Empathy in the Context of Philosophy Reviewed by Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray

Review – Empathy in the Context of Philosophy
by Lou Agosta
Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Review by Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray
Jan 31st 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 5)

With Empathy in the Context of Philosophy, Lou Agosta seeks to make a philosophical contribution to the debate on what empathy is, a debate that has often taken place mainly in the psychological arena.  While this topic enjoyed its academic hay-day nearly 100 years ago, he tells us discussions about the nature and experience of empathy are making a comeback.  Agosta sees humankind entering a new empathetic age, brought on by such things as discoveries in neurology and discussions in the media about the fitness about Supreme Court judges (the vetting process includes investigating if the individual has too little or too much empathy), however the core problem from a century ago remains: empathy was never definitively settled, and thus we still don’t know what it is.   Empathy will always be a relevant notion because it is, according to Agosta, what makes the human being ‘human’ and the lack of it means the loss of being human.

The starting point for this inquiry is said to be from a position of radical Socratic ignorance, bracketing all prior philosophical and personal meanings of empathy.  Although this is a worthy and noble starting point, Agosta doesn’t remain faithful to it.  There are a few places where he states his definition of empathy, most notably at the start of the book, and during much of the work the reader cannot help but feel Agosta has his mind settled on many things.   Agosta’s definition is also not terribly satisfying because it basically states that empathy is what makes us human, in other words empathy distinguishes us from animals, trees and rocks, and he adds that the goal of this book is to make less mysterious how one gets her humanness from the other.  As much as I want to agree that empathy is something uniquely human, I struggle to commit to this position for one reason:  if we don’t know what empathy is, then how do we know it is uniquely human?  In other words, if at this present day we lack the ability concerning empathy to define it, identify it, describe it, etc., successfully then how can we argue it is a purely and exclusively human attribute?  And, conversely, does one then argue that those who walk among us labeled ‘antisocial’, those who are said to lack empathy, are not human?  The consequences of this could be frightening.   If empathy has a learned as much as a biological component, does that entail that humanness is something that can be learned?  Questions and comments like these are the result of a vague and yet bold definition.

Relatedly, I think it is rather difficult, if not close to impossible, to embark on a specifically philosophical inquiry into empathy because empathy cannot be purely philosophical:  empathy is one of many occurrences philosophy and psychology share and must necessarily do so.  Empathy, being a humanizing activity, requires a mind with consciousness and reasoning abilities, and both philosophy and psychology have roles to play in the discovery – one is theoretical, and the other is practical and clinical.  Now, Agosta’s break away from the psychological discussion of empathy is to embark on one that is largely phenomenological, but what he seems to neglect is that phenomenology was psychology’s bedfellow.  Phenomenology, in its beginnings as a movement, was a blend of ontology and descriptive psychology (in varying degrees) and this was not only due to Husserl, its founder, being a student of the descriptive psychologist Franz Brentano but also due to the influence Munich psychology-philosophy professor Theodor Lipps had on Husserl’s early students, a group who were his students prior to 1905.  Lipps, most notably, was one of the major contributors to the discussion of empathy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  In his use of the phenomenological works of Scheler and Husserl and even discussing Lipps (who had his own phenomenology), Agosta seems to contradict his own approach that this investigation will be purely, specifically philosophical.  It would be more practical to argue that philosophy can aid in the description, theorizing, and investigation of the experience itself, but that empathy at its roots is a cognitive activity carried out by sentient beings and thus she is planted firmly in both fields.  But Agosta tends to shy away from or avoid speaking of empathy in terms of cognitive states or physical conditions; he instead reconstructs empathy as the result of intersubjective relationships.  While I enjoyed seeing empathy being constructed in these terms and I enjoyed seeing discussion of Husserl, I found it rather surprising that Agosta didn’t discuss Edith Stein in much detail (two brief mentions of her name was it).  Stein, in her doctoral dissertation under Husserl in 1916 titled On The Problem of Empathy, constructs empathy in terms of intersubjectivity, saying that empathy was an irreducible type of intentional experience, it was the experience of a foreign consciousness where we experience another person as a unified whole analogous with ourselves.   This work of Stein, one that critiqued Lipps and expanded Husserl among other things, would have been beneficial to include, in fact serving more useful than the work of Heidegger (and more phenomenological as well) and even Searle.  I could also argue that if speech acts were considered integral to the exploration of empathy, then Agosta should have turned to the work of Adolf Reinach, Stein’s teacher and another early phenomenologist.  The speech act theory contributions Reinach made lend themselves much more aptly to empathy, because his discussions of claim and obligation, promising, and civil law can easily be easily seen to involve empathy.  Furthermore, he was knowledgeable about empathy from both his teachers, Lipps and Husserl, and he assisted Stein with her dissertation project and was highly supportive of her research course, giving rise to the idea he was open to experiences of empathy.   Agosta would have had to work less at extending Reinach’s speech acts than he did with Searle’s, and would have encountered way fewer issues.

I can applaud Agosta for attempting novel interpretations and extensions of Heidegger’s thought, exploring and describing what he calls the ‘special hermeneutic of empathy’ because it offers the possibility of authentic being-with-others.  Given recent books on Heidegger and his ties to National Socialism, the future of Heidegger scholarship may rest on the shoulders of those willing to creatively reinvent and renegotiate core ideas, attempting to strip the racist and nationalist underpinnings. However, Agosta’s position is untenable and unconvincing since it stands in contrast to Heidegger’s ideas presented in Being and Time, and the basis for his interpretation are a few parenthetical remarks that are equivalent to a footnote, heavy textual reinterpretation, and some modified translations.  This is not enough to erase the feeling that Heidegger’s philosophy and empathy are notions not meant to intersect, or that Heidegger himself would immensely disagree with such an analysis of his ideas.  That being said, Agosta is incredibly insightful and slightly poetic in his critique of being-towards-death.  He states that the death of the other is equally fundamental as the possibility of my own death; in this way empathy is ontological.  Actual death is the completion of life, whereas possible death and death of others, upon reflection, is a kind of existential wake-up call that can result in authentic individuation.   When someone meaningful to us dies, a person we shared an emotional and empathetic connection with, it is a kind of spiritual death:  future possibilities cease to be open, and we mourn the end of the intersubjective relationship with that person.  In cases like this, one can be rejuvenated by finding another person who listens graciously and generously because the empathetic connection is once again established, lessening the feeling of spiritual death, and we are presented with new and further future possibilities for meaningful intersubjective relationships.

Overall, even with some structural problems Agosta does an excellent job of convincing the reader that empathy is worthy of attention and discussion in the 21stCentury.  Even when he stretches philosophical ideas, like those of Heidegger, too far or demands of them more than they are capable of, Agosta’s personal insights on empathy are interesting, novel, and engaging, and they deserve acknowledgement in the debate about the nature of empathy.

© 2012 Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray

Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray, University of Guelph

Review from Metapsychology Online Reviews


Categories: empathic understanding, Empathy, empathy consulting, empathy trends, Hermeneutics, Publications by Lou Agosta on empathy

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