Fragments on Empathy

Recent conversations with strong individuals have prompted me to post some fragments from a paper that I started writing last year but never completed, nor refined. The original structure of the paper was meant to a. lay out the problem, b. provide a historical context, c. map the historical context onto the contemporary debate, d. show how the relevant connections provide insight. I only made it through an abbreviated laying out of the problem and a rough historical overview. Comments would be most welcome:

The Problem
The fundamental issue at hand is the need to reconcile two strongly contrasting intuitions regarding social perception. The first is that an essential property of mental states is that they are not accessible. Prima facie, the way I know about your mental state is fundamentally different from the way I perceive medium sized objects. The second is that the mental states of others, in some basic sense, are directly perceivable, and that understanding the expressive behavior of others is neither a matter of theorizing about it nor sequential processes of simulation and projection. The first intuition evokes Cartesian conceptions of the mental, while the second echoes Wittgenstein’s anti-Cartesian challenge: “Do you look within yourself, in order to recognize the fury in his face?” (Wittgenstein 1980, sect. 927).
Phenomenologists are quick to invoke Wittgenstein’s blunt common sense approach, but their discussions of social perception can result in puzzling conceptual formulations. Gallagher and Zahavi, for instance, claim “that the expressive relation between mental phenomena and behavior is stronger than that of a mere contingent causal connection, though weaker than that of identity” (Gallagher & Zahavi 2008, 185). What could this mean? How are we to conceive of such a relation? I appreciate this attempt to balance the aforementioned contrasting intuitions, but in order for phenomenological considerations to be significant, further conceptual clarification is needed.
In order to provide the necessary clarification, first we need to identify the concepts that are causing the confusion. Clearly, the concept ‘expression’ is crucial to the debate, as it provides the link between observable behavior and private mental states. But if we begin to explore this concept, we find that our ability to discern our own mental states becomes caught up in any debate about how to discern the mental states of others. As Davidson has pointed out, “If the mental states of other are known only through their behavioral…manifestation, while this is not true of our own mental states, why should we think our own mental states are anything like those of others?” (Davidson 2001, 207). Thus, if phenomenology is dedicated to studying consciousness from the first person perspective, it may appear that it has nothing to contribute to an account of social perception.

