|Sympathy and Empathy|
The notions of empathy and sympathy have a muddled history, and they are often used interchangeably. Recently, efforts at clarifying the difference have focused on empathy first and proceeded to characterize sympathy by contrast.
The contemporary philosophical conception of empathy has three aspects. If Sam empathizes with Maria’s anger, then: 1) Sam has a representation of Maria as angry; 2) Sam comes to have his empathic experience because of his representation of Maria as angry; 3) Sam’s experience involves experiencing a state that is similar to anger.
On most accounts, sympathy differs from empathy by being triggered solely by emotions that are linked with pain and involves—either as consequence or through sharing the other person’s pain—feeling sorry for the other person or wanting to alleviate the other person’s suffering. The phrases feeling with and feeling for, respectively, are often used to capture the difference between the two notions.
Concerning number one above, the main point of contention is whether it is a requirement that the representation of Maria as angry be true, or whether Sam can empathize with Maria even if Maria is not angry now. Concerning number two, the main issue is how to describe the process of coming to feel empathic because of someone else’s emotion.
Does it require imagining the other person’s emotion/situation or is it the case that a purely causal story not involving imagination sufficient for empathy? Concerning number three, the question is how to characterize the kind of affective experience empathy is.
Is it an emotion of the same type as that of the person empathized with? Or are there rather natural empathic counterpart emotions corresponding to the emotions of the person empathized with? Or does empathic experience involve having some nonemotional feelings associated with the emotion empathized?
Although all these questions are still debated, there are two points of agreement: Empathy is not an emotion, but a phenomenon concerning the way one comes to be in touch with other people’s emotions; in contrast, sympathy is, on one common conception, an emotional experience and amounts to something close to compassion.
This contemporary understanding of empathy and sympathy has had many historical precursors under various confusing names. Most of these have focused on number two (i.e. the special way in which empathic experience is caused).
Benedict de Spinoza’s theory of affect imitation and David Hume’s principle of sympathy, both central to these authors’ conceptions of moral agency, exemplify the view that a fundamental trait of humanity resides in its capacity to experience other people’s affects simply through the process of imagining these people experiencing these affects. The Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, held a similar view although his focus was on imagining other people’s situations rather than affects.
|Benedict de Spinoza|
The concept of empathy became prominent at the turn of the nineteenth century in German psychology and philosophy. It played an important role in elucidating human creatures’ emotional engagement with the arts and how they come to interpret and understand each other as psychological beings.
It was in this context that the term empathy itself was coined to translate the German word Einfühlung (i.e., “to feel one’s way into”). Edmund Husserl, his student Edith Stein, and later Max Scheler are three philosophers whose contributions have shaped our present understanding of empathy.
In particular, they each offered a particular elucidation of number three, insisting, each in their own way, that empathic experience cannot be of the same sort as the feeling that is the object of the empathic experience. Empathizing with someone who is angry would thus not involve oneself being angry, although it might involve the feelings associated with anger.
Interest in empathy and sympathy—and the broader interest in psychological simulation—has recently been driven by the thought that these phenomena are keys to the understanding of the development of moral agents.
The idea—associated with a Humean take on morality— is that empathy is the most important source of one’s understanding of others as beings with joys and sufferings directly dependent on the way one treats them.
Hence the thought that moral sentiments and moral agency stem from a capacity to empathize with others. Contemporary empirical research on empathy has reinforced this idea. So has the existence of people (psychopaths) lacking both empathy and moral concern.
However, the existence of people suffering from the same deprivation (some high-functioning autistic people) but manifesting a clear concern with morality suggests that empathy might only be a significant aid to moral growth, but not a necessary component of it.