itself, is an experience.

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The act of reflection does not “go out,” unlike the other acts (e.g. outer perception and empathy). Rather, it looks at the subject’s experience of the object. So, when I “reflect,” in the phenomenological sense, I am focusing on my own experience at the moment. I go out from myself to look at my experience from a certain distance.

What is unique with reflection is that it captures the relationship of the subject and its lived experience. That is why when the subject reflects, it always shows the subject’s intimacy with the experience at the moment.

Empathic Experience

In the past few days, I’ve posted the three levels of empathic experience according to Edith Stein, going through them one by one. I attempted to have a broad presentation about them. Here, I’ll summarize the three levels.

Empathic experience is not merely an awareness of the emotional states of other people. Rather, it goes through levels, which would mean that it is a lived experience. With empathy, I live through the experience of the other.

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A Summary of the Three Levels

The first level is empathic awareness. This is the start of any empathic experience. In here, I have an awareness of what the other individual is feeling. But if I follow through the other’s lead, then the experience will advance to the second level.

The second level is empathic fulfillment. This is the apex of any empathic experience. What happens here is that I would be “at” the place of the other individual, making myself as if the other. Intimacy builds here. And when this is complete, the experience advances to the third level.

The third level is empathic comprehension. This is the final phase of any empathic experience. In here, I have a relatively comprehensive knowledge of the experience of the other individual. In this level, I recognize that my experience is foreign.

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Here is one example of how these three levels play out:

While walking into the hallway of the school, I saw my friend. She was sitting on the bench, but with all smiles while reading a book. Right there and then, I knew that she’s happy (empathic awareness). I was about to walk past her because I knew that I shouldn’t disturb her.

But she was able to glance at me. She called me over while she closed the book. I could tell that her eyes were filled with joy. I sat beside her and she told me about what happened that made her elated. As I listened, I was able to understand her joy as if I was her in the situation (empathic fulfillment). I understood that she and her parents were okay now, and that they were able to hug each other.

Then after a while, I was able to “get to my senses” and comprehended her joy and the reason for that joy (empathic comprehension). I recognized that it was her unique experience. I was not living my own experience, but hers.

Then, someone called her name. It was her sister. So, she said bye.

Empathic Comprehension

In an empathic experience, I become aware of a unique experience through empathic awareness. Then, being led by this experience, I experience an intimate connection through empathic fulfillment. And when this is finished, a new level commences, which I call empathic comprehension.

For Edith Stein, there are three (3) levels of empathic experience. This would mean that empathy lets the subject go through a unique experience, so unique that Stein would say that it is sui generis.

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Empathic Comprehension

The third, and final, level of empathic experience is the “comprehensive objectification of the explained experience.” This refers to a comprehension of the unique experience of empathy. What happens here is that the subject has finished grasping the other’s experience and therefore recognize it as foreign. In other words, it is the completion of empathy where I recognize the experience as the other’s experience.

Only at this level that I become aware of the non-primordiality of the experience (i.e. the experience is not mine all along). Of course, Stein would say that there is never a fusion of the two subjects (i.e. they do not become one and the same). Nevertheless, the recognition of alterity in an empathic experience happens only at this level.

This level, thus, lets the subject return to how it was in the first level. In the first level, the subject faces the object and connects with it through empathy. Here at the third level, the subject faces the object again, but with a new kind of objectification: a comprehensive understanding of the situation of the other.

Empathic Comprehension In Practice

What does this level look like in practice?

In practice, it looks like this: when after you have “put yourself in the other’s shoes,” you as if say to yourself, “That is his problem, not mine” (of course, not in an insensitive way). There is just, thus, a recognition that the experience that you have undergone through empathy (the second level) is not yours but the other’s.

It is, then, just like coming to your senses.

P.S. A disclosure: “empathic comprehension” is my term as I describe the third level of empathic experience.

