Empathy, or, seeing from within

Anthropology report is running a round-up piece on empathy in anthropology and its centrality to our discipline. It’s a timely subject, given the recent edited volume on the topic. In this post I wanted to point out another article having to do with empathy, in this case an oldie-but-goodie: Robert Lowie’s “Empathy, or, Seeing From Within” which appeared in a massive festschrift for Paul Radin that appeared back in the day. Check it out — it’s a classic.

It’s a great piece which puts empathy, not ‘cultural relativism’ (whatever that is) at the center of our endeavors. My favorite part of the piece is central section where Lowie suggests that even Nazis are deserving of empathy. It’s an extraordinary statement, especially coming from a German Jew. I don’t want to automatically assume that everything Lowie said is right because he is old and important — there is a lot unattractive about Lowie — but this idea that anthropologists should be able to see things even from a Nazi’s point of view has always struck with me.

This impulse for empathy sits uneasily with anthropology’s other moral intuition: activist denunciation of power in the name of a leftist populism. Frankly, a lot of work done in this vein is carried out in an emotional tone that is very far from empathy indeed.

I think this is one of the reasons why I personally have never had much use for an activist framing for my own work. This often surprises people, since I work on such a sexily political topic: huge mining company crushes indigenous people. But in fact most of my work is about how this simple framing doesn’t capture the facts on the ground, even if it does tell a simple story of the sort we like to hear.

For me, a commitment to social justice is part and parcel of empathy. As in: if you have the later you think people deserve the former. I study all aspects of mining, from the boardroom to the ball mill to the communities living sandwiched between waste dumps. And to be honest, I have empathy with everyone in all parts of that chain. This doesn’t mean that I agree with them, but I feel that if Lowie can be empathetic of a Nazi, surely I can put myself in the shoes of a mining executive.

I teach courses in political anthropology that are focused around particular topics such as the 2008 Financial Crisis and Great Environmental Disasters Of The Global Oil Industry. Reading these topics with my class has taught me that students don’t need to be cultivate a critical attitude. Reality, as they say, has a well-known liberal bias. All you have to do to be outraged is possess some baseline socialization into American culture. My experience in these courses is that empathy, rather than denunciation, leads to moral certainty. There is no better way to be sure that your moral intuitions are correct than to really, really try to see it from the point of view of someone else. When you do this and still think they are a total asshole, then you can have faith that your moral intuitions are correct.

It’s for this reason that I’ve always preferred empathy to anger-driven activism — not because the first is apolitical, but because the second is a shortcut to a judgment that is too important to be rushed. Even a Nazi deserves empathy — even if in the end we do not agree with them.

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

42 thoughts on “Empathy, or, seeing from within

  1. I think that the reason you have never had much use for an activist framing for your own work, and why this is often surprising to others, may be precisely because you have worked at all levels of the mining operation while others (anthros, activists, or whoever) often spend time and work only with one “level” of informant group in any particular instance.

    I say this thinking about my own fieldwork–which as an undergraduate has been admittedly very preliminary and short. Working in Iraqi Kurdistan (northern Iraq) for a couple months, it was very easy for me to begin to empathize with and want to support much of the Kurdish nationalist discourse I heard or to want to shout about the plight of the Kurds. But I spent the last bit of that summer in Turkey, and started to empathize as well with the Turkish side of the debate. Then during my second stint I also spent time in southern Iraq and began to think more about the “Arab side” of the question. The more different people I simply spend time with the more difficult it is for me to take any particular stance–regardless of what assumptions I entered with.

    My point is that I think for anthropologists one solution is not so much an intellectual decision to try to be empathetic towards everyone but much simpler–to spend time with and work among multiple “sides” or “levels” of an issue. I guess what I’m saying is that empathy (even towards Nazis or big business executives) is perhaps less of an above-and-beyond effort than we think it is: most anthropologists (and whoever else) are not empathetic towards Nazis simply because 1) they don’t live and work among them and 2) there are social and cultural pressures to NOT be empathetic towards Nazis. I think in many cases empathy does not require an extraordinary intellectual effort, but rather that a LACK of empathy requires a refusal rooted in sociocultural pressures (whether positive towards NOT empathizing or negative towards empathizing), and that such a refusal is made much easier by distance (physically, linguistically, etc.).

  2. Contrary to Rosaldo, I don’t think that the use of “relativist” as an insult is related to an ethical relativism. I’ve always understood it to mean epistemological relativism; all cultures have equally valid “ways of knowing”, and science is just another culturally-bound “way of knowing”. That is absurd, displays a lack of understanding of epistemology, and would truly be deserving of use as an insult in an academic context. I don’t think calling someone an ethical relativist is an insult, though, nor a “cultural relativist” in the sense of being able to study other humans without judging their actions according to your own views.

    I hate the Geertzian position – “human nature is just the ability to learn language and culture”. It’s so boring and, well, wrong. The ability to learn language is not a trivial thing, and the idea that you learn “culture” in the same way that you learn language is predicated on a bizarre understanding of both. And if language acquisition comes about due to innate mechanisms of any kind (whether we prefer Chomsky, Lakoff, or Everett is moot), then why not apply, say, a cognitive approach to other aspects of human life?

    I can agree with Rosaldo’s, and Lowie’s, general point, though: you can understand the actions of others in some way without necessarily agreeing with them. That’s a very important point to make.

  3. Al, that difference between ethical (I prefer ‘moral’) and epistemological relativism is crucial. So often with students, we have to stave off the rush to judgment but remind them that trying to understand (epistemological) does not mean *never* judging or not eventually judging (as Rex more eloquently puts it).