The problem of social perception is nothing new in philosophy. Indeed, “the problem of other minds” is at least as old as Descartes. However, the contemporary debate between phenomenology and ‘analytic’ theories of mind can be made clearer by examining a very similar debate that was ongoing around the turn of the 20th century.
The concept of ‘expressivity’ did much of the heavy lifting in early explanations of how phenomena with both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality are adequately grasped. At the turn of the century, philosophers, psychologists, and historians all saw empathy (einfühlung) and understanding (Verstehen) as intimately related concepts, both of which dealt with how we are able to grasp the ‘inner’ or ‘spiritual’ reality of something based on its ‘outer’ manifestation. Theodore Lipps, saw empathy as an especially important concept for explaining how aesthetic experience is constituted as meaningful. In Lipps (1903), our ability to understand and appreciate the beauty of external objects is directly linked to our ability to recognize other subjects as having minds. Lipps drew this connection “since for him the paradigm of beauty for human is the form, movement, and expressivity of the human body itself” (Steuber 2006, 7). This led Lipps to infer the existence of an underlying sub-personal mechanism that allows for the noninferential and quasi-perceptual character of aesthetic experience (ibid). Lipps characterized this sub-personal mechanism as ‘inner imitation’, and his primary intention was to causally explain why it is that we “move our legs when we see dancing” and “…” [citation needed].
While Lipps was interested in explaining the causal genesis of empathy through the function of basic sub-personal processes, other thinkers described empathy as a higher-level cognitive process. The early theorists in the hermeneutic tradition, namely Schleiermacher and Dilthey, also linked einfühlung and Verstehen, but had aims different from Lipps’. Schleiermacher saw empathy as the ability to understand other minds by imagining ourselves in various contexts [cite Scheleiermacher 1998, p. 92]. Dilthey expanded on this description, but opted for the term ‘reexperiencing’ (Nacherleben) to capture the methodological procedure of understanding others, guided by a variety of historical sources and by our knowledge of the general political, economic, social, and psychological state of affairs relevant for an adequate grasp of a particular historical time [cite Dilthey 1981, 172, 175-176]. As Steuber points out, “It was Dilthey’s…complete ‘psychologization’ of the interpretive process that made possible the common identification of the concept of understanding and empathy that we find at the beginning of the twentieth century” (2006, 11).
Stepping back for a moment, before examining Stein/Husserl’s phenomenological critique of the then prevailing views of empathy/understanding, we can see that at the turn of the century a similar twofold distinction within the concept of empathy was already taking shape. Taking Lipps as paradigmatic, one side of this distinction developed the concept of empathy as part of a psychological-causal-genetic account of what processes must take place within an individual when social perception occurs. The other side of this distinction, as exemplified by the hermeneutic tradition inaugurated by Schleiermacher and Dilthey, conceived of empathy as a highly cognitive process involved in interpreting the meaning of the signs, marks, and artifacts created by others. Lipps was interested understanding what sub-personal processes could cause social perception. Schleiermacher and Dilthey were interested in the personal processes that could allow for understanding others from disparate places and times. Before even considering what phenomenology might add to this characterization, it is noteworthy that contemporary empathy theorists have already mapped this framework onto the contemporary TT/ST debate. Steuber (2006) sees recent neurobiology as supporting Lipps’ conception of empathy, referring to this sub-personal, underlying causal mechanism as ‘basic empathy’—which he distinguishes from ‘reenactive empathy’, which allows us to “conceive of another person’s more complex social behavior as the behavior of a rational agent who acts for a reason,” which corresponds to the more robust concept of empathy developed in the hermeneutic tradition (20-21).
Edith Stein’s 1916 doctoral dissertation under Edmund Husserl, Zum Problem der Einfühlung (On The Problem of Empathy, trans. 1989) explores empathy as a phenomenon sui generis. On Stein’s account, Lipps’ theory of ‘inner imitation’ confuses social perception, or perception of ‘foreign experience’, with self-experience, or that which is ‘primordially given’. Her basic claim is that Lipps’ theory characterizes empathy as ‘convergence’ or ‘an experience of oneness’ between observer and what is observed. One way to understand this is by highlighting the difference between a memory and a flashback. When one has a memory, one perceives an experience that is no longer present. When one has a flashback, one experiences an experience as if it were literally present. In Stein’s terms, memory (along with fantasy) is an example of non-primordial experience—the subject has an experience of an experience that is not ‘fully given’ in the way that my present experience of my direct surroundings are given to me. A flashback, on the other hand, differs from a memory precisely because this line between non-primoridal and primordial experience is blurred. Empathy, in Stein’s sense, “can only be the non-primordial experience which announces a primordial one” (Stein 1989, 13-14). The potentially traumatic effects of a flashback are possible insofar as one is having an experience which is indistinguishable from the present, fully given experience typical of everyday perception. Thus, empathy shares the structure of memory and fantasy, whereas Lipps’ characterization of ‘inner imitation’ too easily leads to a conception of empathy having the same structure as flashback.
Lipps may also be understood as having confused the concepts of empathy and sympathy. Stein is careful to note that sympathy is a primordial experience whereas empathy is not, however this does not preclude the possibility of the two experiences coinciding. For example, there is a difference between my perceiving the grief in your facial expression and my feeling that grief. My empathetic perception of your grief may lead me to attribute a mental state to you, and it may serve as the basis for my theorizing about the larger context of your grief; but at no point is it necessary to this experience that I myself feel grief. If you are my friend or loved one, and I perceive that you are grieving, I myself, as someone who cares for your well-being, may also feel grief. But this primordial feeling of grief that I now have is better characterized as sympathy, or feeling with the other, and not empathy. Thus it is common for therapists to speak of the importance being empathetic while remaining unsympathetic. The job of the therapist is to understand the mental states of the other without being affected by them.
Lipps’ talk of ‘oneness’ and ‘convergence’ are especially problematic if carried out to its logical conclusion—telepathy. For if I truly was to ‘feel your pain’, the distinction between us as separate egos would be entirely erased. If I feel your pain as you feel it, then does it even make sense to call this empathy? The phenomenon we set out to explain, under the name ‘empathy’, was the phenomena whereby I am somehow aware of your mental states. If I am experiencing your mental states qua you and not qua I, this is not empathy.