Empathic Fulfillment

Stein would say that a person’s empathic experience might stay at empathic awareness, the first level. This would probably be due to various reasons. But it can proceed to the second level if the situation permits.

For Edith Stein, there are three (3) levels of empathic experience. This would mean that empathy lets the subject go through a unique experience, so unique that Stein would say that it is sui generis.

Empathic Fulfillment

The second level of empathic experience is fulfilling explication. This refers to the intimate experience of being “at” the place of the other subject as if the subject becomes one with the other subject. In layman’s terms, this would be “putting oneself in the other’s shoes.” For Stein (p.12), this level is the “highest level of the consummation of empathy,” agreeing with Lipps.

Whereas in the first level the subject faces the other subject, in the second level the subject is at the other subject’s place.

It should be pointed out that for Stein, individuality is still preserved even in this intimate connection. Meaning to say, I do not become the other. While empathizing, I would always be myself and the other would still be a wholly other. It is just that, in empathy, I would be experiencing things as if I am in the other’s place.

Also, it should be noted that even at this level, emotional response from the subject is not warranted, and therefore may not happen. But, of course, sympathy might happen because of empathy.

Empathic Fulfillment in Practice

What does empathic fulfillment look like in practice?

Have you not experienced losing yourself (i.e., not conscious of yourself) when you were listening with your best friend? Have you never wondered that you know why a person feels this or that way? Have you not noticed that you seem to truly understand your friend’s grief over the loss of a loved one? Have you not experienced knowing the plight of a street vendor? Have you not noticed that you seem to understand the wrath your mother feels over your father?

This kind of understanding of what the other feels, as if you are the other, is what Stein calls empathy. This level is indeed the peak of the empathic experience.

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

P.P.S. A disclosure: “empathic fulfillment” is my own term as I describe the second level of empathic experience.

Empathic Awareness

For Edith Stein, there are three (3) levels of empathic experience. This would mean that empathy lets the subject go through a unique experience, so unique that Stein would say that it is sui generis.

The first of these levels is the emergence of experience. This simply refers to an awareness of a foreign experience, whatever this foreign experience is. This is the surface level of empathy because it is what happens first in the whole empathic experience.

In this level, the subject faces its object, the other subject.

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Empathic Awareness In Practice

What does this level look like in practice?

Have you never wondered how you “see” your friend as happy? Have you not experienced knowing at first glance that your sister is sad? Have you not seen your child crying in pain? Have you not noticed that your co-worker was not in the mood when she entered the door? Have you not known that your mother was excited even when she did not tell you anything yet?

All of these are cases of the first level of empathic experience. It is simply a wonderful and very unique perception of what is in the person. Yes, we see the person in the physical body. Yet, we also see his or her experiences, experiences that are truly his or her own. Precisely, this seeing of foreign experience is what Stein calls empathy.

P.S. A disclosure: “empathic awareness” is my own term as I describe the first level of empathic experience.

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).”

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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 Psycho-Physical Individual – Physical (Part 3 of 5)

The individual, for Edith Stein, is a psycho-physical individual. It is composed of the psychic, which is the unifying principle, making the individual a separate being. And it is also composed of the physical. In the individual, both are intrinsically tied to each other. Stein says, “[T]he soul is always necessarily a soul in a body (p. 41).”

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The first part of the series tackled the givenness of the living body. The second part tackled the living body and feelings. This post will tackle the Soul and Living Body, Psycho-Physical Causality.

Soul and Living Body, Psycho-Physical Causality

First off, Edith Stein reiterates that the “soul together with the living body forms the ‘psycho-physical’ individual (p. 50).” Because of this inherent connection between the two, she would say that “everything psychic is body-bound consciousness (p.49).” This simply means that anything that relates to the psychic happens within the limits of the body, for the individual is necessarily a psycho-physical individual.