    My problem with the ‘activist framing’ is that it can collapse that sequence of understanding first, judging later (if at all) for our readers and students. I teach human rights, and I have to remind students that, when they write, they cannot start a paper by presenting the outrage and anger that they feel at the end of their research. Presenting a later, post-understanding judgment as the introduction to our material (leading with the activism) can make the anthropologists’ long path to activist commitment seem more like a snap judgment or permanent state of outrage.

    So like Rex, I try to keep my politics and my activism out of my writing, in part because I find so much of the writing from these perspectives so jarring, demanding from the first paragraph that I share a commitment borne of long experience and consideration when my own understanding is still forming. Perhaps it’s empathy for readers that makes me want to help them move through their own growing understanding to a place where they feel confident of their own judgment, rather than try to rush them to my own commitments.

    Either way, thanks for the thoughtful piece, Rex.

  4. I leave activism to activists. And as regards moral relativism, I side much more readily with moral scepticism a la J. L. Mackie. I’d prefer it if activism, left wing politics, the moralistic fallacy, and righteous anger could be left out of the human sciences, in the same way that I’d prefer it if the military could be left out of AI research. But that’s just me.

    Anyway, empathy… I think if you replace “empathy”, which is quite a loaded word (related to compassion in my head), with the intentional stance, the principle of charity, and the principle of humanity, then naturally it can be applied to Nazis, Jeffrey Dahmer, me, a headhunter, or an Australopithecine. And if you want to truly “empathise” with one party in a situation then that is up to you.

  5. Great argument, Rex. I have to admit I am a power-activist guy if only because it forces us to use a non-psychological theoretical frame with which we social scientists can conduct empirical field research. It deals in tangibles, keeps us grounded to institutions, technologies of power, law, policy–and in the field discourses, models, frames. Empathy, while possibly the origins of the initial reflexive consciousness for anthropological fieldwork or activism, requires a more psychological and hypothetical approach. I don’t want to write a bunch of fieldnotes about how I feel but rather what my informants are saying, doing.

    Secondly, what are the divergent paths traveled by an empathy versus a power anthropologist? Empathy seems to me gets us to an unrealistic desire for unrelative postnational universalism. Power gets us to a more accurate depiction of the field of cultural production, its competitions and alliances.

  6. I don’t want to write a bunch of fieldnotes about how I feel but rather what my informants are saying, doing.

    I don’t think Lowie is saying that social scientists need to feel anything in particular. Analysing the behaviour of Nazis empathetically just means understanding their motivations – the beliefs and desires that they hold, on the basis of which they act. Those are quite tangible things, in that their existence is epistemically objective, even if you have to use an interpretive strategy to identify them. Certainly human actions are quite concrete, and interpreting them in terms of the most reasonable ascription of mental states to the people involved is a sensible process that doesn’t rely on your emotions. Simply, in order to find out why anyone does anything at all you have to use “empathy”, of a sort.

  7. Hi Al West,

    Which of the two do you consider absurd? Or are both absurd?
    “all cultures have equally valid ‘ways of knowing'”
    “science is just another culturally-bound ‘way of knowing'”

  8. T’arhechu,

    They’re both absurd as written there. If the former is true, then the latter is necessarily true.

    In any case, the “way of knowing” idea seems to be that people living in different cultural groups have fundamentally different views of the world, which are somehow all valid, and differ not only in the method of communicating their understanding but also in the very essence of understanding itself from people in other groups. If they are all equally valid, then they must be incommensurate, and they can have no external referents. If “ways of knowing” are all different and valid, then there can be no translation between “ways of knowing” (because they wouldn’t share the same referents), and there can be no knowledge of the world outside our heads in principle.

    But that isn’t true – or at the very least, we must assume it isn’t. People all refer to the same world, because they all live in the same world and have approximately the same faculties. Deference to tradition and others in a community only seems to affect higher order beliefs – not perception or basic beliefs. We don’t live in “different worlds” because we believe different things.

    I believe that the universe consists of elementary particles in varying quantities in fields of force, and that all things that exist reduce in all of their causal properties to the causal properties of the elementary particles that make them up, a position known as mereological nihilism. And yet, despite that set of beliefs, I can make myself understood not only to mereological essentialists who speak English, but, in principle, to Piraha people, Hopi people (despite Whorf’s claim), Tuamotuans, Tibetans, and whomever else, with supposedly incommensurate “ways of knowing” to my own and each others’.

    And this actually gets back to the issue of “empathy”, or interpretation of action on the basis of mental states. Specifically, it gets us to the principle of charity. To give an example of that principle, let’s say you saw that it has suddenly started raining hard in a street in front of you, and you see a Piraha person run for cover under a roof. How would you interpret this action? You could believe that the Piraha chap has a completely different “way of knowing” to your own, and that he is motivated by spirits of some kind, and that his running is completely unrelated to the rain, which doesn’t exist in his world. Or you could believe that this man doesn’t like being rained on with such intensity, and has access to the same world you do, and so knows, like you, that it is raining. Only more information can say which is more accurate, but the principle of charity states that instead of reaching for an outlandish interpretation based on an essential difference in basic beliefs about the universe, you should firstly interpret it in terms of the idea that the person whose actions you’re interpreting resembles you in basic faculties.

    People can have all sorts of beliefs, but they also all have access to the same world. That, at the very least, should be the initial assumption, even if it can’t be proved a priori (and, of course, it can’t, but that’s okay; science doesn’t depend on foundationalism, as Susan Haack demonstrated). And I know of no action that cannot be explained in these terms – no human action whose explanation requires resort to the claim that the actor lives in a different universe, and not just metaphorically.

  9. “But that isn’t true – or at the very least, we must assume it isn’t. People all refer to the same world, because they all live in the same world and have approximately the same faculties.”

