The loss of empathy is equivalent to the loss of the individual’s being human. This is documented in the folk wisdom of the ages in a narrative where empathy is conspicuous by its absence. A wonderful example of empathy and its absence is documented in one of the fairy tales (Märchen) of the collection edited by the Grimm Brothers. “The Story of the Youth Who Set Out to Learn Fear” is about a youth – the classic simpleton of the folktale – who tries to learn what shuddering is (i.e., fear in the sense of “goose flesh”).[i] The hero-simpleton tries so hard to feel fear that he is effectively defended against all feelings. He has no feelings, not even fear. He is insensitive to others’ feelings in the everyday sense. Thus, he lacks empathy and the corresponding aspects of his being human (humanness). He is also ontologically cut off from the community of fellow travelers who share feelings empathically and on the basis of which life matters to them (and him). This deficiency occasions a misunderstanding in the narrative with the sacristan at the local church, and the youth throws the latter down the stairs, resulting in the youth’s disgrace and banishment. As in all classic folktales, the hero goes forth on a journey of exploration of both the world and of himself. He becomes a traveler on the road of life, which is the beginning of his ontological adventures to recover his feelings and become a complete human being.
The point is that empathy is not an obscure capability that requires elaborate technology to make it visible, as when researchers deploy a functional magnetic resonance imaging apparatus (fMRI) to correlate mirror neurons (though we can learn from the latter too). Rather empathy hides in plain view. This folktale, this Märchen, is in fact a ghost story, to be told on dark, windy autumn nights. The empathy of the audience is aroused by constellating fearful images of the living dead. This makes for a series of humorous encounters with ghouls and haunted castles as the youth sets about trying to learn shuddering – compulsively saying “I wish I could shudder,” having no idea what it means. The hero performs many brave deeds instead – as he is literally not sensible enough to grasp the distinction “fear” and recognize when he should be afraid. The ghost story provides a framework for images of the disintegration and fragmentation of the self, including literal ghoulish images of bowling with detached heads and a corpse that rises from the dead because the youth gets into bed with it to warm it up – a scenario quite creepy – against which the youth is firmly defended by his complete lack of feeling. None of these images and events matter to him in the way they would matter to an affectively, emotionally whole person. He is surrounded by ghouls and living corpses but, ontologically speaking, he is the one who is an affective zombie, emotionally dead. Without empathy, the individual is emotionally cut-off, i.e., dead.
The subtext of the story is that the individual cannot recover his humanity on his own. He requires the participation of another – and a relationship with the other – to restore the being human (humanness) of his feelings – and to teach him how to shudder. Having raised the curse on the haunted castle and won the hand of the fair princess, the hero finally stops trying to shudder. Only then is he overcome by shuddering at the first opportune occasion. On the morning after his wedding night – his new wife teaches him shuddering – no, this is not going where you think – she teaches him shuddering in a pun that cleverly masks the physical and sexual innuendo – she throws bowl of cold water filled with gold fish on him with the flipping gold fish included – he wakes up exclaiming that “Ach, yah, now finally I know shuddering!” Now he is finally a whole, enriched, and complete human being.
One reason we intuitively know that the empathizer gets his being human from the empathasand (the target of empathy) is a process of elimination. There is no where else for one to obtain humanness than from another human being. Yes, it is true that the empathizer must have been treated empathically by his own care-takers for him to be able to empathize with others. And, absent such empathy, the would-be empathizer would have nothing to contribute and indeed his own survival as a human being would be at stake. Empathy has a personal history in which it develops, and this development trails behind it. However, even though the evidence of human development is significant to this study, it is philosophically irrelevant here. We are not referring to historical, developmental, or (as Heidegger would say) “ontical” considerations. No amount of human development in growing up and building a personality, character, or an identity can add up to a necessary conceptual distinction between the individual and the other. We want to grasp what about the empathic relationship is such that the one with whom empathy is occurring gives the empathizer her or his being human (humanness) independently of particular experiences – as a matter of a necessary and general philosophical distinction – in order to get it back experientially as a particular benefit. If this inquiry can grasp how the individual gets his being human (humanness) from the other in and through empathy, then it will have gone a long way towards showing how empathy is the foundation of human community where “community” means “being with one another in human interrelation.”
To paraphrase a celebrated maxim about knowledge, while our cognitions of other individuals begin with experience and without experience one individual would have no knowledge of the other, it does not follow that the foundation and access to others depends exclusively on experience. We can get a clue from Heidegger’s call for an interpretation of empathy, which he calls a “special hermeneutic of empathy,” as a way out of the impasse of disconnecting the subject from the object only to have to reconnect them in a cognitive operation that is ultimately unsatisfactory. Such an inquiry is the theoretic foundation of this work, and it will be engaged with considerable rigor in spite of the initial casual approach.
[i] Märchen von Einem der auzog das Fürchten zu lernen, translated as “The story of the youth who went forth to learn what fear was” in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tale, (1814/17), ed. W. Grimm and J. Grimm, tr. M. Hunt and J. Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972: 29f. “Grüseln” means literally “to shudder” or “get the creeps,” “goose bumps,” a classic physical expression of fear. In the Anthropology (1797: §16; 33; 154), Kant calls out “The thrill that comes over us at the mere idea of the sublime and the gooseflesh [grüseln] with which fairy tales put children to bed late at night are vital sensations; they permeate the body so far as there is life in it.” The point is, anyone lacking such an experience, as depicted in the Märchen, is hardly alive, is an emotional zombie. Bruno Bettelheim does not call out the link with empathy in his treatment of this folktale in his The Uses of Enchantment ((1975) New York: Alfred Knopf: 280-82); though, as I recall, Professor Bettelheim did make the connection in classroom discussion that I attended at the University of Chicago in the Spring of 1975. On the relevance of folktales to philosophy see, L. Agosta. (1978). “Kant’s treasure hard-to-attain,” Kant-Studien, Vol. 69, No. 4, 1978: 422-443; and also L. Agosta. (1980). “The recovery of feelings in a folktale,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287-97.