Recent Work

In this paper I will explain how the notions of necessity, a priority, and analyticity have traditionally been related in light of the classical notion of a concept. This notion has its roots in Gottlob Frege’s notion of a sense, and his division of reality into three realms. I will show that the Fregean view of how language relates to reality is difficult to maintain in light of an example put forward by Keith Donnellan. Both Donnellan and Hilary Putnam retain the Fregean view, leading to unsatisfying conclusions regarding the nature of necessity.
Frege divides reality into three distinct “realms.” The first two are relatively familiar: the outer world (public objects perceiveable by the five senses that exist independently of anyone’s thinking or perceiving) and the inner world (private ideas that are imperceptible to the five senses and depend for their existence on the subjective life of a thinker). Frege’s third realm consists of senses, which are not perceivable with the five senses, yet are public and exist independently.
A sense is a unique way that an object is presented to a thinker. On Frege’s account of language, the meaning of a term includes both its sense and its referent. A referent is what the term picks out in the world, and the sense is the unique way a referent is presented. For example, the terms ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’ refer to the same object in the world (Venus), but have different senses—i.e., they pick out the referent in unique ways. Properly understood, a term expresses a sense and refers to an object. The sense determines the object.
A thought is the sense of a sentence, constituted by the senses of its terms. A thought, in virtue of its representational character, is “something for which the question of truth can arise at all” (Frege 36). That is, thoughts are about something other than themselves—namely, the stuff and structure of the world. Thus, philosophers who take a Fregean view of language attempt to analyze the properties of thoughts in order to learn about the structure of the world.
Fregean senses “embody” or “contain” what C.I. Lewis calls criteria of application. For Lewis, the criteria of application for a term, t, is the set of sensible features that determine the appropriate application of t. These features are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be appropriately called t. The classical notion of a concept is a mental representation of these conditions. Thus, while technically different, for this paper it will be sufficient to think of senses and concepts as uniquely characterizing sets of conditions.
For Lewis, we can reflect on the senses of terms and discover inclusion relations. For example, if we reflect on the sense of ‘square’ and the sense of ‘rectangle’, we find that the criteria of application for ‘square’ already include the criteria of application for ‘rectangle’. Thus, we come to know the necessary truth expressed by (1) “All squares are rectangles”. Necessity is a metaphysical property, characterizing features of the world and its structure. Necessary features must be the case, as opposed to contingent features, which could vary. One can know the necessity of (1) a priori as opposed to a posteriori. This is an epistemological distinction. A posteriori knowledge depends on sense experience, whereas (1) can be known simply by understanding the meanings of ‘square’ and ‘rectangle’, requiring no sense experience. Furthermore, (1) is analytic, and not synthetic. This is a semantic distinction, characterizing language and its relation to the world. Sentences that are true in virtue of the rules of language are analytic. Sentences that require something nonlinguistic to make them true are synthetic.
The concurrence of necessity, a priority, and analyticity is a feature of the Fregean view of language in which senses determine objects. If we consider Donnellan’s example, (2) “All whales are mammals”, we see that the Fregean view encounters difficulties. On this view we should see that (2) is analytic by reflecting on ‘whale’ and ‘mammal’, grasp the inclusion relations therein, and know a priori that (2) expresses a necessary truth. However, a sailor who clearly understands what ‘whale’ means, and can accurately identify whales without fail, may very well never know that all whales are mammals. The sailor’s sense of ‘whale’ is something like ‘large, oblong sea creature with a blowhole’. Clearly the sense of ‘whale’ does not include the criteria of application for ‘mammal’ if we consider the sailor a competent speaker. Now suppose that some of the creatures we have been calling whales turn out not to have mammary glands, precluding them from being called mammals. Are these creatures still whales? Does (2) still express a necessary truth?
Donnellan and Putnam both say this example confronts us with a choice about how we use language. On their Fregean view, what determines what a whale is is not distinct from what ‘whale’ means. If what we speak about is mediated by senses, then what a whale is is determined by the sense of ‘whale’. If we base our answer to the question of whether to call these new creatures whales on the sense of ‘whale’, there are metaphysical consequences; for (2) would no longer be necessary, and necessity is a metaphysical property. Thus, we are faced with the paradoxical conclusion that necessary truths can somehow change. Alternatively, we might base our answer on the nature of the creatures themselves, in which case these creatures without mammary glands are not whales.


