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What is Empathy?

Though Husserl has a traditional and largely prejudicial Enlightenment view of animals as objects to be used or studied, he does remark at various places that empathy is possible across species, thereby tempering his own view of animals as simply objects in the world like other objects. Arun Iyer observes,

Empathy, for Husserl, is not confined to beings that experience the world with an identical level of sophistication. Rather empathy can extend itself across species irrespective of their stage of intellectual development. Husserl actually claims that human beings can empathize with jellyfish.

The analogical distance between the two empathizing subjects has no effect on the possibility of empathy.3

Dermot Moran notes that bodily movement is also required for us to understand how other animals experience the world:

Other subjects—including some animals—turn or tilt their heads in order to see, reach out to touch, shrink in fear, and so on. Husserl does not address the limits of this apperceptive analogization. He does seem to think we could not understand a living organism without a sense of its self-movement as somehow—no matter how different physiologically— paralleling our movements. We can get a sense even of a jellyfish’s propulsion through the water by watching its movements.4

Critics of empathy, including Martin Heidegger, have rightly pointed out that the phenomenological approach to empathy is anthropocentric, but work has been done to show that the classic distinction between higher and lower animals must not be read as speciesist. Christiane Bailey argues that the aforementioned distinction must not be read in terms of the difference between “primitive” and “higher order” animals, but as the phenomenological difference between familiar and unfamiliar animals.5 Though acts of empathy deal with our own consciousness, this does not mean that we cannot understand what others are feeling, including our companion animals. There are limits to empathy; for example, it can never give us full and complete understanding of other minds, and it never allows us to experience, in an identical fashion, what others are feeling or living through: there is no fusion/identity of minds, or what phenomenologists and psychologists calls an Einsfuhlung. Furthermore, the notion of higher- and lower- order animals, as developed in much of modern philosophy, must be bracketed here, especially when it comes to the discussion of the value or worth of animals; rather, we can compare differences in brain structure and complexity of development, thereby allowing us to speak of a wider- or focused-range of brain function relative to various animals, including ourselves and our companion animals.

So, what is empathy? Both Husserl and Stein conceive of empathy as a conscious act of mind in which one subject comes to understand the mind of another by analogously comparing what one experiences about the other with one’s own understanding of oneself. For example, I can understand that another person is sad because when I first perceive the other’s long face, subdued manner, and suffering voice, I inadvertently compare what I perceive with my own experience of sadness and I recognize the other’s sadness as similar to my own. Stein describes this kind of analogizing as “bringing the other into relief,” whereas Husserl calls it “trading places.” Both phenomenologists would never claim that one feels the very same sadness as the other’s: no identification with the other is possible. Rather, one experiences a sense or meaning that conveys an understanding of the other’s sadness. But the sense (Sinn) achieved by empathy is not only a matter of cognition: it requires and is deeply conditioned by embodiment, indexicality of place or space, language, psychic affect, and values.

In order for empathy to happen, we need to explain how various layers of the constitution of human beings come to condition the ultimate achievement of cognition through acts of empathy, understood as the grasping of the sense of the conscious experience of another person. What, then, is an empathic act? Stein believes, as does Husserl, that empathy allows one to become inwardly aware and understand the consciousness of the foreign I. Stein believes that empathy, understood as an act, is an experiential act suigeneris that is “primordial as present experience though non-primordial in content.”6 Empathy is not like any other act of consciousness. It is peculiar unto itself. One does not experience the consciousness of the other as one would the lamp resting on the desk next to the computer. Empathic acts are marked by a doubleness, a primordiality and a non-primordiality.

In order to explain what she means by the distinction between primordial (Originaritat) and non-primordial (Nicht-Originaritat), Stein gives the example of a man who is saddened by the death of his brother. Stein perceives the man’s long face, his countenance, and the pain. But the objects of her perceptions, namely, the sadness and the pain, are not objects of outer experience, that is, they are not things in the world like a cat or an inkwell, and they are not given to her immediately, as I am to myself. She recognizes them in the other only by perceiving the other. They do not belong to the proper sphere of her ownness. She does not experience the other’s sadness as if it were her own actual sadness, identical with her own sadness. Stein says it is only when “I try to bring another’s mood to clear givenness to myself, the content, having pulled me into it ... [that] I am no longer turned to the content but to the object of it, am at the subject of the content in the original subject’s place” (Emp., 10).7 In an empathic act, I feel myself in the other’s place. I know the experience of the other as my own because I have entered into or have found myself “living” the other’s experience of pain. There is a kind of exchange that takes place; in a sense, the other’s experience is transferred to me. What is primordial is the co-givenness of the other as other, yet my experience of the other’s pain is always experienced non-primordially. “The other subject is primordial although I do not experience it as primordial. In my non-primordial experience I feel, as it were, led by a primordial one not experienced by me but still there, manifesting itself in my non-primordial experience” (Emp., 11). Hence, empathy is described as led and not absolutely projected. Ultimately, empathy is basic for the understanding of intersubjective experience (Emp., 64), including the intersubjective experience between humans and companion animals. For example, we can understand what our companion animals are experiencing insofar as we can make sense of and understand our own experiences that we judge to be similar to those of our companion animals. So, for example, we understand our own apprehension and anxiety when visiting the doctor. Likewise, when we see our companion animals behaving in an uncomfortable fashion at the veterinarian’s office, we can rightfully understand their experience as similar to our own: we understand that our companions are feeling anxious and afraid.