    I’m going to guess you have never been a Navy brat.

    Yes, it’s the same planet–but the various parts of the planet are very different worlds from one another. Same elements, same air, roughly the same water, vaguely the same soil, and you get some of the same migrant birds and fish. But after that point the sameness very much breaks down.

    We only think it’s all the same world because we watch too much TV and we take the notion “all people are equal” the wrong way, interpreting “equal” as “the same.” But a tribe in the desert sees a very different world than a tribe on the Great Plains or a tribe in the Amazon. And a tribe with a woman shortage is going to have very different marital practices even as a tribe with a man shortage would see polyandry as a sin.

    Not everyone has access to learn about how every other person on the planet lives–and up til the last century, no one had that access. They could only take the word of explorers and adventurers at face value, and those men frequently got it wrong. Even now the information’s not all accurate. We can still, in the end, only trust what we see right in front of us. And a Moscow retiree is still seeing a very different world than is an Orlando teenager.

    Doesn’t matter if it’s literally a different universe. It might as well be. Being all the same species we have the capacity to try to learn how life is experienced by others of our species, but absent that effort we’re going to see foreigners as alien, and we just about always have.

  10. Dana, consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Are you, perhaps, confusing the truth that each of the blind men has touched only one part of the elephant, which is different from the other parts, with the dubious claim that there is no elephant, only a collection of parts none of which has anything to do with any other?

  11. Same elements, same air, roughly the same water, vaguely the same soil, and you get some of the same migrant birds and fish. But after that point the sameness very much breaks down.

    Well, apart from all the fundamental constants of nature, like gravity and the atomic weights of the elements.

    I don’t doubt that living in a certain part of the world changes your habits, your higher-order beliefs, and certain assumptions about what is natural or right, but these don’t constitute a different and valid “way of knowing” that is utterly incommensurate with any other “way of knowing”. I’m not denying human variation, or the role of experiences in changing certain kinds of beliefs. I’m just saying that a) epistemological relativism is not right and that b) in interpreting human action, “seeing from within”, you’ve got to take it for granted that the person you’re describing resembles you in basic faculties.

    And that applies to all people, by the way, whether in different cultures or not, due to the problem of other minds. I have no more access to my brother’s head than I do to Kamehameha’s. I just have more knowledge about what my brother will do and why he’ll do it.

  12. In his most recent publication, “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation”, Richard Sennett carefully distinguishes between ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’. The former is the kind of ‘awareness of others’ that we imagine most readily – he gives Bill Clinton’s “I share your pain” as an example. One identifies with the other. The latter is rather more austere, and, he says, of more use to the interviewer. It implies listening intensely, giving attention to the other, having more of curiosity than does sympathy. It recognizes difference, and accepts that some differences may resist the most engaged of inter-reaction.

    He also says that when training interviewers, it is often the most difficult task to persuade them to relinquish the attempt to offer sympathy, and to engage empathetically. It may be that this is what some of you are talking about above.

  13. Tim Mason,

    If “empathy” in either Lowie’s or Sennett’s work refers to an attempt at relatively dispassionate mind-reading for the purposes of understanding behaviour, and doing so on the basis of the best available information (whether from interviews, cross-cultural comparison, or cognitive science), then the tools have been fashioned and sharpened by others – especially Donald Davidson, W. V. O. Quine, and Dan Dennett.

    There are, of course, people who are incapable of either response – like Temple Grandin. Grandin is capable of interpreting the behaviour of others based on her studies over the years – she has a degree in psychology and works in animal science – but she seemingly can’t do it intuitively. Some of us are better than others at sympathetic and empathetic (or theory of mind-based) responses, but I think it is in principle possible for anyone to learn how to interpret behaviour in terms of plausible belief ascriptions. Anyone can learn practical reason; not everyone can learn intuitive theory of mind. So I’m not sure of the practicalities of a method for understanding human action that depends on “empathy” rather than a more abstract procedure (ie, intentional stance, etc), simply because not everyone can empathise easily. Or sympathise, for that matter.

    Simon Baron-Cohen’s latest book is about empathy, and how it relates to/depends on theory of mind, and that might be a good place to look for the methodological considerations of (what we are here calling) empathy.

  14. I should say that one of main reasons why I can advocate for a certain amount of cool-mindedness is my extraordinarily privileged subject position. I am connected but at a fundamental level untouched by the traumas of the thing that I study. In this my position is similar to Lowie’s, who iirc moved from Germany as a child and never had to live through the shoah. So I suppose my interlocutor here is really other rich white people processing their liberal guilt in a different way than I do, not indigenous activists, etc. who obviously have a reason to be pissed off.

    That said, Adam, I don’t see why having empathy for people makes us unable to understand how ‘power’ works. I’d argue that an empirical account of the powerful will remain ethnographically limited if we are unable to enter into their lifeworld, which requires empathy. Maybe my commitment to that idea means that I have “an unrealistic desire for unrelative postnational universalism”, what ever that phrase means.

  15. Lowie (Loewe) was, I think, Austrian. And for many European Jews, experiencing the holocaust first hand was not necessary for it to cause trauma. I suspect he disliked Nazis a great deal.

  16. I don’t know that Sennett would claim priority for this approach, but he has been working around it since at least the early 70s. He may have rubbed shoulders with Dennett at Harvard. But David Riesman, who launched Sennett’s research career, would have been the direct influence (he wrote an essay on ’empathy’ with Daniel Lerner, in the mid 50s), which would take it back to Simmel, and in particular his essay on the Stranger, which Sennett makes much of. Simmel’s stranger can be read as a model of the self-understanding of the fieldworker, whether anthropological or sociological.