Stein, then, explores the idea about spiritual feelings, another type of feeling in addition to the other types of feelings. According to Stein, spiritual feelings in their purity are “accidentally psychic and not body-bound (p. 50).” She brings an argument that states that feelings cannot be phenomenally separated from the physical, believing that all feelings are body-bound. As a counter-argument, however, she would say that spiritual feelings are separate despite that they may be accompanied by physical changes as part of psycho-physical causality. She says, “When we think the living body away, these phenomena disappear, though the spiritual act remains (p.50).” When one is frightened, for example, there would be a rush of adrenaline in the body, which would result in one’s alertness. But this does not mean that adrenaline rush is part of being frightened. Rather, the spiritual feeling of fright caused the adrenaline rush. Spiritual feelings may be found in the psycho-physical bounds, but they essentially operate in a non-somatic way.

Stein proceeds that physical experiences have a causal influence on the psychic or the soul. She would explain this with human capacities being strengthened by training or weakened by inaction (p. 51). One example she gives is when someone works on natural science, his or her “power of observation” develops. Another example of this is when a person practices his or her singing talent. But when a person stops practicing, the capacity weakens. Stein, then, contends that physical events affect the soul.

Stein, however, gives sophistication by also mentioning that there will come a time in developing the capacities that the opposite effect happens. She calls this a consequence of “habituation,” that is, when a practice becomes a habit. And when this happens, boredom or other feeling strikes, which makes the person disinterested. So instead of an increase, the training might just weaken the capacity. Stein concludes, then, that “the physical is phenomenally having an effect on the psychic (p.51).”

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

The Psycho-Physical Individual – Psychic

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I would just like to have a rough sketch of what an individual is, the subject of experience. For Stein, the individual is a psycho-physical individual. But for the purposes of analysis, I will separate the two elements of the individual, and focus on the psychic. The physical aspect is tackled here. The following are based on Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy.

The Pure I
The individual is “‘itself’ and no other.” What it is is different from the “he” or “she.” It is, thus, just a “qualityless subject of experience,” a recognition of the subject’s uniqueness. For Stein, the individual is an individual, precisely because others are facing it.

The Stream of Consciousness
The “I” is not merely a qualityless subject of experience. Instead, it is also a stream of consciousness. Stein indicates that the “I” does not have just one experience, but many experiences, past and present. An experience of the individual is set against the many experiences the individual has already gone through.

The Soul
The soul is simply the “bearer” of experiences. It is the principle of unity for all experiences of the individual. The soul characterizes the subject’s “own,” and therefore unified, consciousness, separating it from the stream of experience of others.

Empathy as a Lived Experience

One day, I heard my 4-year old niece cried so loud because her mother would go out to meet up with someone. Upon leaving, her mother asked me to assist my niece who was crying non-stop. I went to my niece who was on the floor shouting. What I did, however, was just to sit beside her.

It was my niece’s own experience. But I knew what she felt.

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Empathy is an experience of the other person’s experience. I want to focus on this experiential aspect of the act of empathy. What is unique about empathy is that it grasps the experiential attributes of the other person. I might have heard a loud cry from my niece, but without empathy, I would not have known what she felt while doing it.

Agreeing on some of Lipps’ ideas, Edith Stein would say that empathy is “a kind of act undergone (Stein 1989, 12).” This means that in empathy, the subject goes through the experience of the other person. With empathy, I do not just settle in knowing that the other person is feeling this or that. Instead, I am called to share what he or she is feeling. And if I respond in the affirmative, I would be experiencing the other person’s experience because I would be in the other person’s shoes, so to speak. This makes empathy so special.

Empathy, therefore, is a lived experience. When empathizing, I am living the experience of the other person. It is as if I am the other person, itself, experiencing. Though I still preserve my individuality, I share the feelings of the other person to the point of being one with him or her. Meaning to say, what the other person feels, I know directly. Empathy, after all, is the foundation for sympathy (feeling with).

Stein, Edith. 1989. On the problem of empathy. The Collected Works of Edith Stein. 3rd Rev. ed. Translated by Waltraut Stein. Vol 3. Washington, DC: ICS Publications.