It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex discourse—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire understandings that privilege compassion over judgment.
In spite of its obvious place as an essential feature of the fluent communicator, the capacity for empathy is unevenly distributed across any population. But it remains a central capacity necessary for individuals engaged in complex and highly interactive forms of communication.
Empathy is a bond created by recognition of oneself in someone else’s experience. Or, as Martin Hoffman ingeniously describes it, empathy is “an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own.”1 It simultaneously acknowledges the authenticity of another’s feelings and suggests the momentary creation of a more personal shared experience. It is a reminder that we are not alone, even when we feel estranged from other people. Empathy happens when we meet the challenge to imagine the inner lives of others.
The word itself was not the invention of academic psychology, but grew from German aesthetic theory at the beginning of the 20th Century. As I note in my book, The Perfect Response, Robert Vischer was looking for a way to express the idea of projecting oneself into another object (Einfühlung).2 He wanted to find a vocabulary that would help in the analysis of the individual’s response to the visual arts. Had he not discovered so fitting a term, others would have surely had to invent it. It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex communication—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire empathetic understanding.
To some extent we seem hardwired for simple forms of empathetic responses. Psychologist Daniel Goldman describes an unlearned “primal empathy” that flows from simple contact with others.3 We and other primates are naturally inclined to “read” facial and physical expressions, converting them into tentative understandings about what others may be experiencing. The threshold of awareness can be measured at the margins, as when a primate or infant is able to recognize itself (as opposed to an unknown or threatening alien) on a reflective surface. This kind of “mirroring” begins a sequence of consciousness that includes thinking as if they were the other. “I know how you feel” may be a cliché for the ages, but it reasonably describes what we take to be relatively faithful inferences made in limitless ranges of situations.
Even at the human end of the scale there are no guarantees. Sometimes the more we know about another person, the less of a connection we feel. But the reverse usually happens. Familiarity with an individual and their world increases the likelihood that we will recognize some of their experiences as our own.
In clinical settings focusing on mental health, empathy still functions as a core value in client centered therapy. The idea of talk therapy without a supportive and accurate listener is almost unthinkable. If quick and critical judgment is the poison of too many troubled relationships, empathy and full consciousness of how each party is feeling is a necessary antidote. This therapy is predicated on the suspension of judgment long enough to understand another. Not surprisingly, the inability to be sympathetic is a recurring symptom in various disorders, including paranoia, narcissism, and the antisocial personality.
Because empathy is a subjective experience, it is easier to observe its basic impulse than to accurately map its affective meanings. We can strive for objective measures of it, but its sources are always bound in alignments and understandings unique to the individual. Thus the great paradox of empathy is also the paradox of communication: we live in the isolation of a unique private consciousness, even while the quest for certain understandings pulls us out of ourselves and toward others.
1 Martin Hoffman, “Empathy: Justice and Moral Judgment,” in Empathy and Its Development ed. by Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48.
2 Gary C. Woodward, The Perfect Response: Studies in the Rhetorical Personality (Lexington Books, 2010), 27.
3 Daniel Goldman, Social Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 2006), 84-88.