    BTW, I am intrigued by Alex’s assertion that reality has a liberal bias. It may do so among his students, but any time spent with the comment sections of even the most liberal of newspapers – I am thinking of the Guardian – will test the idea most severely.

  17. I don’t think Quine, Davidson, or Dennett would claim priority either, because most of the principles they “developed” are fairly natural tendencies in most people (except people like Temple Grandin, of course). All they did was attempt to systematise them. Dennett and Quine tried to put them in a naturalistic setting as well. That’s why Dennett came up with the phrase “intentional stance”; human action may (and probably does) result from interactions at the level of elementary particles, but it’s impossible at present, or perhaps even in principle, to describe in this way. The best way to describe it is in terms of intentions, acting on the basis of beliefs and desires. In his view, belief is perfectly real, but can only be identified on the basis of an interpretive model, which he calls “the intentional stance”, instead of trying to think in terms of the “physical stance” to which the actions we see in terms of the intentional stance likely reduce.

    Dennett is famous for applying the intentional stance to things we’d consider non-intentional, like thermostats, and in a lecture in Oxford, the lectern at which he was speaking. This is partly a joke (“perhaps the lectern doesn’t want to move”), and partly a consciousness raiser, to show that treating something as intentional implies no transgression of natural law or an unnaturalistic ontology. In this, I think Dennett was influenced less by sociologists like Simmel than by the AI genius Marvin Minsky, but I could be wrong there. Minsky’s book, “The Society of Mind”, is well worth reading, incidentally.

  18. Good post and discussion. Empathy is certainly tricky. I’m not really familiar with the body of anthropology categorized here as driven by an “activist frame” that presents some sort of over-simplified version of the facts on the ground. That just sounds like poor research to me, without a sort of epistemological presence, a development of intellectual and moral dispositions in research of a subject.

    I think that the processes towards a position of empathy is what needs to be discussed, not as if one reaches a stage of empathy as an ends, rather a life long reflexive with others sort of thing, a way of learning and doing research too.

    Rex added a point about his position of privilege, untouched by the events, or maybe touched in a very different way by the events he studies than the various actors. Position really needs to be unpacked more in discussing empathy. Also, who gets to call anyone’s frame “activist” or empathetic? Seems like a privileged position is the standpoint here for judging something as activist (as hotheaded rush to judgement) or cooly empathetic research (that implies a detached position taking into account alternative views, etc). The post seems to use “activist framing” and “anger-driven activism” to mean the same thing, are they? Anger-driven activism would seem pretty useless for any sort of understanding, but being active-engaged research could include research designed with social action in mind (e.g. some form of action research or engaged research). I wouldn’t rush to say that this sort of approach can’t have empathy. To do so would be to set up empathy and the understanding that comes with it as exclusive to a certain type of allegedly unbiased, objective social scientist. Are understanding and activism exclusive here?

  19. Good post and discussion. Empathy is certainly tricky. I’m not really familiar with the body of anthropology categorized here as driven by an “activist frame” that presents some sort of over-simplified version of the facts on the ground. That just sounds like poor research to me, without a sort of epistemological presence, a development of intellectual and moral dispositions in research of a subject.

    I think that the processes towards a position of empathy are what needs to be discussed, not as if one reaches a stage of empathy as an ends, rather a life long reflexive with others sort of thing, a way of learning and doing research too.

    Rex added a point about his position of privilege, untouched by the events, or maybe touched in a very different way by the events he studies than the various actors. Position really needs to be unpacked more in discussing empathy. Also, who gets to call anyone’s frame “activist” or empathetic? Seems like a privileged position is the standpoint here for judging something as activist (as hotheaded rush to judgement) or cooly empathetic research (that implies a detached position taking into account alternative views, etc). The post seems to use “activist framing” and “anger-driven activism” to mean the same thing, are they? Anger-driven activism would seem pretty useless for any sort of understanding, but being active-engaged research could include research designed with social action in mind (e.g. some form of action research or engaged research). I wouldn’t rush to say that this sort of approach can’t have empathy. To do so would be to set up empathy and the understanding that comes with it as exclusive to a certain type of allegedly unbiased, objective social scientist. Are understanding and activism exclusive here?

  20. Rex, I generally enjoy reading your articles, especially when you have something to say. This time you probably didn’t have to write it. Perhaps you’re confusing ‘empathy’ with ‘objectivity’, because as far as I know ‘empathy’ is an emotion and to have an emotion you have to be engaged on appropriate level with someone. If you’re able to connect on the same level with both a mining executive and a person “sandwiched between waste dumps” it’s just revealing what a cynic you must be.
    As to: “[r]eading these topics with my class has taught me that students don’t need to be cultivate a critical attitude” if this sentence tells what I think it does, then you aren’t a very good teacher. Critical thinking (attitude) is so very important especially today when we’re being swamped with so much information from so many sources. What characterises a genuine anthropologist is his/her commitment to giving a voice to subalterns. Once you choose that path you naturally empathise with those who deserve it, otherwise you’re no different from a marketing or PR person. I just hope, for the sake of decorum in anthropology, that people won’t treat the above article too seriously.

  21. @Al West and your “I’d prefer it if activism, left wing politics, the moralistic fallacy, and righteous anger could be left out of the human sciences, in the same way that I’d prefer it if the military could be left out of AI research” …I’m sorry but who are you? Do you not know what humanism is about? Who/What if not ‘human sciences’ will help to maintain a healthy balance between theory and the above mentioned socio-cultural-politico-economic practices which you’d so readily left unscrutinised.

  22. Kathy,

    Do you not know what humanism is about?