What are some of the principal forms of empathy that humans and companion animals can share? Stein’s descriptions start from more basic kinds of acts (e.g., the awareness of sense experience) and move to higher order (spiritual) acts like the understanding of another’s motivations or reasoning, and they are much like the descriptions we find in Husserl’s IdeasII.8 Stein begins by outlining three basic ways in which empathy can be achieved: through sensation, emotion, and bodily expression. In the analysis of sensation, she begins with an analysis of the body. The living body (Leib) is not given to me by external perception; rather, the material body (Korper) is given to me in such a fashion, for when I turn my head and look at my hand, I see a hand extended in space possessing certain dimen- sions.9 As long as I can see and touch, my material body is given to me as an object. “As long as I have my eyes open at all, it is continually there with a steadfast obtrusiveness, always having the same tangible nearness as no other object has. It is always ‘here’ while other objects are always ‘there’ ” (Emp., 42). But if I block out all perceptual sensation, external perception cannot give me my material body. For example, if I close my eyes and extend my arms in such a fashion that I can neither touch nor be touched, I do not perceive anything with my senses as I would if I were touching something. My material body is not given to me as an object that I observe. However, even if I do this sensuous experiment, I cannot deny the presence of my body as “my” living body. This living body perpetually belongs to me. It is given originally in perception.

The sensations of pain or cold are just as absolutely given as the experiences of willing, judging, and perceiving. Sensations, however, are peculiar in that they do not radiate from the I of consciousness as in acts of judgment, willing, and perception, insofar as sensations do not take on the form of a cogito in which the I turns toward an object. Sensation is localized in a certain space somewhere at a distance from the I. One can never find the ego in this space through reflection; nevertheless, this space is not an empty space. “All these entities from which my sensations rise are amalgamated into a unity, the unity of my living body, and they are themselves places in the living body” (Emp., 42). Stein clarifies what she means when she claims that in sensation there is a distance between the ego and the space in which the sensation is localized in consciousness. This distance is mediated by the ego as the zero-point of orientation. In the cogito, the ego of the cogito is immediate, whereas in the sensation of coldness, the feeling of coldness is not rooted in the ego as the zero-point of orientation; it is rooted somewhere else like my foot, my leg, and so forth (Emp., 43).

In addition to experiences of sensation giving one a sense of the lived body, Stein believes that sensations are not isolated events or moments. They also open up fields of sensation (Emp., 44). Fields of sensation are more general experiences of the specifically sensed experience. For example, I may experience the hardness of the table against my body when I hit it. The sensation of hardness is localized in my body and in the table; however, in addition to this specific feeling of hardness being localized in my body, I also form a general concept of “hardness” by which I can judge other experiences (Emp., 44-45). Hence, we know the specifically localized as well as the more general experience of hardness. Like Husserl, Stein affirms the connection between ego and body, but Stein also wishes to affirm a distance between them as well. In sensation, not only do I feel pain, but my foot also feels pain. There is a doubleness in sensation affecting both the I and the localized point of sensitivity.

The experience of the other’s bodily sensation is achieved through analogy. What permits me to understand the other’s sensations is an analogizing. I understand in my own experience of my own ego and its various lived experiences a certain sensation. I also know analogously the feeling of the other, including our companion animals, because of my own experience. I understand the other’s experience with reference to my own similar experience. But my experience is not identical to the experience of the other and vice versa (Emp., 59).

It is within this discussion of analogizing that Stein introduces and briefly describes another way, besides analogy, by which the ego apprehends the foreign consciousness of the other. She refers to empathic representation (Emp., 57-58). Representational empathy refers to the way “fields of sensation” come to givenness. Hence, the only way the field of sensation called “pain” comes to be understood mutually without the pain being specifically localized in the living bodies of the ego or the other is through a re-presentation of the field of sensation from memory. The field of sensation is not being experienced by either party directly, “here and now,” localized in space, yet they may understand what each means by the general experience of pain through a kind of recollection or re-presentation of their own field of sensation.10 One can get a better picture as to what Stein intends by returning to Husserl, who makes the distinction between straight and oblique empathy.11

The aforementioned discussion of empathized sensations permits us to seize what our companion animals may be experiencing insofar as we analogically compare and introject our own sensations and analogically compare those of our companion animals with our own. Sensation allows us to experience ourselves as embodied, to feel specific sensations, like heat and cold, and it allows us to experience fields of sensations. If we accept Stein’s account of empathy and if we also accept Husserl’s clam that empathy can work across species, then presumably we do have access to the sensations of our companion animals as well. For example, we know that dogs and cats feel excessive cold and heat, much like we do, and we respond accordingly to alleviate the extremes of such feelings in our companion animals, trying to provide comfort to them.

