Saturday, November 20, 2010

Empathy, Schmempathy

"Empathy is no more than a recent invention drawn from the fields of philosophy and art appreciation theory, which somehow enjoys special prominence in modern culture," notes Zac Alstin — Obama’s empathy problem.

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Blogger Carl M. said...

I find it strange that you're publishing this link without any commentary. Empathy is not the same as jen, but it's a major component of it. Jen is both a feeling and a quality of one's character, but in an important way, it means the ability to feel an affection for others based on the principle of not doing to others what you would not want done to yourself. You serve those above you as you would be served and govern those below you as you would be governed. How can one do this without the ability to feel what it would be like to be the other person?

Even if you're just unhappy with the overly talismanic power of the word "empathy" we can find Confucius quoted using 同情 in the Greater Record of the Rites, where the Duke of Ai asks him about being worthy man. Confucius answers, "所謂賢人者,好惡與民同情,取舍與民同統 Those who are called worthy men love and hate in empathy with the people; they take and discard in unity with the people."

7:54 AM  
Blogger mcmlxix said...

Per the article, empathy is based on difference and sympathy is based on sameness.

This is what has always confused by about identity politics. To quote Principal Skinner, "No, no, no! It's the differences of which there are none that makes the sameness exceptional. Just tell me what to say!"

10:35 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Well said. I should have perhaps elaborated. Jen, is, of course, and ancient word, and the author notes that empathy is quite a modern one, which raises my suspicions.

When the word "empathy" is spoken, I think of Bill Clinton's eyes watering as he talks to the worker whose job his policies just offshored.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Carl M. said...

In that case the problem is that people who use the word "empathy" are lying about feeling it, but having empathy is still a good thing. Make right the names! 正名!

6:56 PM  
Blogger Carl M. said...

Hmm, perhaps part of the way to fix the name is to go back to using "compassion" for suffering with another the same feeling. It was probably this shift which made the word empathy necessary.

7:01 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

"正名!" Rectify them names!

7:14 PM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


When I hear "empathy," I think of the late 50s movie Funny Face. Audrey Hepburn plays an intellectual bookworm who believes in a fictional French philosopher's teachings about "empathy." She goes to Paris to meet him and is all star-struck until she finds out he's in it for the cute groupies. =P

12:23 AM  
Blogger Zac said...

Greetings, and thanks for the great comments.

Rectify the names indeed!

Carl M.

Empathy is 'in + feeling', whereas sympathy is 'together + feeling'. 同情 translates as 'sympathy' in my dictionary, and likewise breaks down into 'together/same + feeling'.

My underlying point of view is that words are under pressure to reflect reality accurately. Old words like sympathy have stood the test of time and often carry philosophical or psychological ramifications.

New words like empathy...let's just say I'm wary of them. Empathy itself was invented to serve a purpose within the philosophy of aesthetics in the late 19th Century. It evolved into a phenomenological concept, but has since been replaced by the term 'mindreading' in modern philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

I think the danger in using unreliable words - ones that don't actually reflect reality - is that it undermines our ability to think clearly and argue effectively.

Apparently, compassion:

is originally just the latin form of the greek 'sympathy':

I think both compassion and sympathy in particular should be reclaimed.



10:08 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Thanks, Zac, for the comments on your article.

12:53 PM  

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