    Yes, I do. I am not a humanist, however, at least with regard to anthropology. I like most people very much, and I broadly support humanist principles in my daily life, but implementing humanism in social science just leads to waffly nonsense, an astonishing overuse of the moralistic fallacy (“it would be bad if that were true, ergo it’s not true”), and attempts to dissolve the is/ought divide.

    I have nothing against the military per se (a necessary evil), but I’m interested in artificial intelligence because it could shine a light on human intelligence and human capabilities, not because it could build bigger and better fighting machines. Likewise, I’m not against social activism, but I am not totally in favour of studies that prioritise the impact on activism, or that study things only in relation to the frankly ethnocentric, European, Petrarch-derived, perceived good of humanism. Those things have somehow become the norm instead of part-time activities or musings outside of academic work. I don’t know how that happened.

    I study marriage alliance. I find it fascinating. It opens a window into every kind of human endeavour. But I would hate to be pushed into any kind of arranged marriage. I know many people who have had their marriages arranged, or at the very least pre-approved, by their kin, and I find it quite abhorrent personally, in that I would reject it with all of my power were it thrust upon me. And I believe that that should have absolutely no effect on my studies. My point isn’t to condone or condemn marriage alliance, just to understand why and how it occurs. If someone wants to destroy marriage alliances then they’re free to use the information gleaned, but that’s not exactly the point of it.

    I’m sorry but who are you?

    If you want to be a professional academic activist then that’s up to you, and the ball is thoroughly in your court in anthropological circles on that issue. I’m in the minority in the world of anthropology. The consensus has (somehow) shifted drastically, as you can tell from comments like…

    What characterises a genuine anthropologist is his/her commitment to giving a voice to subalterns.

    Why did that statement not earn the response, “I’m sorry, but who are you?” I mean, that’s a dismissal of any real anthropologist who genuinely tries to understand human beings as they are (ie, tries to give an account, logos, of humanity, anthropos – not that I want to go down the route of argument from etymology) instead of acting like a sort of academic activist or journalist.

    Once you choose that path you naturally empathise with those who deserve it, otherwise you’re no different from a marketing or PR person. I just hope, for the sake of decorum in anthropology, that people won’t treat the above article too seriously.

    And who decides who deserves empathy? What is the basis for this position? When did it become the norm?

    If you want to use the work of anthropologists to inform your politics, the political battles that you fight, and how you win them, then I’m behind you. That sounds fine to me. But it’s not a replacement for or synonym of anthropology itself.

  23. Jonesia, is empathy emotion or a way of connecting with emotion. Following training to work as a volunteer counselor on a telephone crisis line, I came to think of empathy, in practice, as active listening—a set of skills in which the first is simply silence, getting yourself out of the way and focusing attention on what the other (on the line a caller) has to say. One thing you certainly don’t do is what the philosophers recommended by Al West do, plunge in and construct your own theory of what they must be saying to explain their behavior to your satisfaction. But, in defense of Rex, the skills do work equally well with most human beings, where human beings include both mining executives and those who scavenge from waste dumps.

  24. One thing you certainly don’t do is what the philosophers recommended by Al West do, plunge in and construct your own theory of what they must be saying to explain their behavior to your satisfaction.

    The point is that we do that all the time with all people. If you ask someone a question, and they say something that seems to you consistent with answering that question, then you’ve engaged in the level of interpretation discussed by Quine. We all rush in and make interpretations of all behaviour by all people that we ever see, and most people do it fairly accurately and intuitively. In order to converse or “actively listen”, or in order to find out what another person’s emotions or thoughts are, you have to interpret behaviour on the basis of what seems to be the most reasonable interpretation. That’s always true. And all three philosophers make very clear that the interpretation of another’s action is tentative and contingent upon the data you have. New data can change the interpretation.

  25. Al, you are right that most of us do rush in most of the time. But the point about empathy taught as active listening is that we shouldn’t rush in. We should get out of the way and open ourselves to the feeling as well as cognitive content of what the other is saying. This doesn’t imply lack of judgment. The key is withholding judgment until we have taken the time to be sure that we know what the other is saying and how they feel about it. How do we know that? A series of skills including open-ended questions, paraphrasing and, only when we are beginning to be fairly confident, intuitive decoding, i.e., saying to the other, “Could it be that you are feeling X because of Y?” At every step, including this one, the other is given ample opportunity to correct our misapprehensions.

    That this process is the antithesis of that typically employed by philosophers, who leap to critique based on their own preconceptions, is something I acknowledge. Once upon a time I did a B.A. in philosophy and either then or since have read most of the philosophers you mention. It was getting tired of playing legalistic word games that brought me out of philosophy into anthropology. The primitive logic chopping that we see so much of on the Internet is the worst of what I was hoping to escape.

    There is, should you be interested a good piece on philosophy and fiction to which Arts & Letters Daily provided a link today, much of which applies as much to ethnography as it does to the novel.

  26. The key is withholding judgment until we have taken the time to be sure that we know what the other is saying and how they feel about it.

    Even beginning this process requires some preliminary judgements and the assumption of a huge number of shared beliefs. All you’re really saying is that investigating the mental states of other people through their actions is something that requires considerable effort and that snap judgements will often be wrong. If that wasn’t the case, then ethnographic fieldwork would be pretty useless. We’d just be able to observe an individual’s behaviour and know their mental states without any extra investigation. I don’t think any of those philosophers would accept that to be true, at all. The point is just that your snap judgements and your refined critiques are not different in kind; they differ only in the amount of information you have on which to make the judgement.

    At every step, including this one, the other is given ample opportunity to correct our misapprehensions.

    Yes, and this is all part of the ideal process that Davidson et al would prescribe in interpreting others’ actions. But it’s important to note that not all mental states are conscious – indeed, most aren’t – and even when they can be brought to consciousness they cannot easily be described.