Ad(ded) Sense

I can hardly watch TV without constantly flipping channels. I suppose I am a child of the postmodern, or some Deleuzian symptom has got the best of me. In any case, one of my favorite past times has become flipping between Fox News and MSNBC. I have come to view both as theater at this point, and just because I lean left politically doesn't mean that I don't find the way things are presented on MSNBC to be equally absurd. Take last night for instance:

Fox- Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton bearing their souls on the right to free expression, Beck trying to liken Tea Partiers to Civil Rights Movement participants (in itself laughable). However, just as I'm shedding a tear and actually feeling as though these two men are on to something: commercial for adult onset ADHD ("Are you dumb?- take these pills!" - a recurring theme we shall find).

Flip back to MSNBC: in perfect juxtaposition, MSNBC is airing an ad for the New York Times weekender subscription! ("Are you very literate, and very cultured?- buy this!")

Back to Fox- effervescent hot tub ad with old lady moaning in delight in the tub- 'nuff said.

MSNBC- "Do you like bourgeois sports?- buy this satellite TV SOCCER package!"

Haha, at this point, let's take stock. We have one view enjoying his NY Times with soccer on in the background, and another soaking in a hot tub to relieve pain while popping attention pills to be less dumb.

back to Fox- boner pills- (what else?)

MSNBC- get your masters from so-and-so

This rounds out the picture nicely. Now back to the programing:

MSNBC- the greatness of Obama’s nuclear treaty, likening it to Reagan’s (a common MSNBC tactic: "Hey conservatives, you may hate Obama, but Obama is being like Reagan, so now you say you hate Reagan- you're hypocrites! Haha, we got you!")

Flip back to Fox: Beck has a blackboard out and says “anti-capitalist ‘world-wide workers’” “radicals” “Marxist” and “communists” and “in the white house” in one sentence. (Even better is Beck's delivery. He has a way of throwing his hands up and shrugging while jutting his lower lip out into your living room. "He's so earnest!")

MSNBC- Rupert Murdoch being trashed by Rachel Maddow and a pundit from the Huffington Post.

Fox- hands free cell phone device commercial- “Jupiter Jack”

MSNBC- Boo Tea Party!

All of this went on for half an hour. And originally I turned on the TV to hear some news about Kyrzgstan and see some images of revolt. Not mentioned once. (And yes, I checked CNN, they were busy outsourcing their news coverage to Twitter- cf. Jon Stewart on this issue).


Philosophy in Play

Having just read the first dialogue of my professor Ermanno Bencivenga's Philosophy in Play, I thought it was worth sharing some of the best passages:

"...any action can be located in an indefinite number of contexts, of different (spatiotemporal) width, where different choices turn out to be natural. If the context of my present behavior is limited to myself and the last five minutes, an ontology of tables may be the most natural one, whereas if it's to be understood as mankind facing the world during this century, it may be just as natural to put it in terms of particles. So, instead of solving the problem, a reference to the context seals its mystery, for in order to use the expression "the context" meaningfully one must postulate the very act of choice among infinitely many alternatives that reference meant to account for" (29).

"I said that the presence of philosophers is advantageous for the community, but this doesn't mean--as one often thinks--that it's advantageous for it to have official institutions where philosophers can work...Because an institution must be something definite, with a set of rules, with well-defined "institutional" tasks, established once and for all...But here we're talking about a practice that contradicts all definitions , denies all boundaries, mocks all prohibitions. We're talking about a way of 'articulating' ideas that might frighten the very people who had the ideas in the first place...Indeed its a commonplace that philosophy is never done at the philosophy department...Which doesn't mean that the people doing philosophy shouldn't work and be paid in a department; in my opinion, however, they do philosophy precisely to the extent that they remain at the margins of the tasks for which they are paid, or even oppose them...Articulating a new philosophy is a value in itself, and if in order to convince people to do so it's necessary to use the rhetorical artifice of referring to the difficulties of the old philosophy then let there be artifice, let there be rhetoric, let those lies come forth that will earn us heaven" (43-44, my emphasis).