Feelings and emotions are phenomena that also enable the ego to enter into the life of consciousness of the other, including our companion animals. Sensations are different from acts of reason (e.g., simple deductions) because sensation is localized at a distance from the conscious ego, whereas in acts of reason there is no such localization of the cogito other than immediately in ego consciousness. For example, a feeling of pain may be localized in my foot as well as in my consciousness of the sensation of pain. In the case of emotions and feelings, when they are experienced, not only do they have an object, but they also dwell and spring forth from the depths of the “I.”

Not all emotions and feelings are the same, nor are they experienced to the same degree. There are also feelings and emotions that have other people as their objects. Such feelings include love, hate, and vengeance (Emp., 101). One can feel these emotions and feelings to greater or lesser degrees, with greater or lesser depth.

Stein sees the theme of bodily expression as relevant to the discussion of empathy. Husserl also believes that bodily expression is a phenomenon that facilitates empathy (Ideas II, 247). The understanding of bodily expression is based on understanding the foreign body as “already interpreted” as a living body of an “I” (Emp., 82). Bodily expressions often communicate various sensations and emotive states. The experience of a body as an I is a primary experience given to us immediately. In order to understand the other’s bodily expression, I simply “project” my experience into it, thereby recognizing it as similar to my own. “I project myself into the foreign living body, carry out the experience already co-given to me as empty with its countenance, and experience the experience ending in this expression” (Emp., 82). Here, empathy is described as projection, but recall that one is led first by the immediate presence of the other, led in such a way that one projects oneself into the other’s place. Projection is never absolute.

The discussion of projection must be clarified. Before Stein can project herself back into the experience of the other, she has to have already recognized or understood the other’s experience within her own sphere of immanence, namely, the sphere of the ego. The mere projection into the other (without reference to the ego as the zero-point of orientation) is not how acts of empathy are generally constituted. Husserl speaks more of analogical transfer than projection, but the sense in which Stein uses projection is in line with other descriptions of the analogiza- tion that takes place between the ego and the other. I understand the meaning of certain bodily expressions and what they may reveal about the other first through my own experience, which serves as the basis for understanding the experience of the other as expressed in body language. Hence, the experience of the other’s joy as expressed in the other’s smile is understood only as an expression of joy insofar as I am able to recognize such an experience within my own sphere of experience. There is a seizing of one through the other, an “Ineinandergrefen.”12 I then perceive the expression of joy through the smile, as a given only after I see the similarity between my experience of a joyous smile and the experience of the other.

We often will draw from our experiences of emotions in order to understand what another may be similarly experiencing. When we see a change in our companion animal’s habitual behavior—for example, a dog’s sign of elation at the prospect of her early-morning walk suddenly becomes lethargy or fatigue—we can infer that our companion animal may not be well and that a visit to the veterinarian’s office is in order. Empathy across species can only work insofar as we understand the behavior of various species, including expressive bodily gestures that communicate moods, emotions, sensations, and so forth. But these alone are not enough, at least not for Husserl and Stein: we need to be able to analogize our feelings of similar moods and affects in order to enter into the specific lives of our companion animals: empathy allows us to personalize and feel into the life of our companion animals rather than just permitting us to give objective descriptions of them.

The final distinguishing feature of Stein’s description of empathic acts is her awareness of the significance of empathy for the constitution of our own person. Empathy is vital in that it helps us value ourselves. “By empathy with differently composed personal structures we become clear on what we are not, what we are more or less than others. Thus, together with self-knowledge, we also have an important aid to self-valuing” (Emp., 116). In understanding the consciousness of another, including that of our companion animals, and because such understanding mostly refers back to the ego’s own sphere of immanent awareness or consciousness, we see how we are unlike the other or how we are similar. We can see difference as well as similitude.

For example, in empathic acts concerning value, the very experience of value is very basic to our own value. When new values are acquired through empathy, one’s own unfamiliar values become visible. If I experience industriousness in another person, I may see how lazy I have been in comparison to the other even though I understand what industriousness as a value means in my own, immediate egological sphere of concrete immanence. I may have known what it was to be industrious, but my valuing of that particular value changes when I see a new, greater degree of industriousness before me in the other. One sees how one lacked understanding or familiarity in the past now that a new value is acquired (Emp., 116). Empathy, then, does not only concern understanding or inner awareness proper, but also may affect the shape of our lives by the values we accept or reject through empathy. Another example can be seen when we observe the attachments of our companion animals to certain pieces of furniture, toys, or the layout of a home. Animals value or care about these things, and when they are taken away or moved, they sometimes become distraught. Through analogization of empathy, we can understand what it is for our companion animals to care about and lose something that is valuable to them. In short, empathy is not only constituted, but also constitutes who we are vis-a-vis ourselves and others.

The innovation that Stein introduces here is that empathy explains our capacity to understand our own personal value and the personal value of another by the very fact that empathy makes the I stand in relief to the other. In other words, the very act of empathy itself makes visible such differences and facilitates an understanding of the values that we attach to the similarities and differences that are essential in the individual and communal lives of both the ego and the other. Empathy not only allows us to understand others and ourselves but also facilitates the sharing of values of the ego and the other.

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