    This is one of the most basic findings in cognitive psychology and AI. People can be mistaken about their mental states. And when they tell you what their mental states are, you have to believe that a) they are using words in the same way that you would (which is very tricky when it comes to a person’s mental states), that b) they believe you will understand words in the same way that they do, and that c) you each have a set of mutual beliefs with regard to the words – that you believe that they believe that you believe that they believe […] that p with respect to the meaning of a. It’s not a simple process. Interpreting language is not in principle different to interpreting any other kind of action, and can be subject to even more difficulties, because words can seem so concrete and reliable (even for critical theorists).

    No matter what is said or done by the person, your ascription of mental states to them is necessarily tentative, whether after hours of conversation or in an instant’s judgement on the basis of one act. The former is more reliable than the latter, but…

    That this process is the antithesis of that typically employed by philosophers, who leap to critique based on their own preconceptions, is something I acknowledge.

    That’s absolutely incorrect, and I’d suggest going back to reading Dennett and Davidson – both very easy, engaging reading, not exactly a chore. You have somehow got them totally wrong.

    We should get out of the way and open ourselves to the feeling as well as cognitive content of what the other is saying.

    How are they different? And how is the process of interpreting them any different? You’re presupposing a distinction where there really isn’t one. I said mental states, not cognitive ones, and emotions are mental states. Emotion is also clearly key in thinking, or at least acting on the basis of thoughts. I think you’ve got a caricature of Davidson and Quine in your head – those guys who take the heart out of everything with a relentless assault of ps and qs fired from guns made of formal logic. But that’s quite incorrect. You’ve constructed a straw man.

  27. The observation that people can be unaware of mental states goes back at least to Leibniz’s New Essays on Human Understanding. The central difference between what analytic philosophers and AI programmers do and the process of empathy through active listening is that the former are, as a therapist might put it, totally in the head. Hypothetically speaking, it is not inconceivable that a purely cognitive account or agent-based simulation of emotion is possible. Practically speaking, however, no such thing exists. Emotional intelligence and cognitive intelligence, one articulated through story, music and gesture, the other in abstract verbalizations or mathematical symbols, remain largely separate approaches to understanding. To which we can add with some confidence that no purely logical explanation has ever closed a deal, won an election or a lover’s heart, or aroused a passion for which people are willing to die. Abstraction and scientific method are marvelous tools for basic understanding, but neither suffices for those who seek what business people, political activists or policy wonks call actionable insights. That is where empathy complements purely cognitive reasoning.

  28. I think the idea that humans can be unaware of their mental states goes back to Plato, and certainly to Aristotle. But it is a view that has been vindicated by AI in particular – where we find that the simplest human actions are the hardest of all to programme. We can’t even talk about them coherently enough to formulate code for them.

    That is where empathy complements purely cognitive reasoning.

    Or, put another way, emotions should influence your beliefs about the mental states of others. I fail to see how this adds anything at all to the interpretation. And what does it mean to say that cognitive science is all in the head? That it doesn’t take account of the context or the outside world (which of course it does – that’s how intentional states are discovered), or that it doesn’t take account of “the heart”? Where are emotions found – somewhere other than the head? That old humanist trope of “the body” learning and emoting, instead of it just being the nervous system that does so?

    How do you identify emotion? I think that you observe someone’s behaviour and produce the most reasonable interpretation of it. When I see someone crying outside of a burned down house, I don’t need to think much to believe that they are sad at the loss of their home and maybe more. A laughing woman in a wedding dress is probably happy at getting married, and perhaps a little giddy too. I need knowledge to make those judgements, which are made largely unconsciously and automatically; I need to know what a wedding dress is, what a wedding is, etc. And I could be wrong about either of these cases – maybe the woman is laughing because she’s going to a fancy dress party as a runaway bride.

    That is not any different to interpreting any other kind of mental state, and there is no need to add any emotion to it. I can’t help doing so in practice, but as I said, someone like Temple Grandin can easily help doing so, and her interpretations are capable of being just as valid as mine or yours even if they’re less vivid or intuitive.

  29. As for that article: Novels don’t deliver truths – they give epiphanies. When you have an epiphany, your critical faculties are shut down – that’s part of why they feel so pleasurable. You may think that the epiphanies you have are “true” in some way, but there’s no reason to believe that whatsoever. If novels gave reasons for believing in the things they say rather than just relying on your pleasurable feelings at hearing them in certain contexts then they’d just be mathematics, science, or philosophy.

    Real knowledge is hard work. It’s often boring, it’s often gained only through a protracted method that can lead you astray easily, and it provides few instantaneous moments of clarity. I can see why a novelist would find it boring or pointless – especially one who got “hooked” on philosophy at first meeting instead of gradually coming to see its value. Science isn’t a TED video.

  30. I thank you all for these additional comments, although I have to admit that I haven’t read long comments on Dennet and Aristotle all that closely. I do think that it is interesting that empathy is such a moving target.

    I see people trying to assimilate it to more comfortable dualisms, for instance a dualism between ‘impassioned’ activist and ‘detached’ objective analysis — as if empathy is not an emotion. The idea of cool empathy seems a non-starter to me. Or perhaps I am missing something?

    Junesia’s distinction of “nice” versus “accurate” is one that also fits poorly into the discussion I’m trying to have. It’s very familiar to me, of course: the masculinist view of intellectual discussion as agonistic, macho combat from which must be banished all weak and feminine feelings like care for the other, etc. etc.. In fact in college I don’t try to teach people ‘critical thinking’. I give them the opportunity to develop their capacities to be human, and a key part of that is understanding the way conversation is socially situated. Building an argument is always also always building a relationship with your addressee, and I think empathy is a very important capacity in carrying this out. As, of course, is the skill of checking a claim’s adequacy, evidential basis etc. Junesia, maybe you are not American, but traditionally in the American liberal arts tradition the goal is to cultivate quality of character, not to teach content or methods as it is in other countries.

    Finally, someone tried to make me say that I thought that activists did empirically poor work but people with empathy would get better data. This is not something I believe. However I do think that anthropology’s idiographic drive to understand phenomenon in their completeness requires a kind of empathy and care which oppositional framing lack.

    So my version of empathetic research (as refined by the comments) involves the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, and to believe that this ability leads to an understanding that is more ‘full’ or ‘complete’ than other approaches, but not because it has ‘better data’ or is ‘objective’. It doesn’t seek to prove other people wrong, but is surely willing to disagree with them if, on reflection, they deserve it.

    I really do think that anyone who has a clear-eyed understanding of, say, the petroleum industry, can be empathetic until the cows come home and still see how fundamentally screwed up so much of it is. If people don’t see that, I humour myself to think that it is because they simply have not read enough ethnography. Reality does have a liberal bias — or perhaps my belief that it has indicates that deep down I have a little more activist in me than I’d like to admit.

  31. Al, we re actually very much on the same page when it comes to the kinds of research we like and despise. If you go back and retread my previous comment, you may note that I allowed for the hypothetical possibility of a cognitive science account or AI simulation of emotion, and I also agree that at the end of the day the data we deal with is all and only empirical in nature. Thus, I do truly believe what Vic Turner taught us, that what people say, the native exegesis, and what people do, the stuff we observe, are both parts of the puzzle, something at needs explanation.

    That said, the implementation of the intellectual program you describe still has a long way to go. Practically speaking, people getting on with their lives need epiphanies as well as reasoned understanding. That is why actionable insights are always a bit of both and classical rhetoric includes consideration of character and trope as well as logical argument.

  32. In fact in college I don’t try to teach people ‘critical thinking’. I give them the opportunity to develop their capacities to be human, and a key part of that is understanding the way conversation is socially situated. Building an argument is always also building a relationship with your addressee, and I think empathy is a very important capacity in carrying this out.

    This is a terrible way to go about things. It’s not male or masculine to attack arguments in the search for truth; it’s just a damn good idea. Someone who always feels it necessary to couch their arguments in nice language and tries not to ever offend will inevitably be a bad thinker, and that is reflected in the easy uptake of badly thought out ideas from continental philosophy in the social sciences. Sometimes, people are just wrong, and it helps them, you, and everyone else to say so. That doesn’t mean being deliberately rude, or trying to find holes in an argument where there are none in an effort to advance your career. It just means prioritising truth over building a relationship with the person you’re arguing with – which is the point of academic work after all. It might not be the point of liberal arts in America, but building character surely involves being able to see your ideas crumble before your eyes and then getting back out there to see it happen all over again.

    I also find a lot of hostility from people who expect to be molly-coddled in debate, as if being a bit brusque when talking about ideas is the worst human sin. Perhaps your statement that you give them “opportunit[ies to] be human” indicates something – as if clearly stating why someone is wrong is less human than being too polite to say anything constructive. Perhaps you didn’t mean to imply that, but nevertheless…

    John McCreery,

    Yes, we do seem to be largely on the same page, especially with regard to Turner’s position. But of course, actionable insights per se are not my aim, and so I am less accepting of the use of rhetoric. Cognitive anthropology and the integration of the philosophy of action and anthropology are underdeveloped indeed, but that’s less because of flaws in the ideas and more because of resistance from the dominant majority in anthropology departments.

  33. It is a good article and discussion pertaining to empathy to feel for your fellow man. Seeing things from their point of view may change the way we see them. This is really good. Keep the information coming!

  34. Reading the comments to this post was so deeply distressing, as they contain so much unacknowledged privilege (especially white male privilege; Rex’s comment on privilege notwithstanding), that I kept coming back to the following quote from Catherine Lutz’s Unnatural Sentiments: 
    “Talk about emotions is simultaneously talk about society—about power and politics, about kinship and marriage, about normality and deviance” (6).

    I also kept thinking about Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” in relation to this discussion of empathy: the relationship between empathy, social location and social relations, power and politics/the political. Rawls is interesting *in relation* to this project because with the “veil of ignorance* he is making a kind of de facto claim about emotion as a social/political/power relation consonant with Lutz’s claim above: in asking people to imagine what kind of social and political relations they would want if they could not be guaranteed their present social location/subject position–and all the power and privilege(s) it affords–and instead had to inhabit a far more abjected social location/subject position, Rawls is asking a question about empathy as social relation, articulating ‘feeling(s)’ and power, and revealing that ‘truth’ is largely perspectival. “What would it feel like to be…? ” not as a matter of wishy-washy, feminized ’emotion’ (i.e. emotion as ‘feelings’), but as a political (and politicized) thought experiment which understands that what one feels is intimately bound to one’s social location, to power/social relations which determine how one is treated, to what access one has to resources (broadly defined, and including things like respect and assumptions of competence and fundamental humanity/worth), and to what one can and *cannot* take for granted (yes, the question of privilege once again).

    How much of the comments about–and definitions of–‘power’, ’emotion’, and ‘truth’ were written from the privilege of a white and male perspective, and predicated on very ethnocentric, non-anthropological (and perhaps even, dare I say, anti-anthropological) assumptions about what emotions are and how they should be understood/defined?

    Emotions are always about power. As is empathy, and an inability to empathize–especially with those defined as Others (both ‘at home’ and abroad).

    I for one wonder what kind of fruitful anthropological discussion could be had–and, interestingly (to me), is not being had on this site–about empathy in relation to the Trayvon Martin shooting. Does George Zimmerman ever ask himself how he would have felt in Trayvon Martin’s position: being followed and deemed ‘suspicious’ simply because of the color of his skin, though he was actually doing nothing wrong and just walking home from a store after buying a can on iced tea and a bag of Skittles? 

    So yes, empathy is about power and emotion and/as social relation.

  35. Also on empathy, an orthogonal response to Rex’s post and my previous comment (from a parallel conversation of empathy and the lack thereof, which illustrates how empathy and emotions/feelings are always already about power and social relations): http://mobile.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/04/11/_racist_hunger_games_tweeters_speak_out_deny_being_racist.html

    “The a-hundred-and-forty-character-long outbursts were microcosms of the ways in which the humanity of minorities is often denied and thwarted, and they underscored how infuriatingly conditional empathy can be. (“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” wrote @JashperParas, who amended his tweet with the hashtag #ihatemyself.) They also beg the question: If the stories we tell ourselves about the future, however disturbing, don’t include black people; if readers of “The Hunger Games” are so blind as to skip over the author’s specific details and themes of appearance, race, and class, then what does it say about the stories we tell ourselves regarding the present?”

    http://m.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/hunger-games-and-trayvon-martin.html

    All this raises the question, for me anyway, of what anthropology, anthropological scholarship does to foster the kind of empathy which would work against the lack of empathy enunciated above. Conversely, and against the backdrop of “Anthropology as White Public Space?” (and some of the ‘privileged  assumptions of some comments below), what does anthropology do to foster the same kinds of non-empathy via assumptions of white (male) normativity (and the theoretical/conceptual perspectives generated from it)? About what and whom do anthropologists write ethnographic scholarship, and who produces this scholarship, and what does this mean for whose realities, experiences, suffering, deaths anthropologists– and ‘the public’–understands, cares about, identifies with, and whose it doesn’t?

    Obviously, for the racist Hunger Games tweeters the ‘activist anthropology’ off AAA’s race project didn’t do the job in producing empathy, and I doubt most of them are even aware of it. So, from where I sit–my social location, anthropology is hardly ‘activist’ enough, and could do far more to foster empathy such that we might get closer to a Rawlsian ‘theory of justice’ in which we value all lives equally, regardless of race and skin color. Even as we anthropologically empathize with Nazis.

  36. “Dunham was also asked about the lack of characters of color in an HBO live chat on Monday. She said the racially homogenous cast was a “complete accident.””
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/2012/04/16/girls-reviews-backlash-hbo-show_n_1429328.html?icid=hp_entertainment_top_art

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/peggy/girls-backlash-summed-up-in-one-photo?s=mobile

    Of course it was a “complete accident”. Cause that’s how white privilege works; the daily manifestations of white supremacy. Why doesn’t Anthropology engage this regularly, amidst all its self-professed empathy? Isn’t that what shows like Girls are about?: fostering empathy for white people and their lives, experiences, problems? So what happens when media–especially television and film–constantly represents white people (as three-dimensional, complex and flawed and idiosyncratic and ‘unlikeable’ yet still sympathetic) while non-whites are completely absent and/or unidimensional stereotypes?

    How can one show empathy for people whose lives and experiences one neither really knows nor understands and/because these people/lives/experiences are rarely–if ever-represented?

    Case in point: http://www.blackgirlinsuburbia.com/

    How much empathy is Anthropology willing to have when there is so much resistance, and resentment, to discussing white privilege and why it really does matter to the practice of Anthropology, and the scholarship it produces?

    With whom, then, is Anthropology truly willing to empathize? https://savageminds.org/2012/04/03/empathy-or-seeing-from-within/

  37. You have Rawls all wrong. The theory of justice is about just that – justice and the legal system. How do you ensure the protection of rights for all people? By making the golden rule a legal standard. Rawls calls it the “veil of ignorance”, but it’s nothing more than the golden rule applied to law, when you really get down to it. And yes: we should probably apply the golden rule more often in our lives, and in our judgements about law and society. But that’s a general prescription that academia would struggle to bring about in daily affairs, to put it mildly.

    As for white privilege – well, all of the white people in the thread above, including me, appear to hold completely different views, so acting as if they’ve all been written from the “white male perspective” is a little odd, given that the “white male perspective” is clearly a little schizophrenic, and even self-contradictory. Of course it’s a valid point that privileged people will make mistakes due to their privilege. But does it affect all work produced by white anthropologists? No, and if you believe it does, then the burden of proof is on you. You cannot simply assert it and tar anthropology with the racist-Hunger-Games-tweets brush. And should all anthropologists work explicitly to promote empathy among people like the racist Hunger Games tweeters? I don’t think so. They probably wouldn’t read the work, and only arbitrary simplification, to the point of making a Nat Geo special with a cheesy narrator, would entice people like that – and they’d still treat it as exotic.

    There’s an absolute limit on what anthropologists can achieve. And if anthropology becomes activism pure and simple then whence anthropology? What of studies of topics just for the sake of studying them?

    You’ve committed more than one fallacy in your posts. Perhaps the most important is the genetic fallacy. Rather than assessing the validity of arguments, you’re talking about where they come from. The other problem is your attempt at a tacit link between stupid racists and anthropologists. By putting them side by side, you’re implying that there’s some sort of correspondence or connection between anthropologists and people who tweet idiotic, racist, tactless things about popular movies.

    It’s a good idea to point out that most anthropologists are white people from certain backgrounds. It’s as important to point that out as it is to point out that they all come from state societies, are literate, and nowadays know how to use computers.

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