‘Empathy’ is a modern word, compared to the more familiar ‘sympathy’. You find the word ‘empathy’ first used at the beginning of the twentieth century to translate the Geman ‘Einfühlung’, to express the new sophisticated psychological interest in what it takes to create something artistic, or to respond to the demanding intensity and conscious artistry of contemporary paintings, or poems or novels. More active effort is being asked of the creator and the spectator to feel their way into the subject. Sympathy has always relied on the natural capacity of one thing, or person, to be affected by another; to be moved by a natural affinity, to be influenced without thinking. Empathy implies that we – we who are encountering each other – will need to relate more actively. I came across these words of William Law, the eighteenth century religious leader, which show that this ideal of recognising and enjoying difference is not new to the twentieth century, but today, perhaps, there is a more acute sense that the natural resonance between different instruments may not now sound out so naturally as it did for the contemplative William Law. “Every complexion of the inward man… suffering itself to be tuned and struck and moved by the Holy Spirit of God, according to its particular frame and turn, helps mightily to increase that harmony of divine praise, thanksgiving and adoration which must arise from different instruments, sounds and voices”. Today, perhaps, we are looking for different music, different and more difficult connection.
I want now to lead you through an analysis of empathy as a process taking place between people. My account relies heavily on the description given by Evan Thompson, a philosopher, who wrote a book called The Embodied Mind. The title will give you the clue that my interest was roused by the significance given to bodily interaction in a human experience such as empathising.
Empathy is concerned with our wish and our ability to understand what someone else is experiencing. It is important, for my understanding, to affirm at the outset that we experience other people directly. We don’t, I believe, go through a process of inferring how another person is feeling from how they’re behaving. Our experience of another as a person can rightly be called direct perception. We experience another person as an integrated whole – as a being with a mind and feelings, a personality, expressed through their body, a being with an inner life.
Empathising begins with an involuntary linking with another person through an unconscious appreciation of their whole body activity, and a consequent resonant stimulation, in the observer, which generates a state which echoes or recreates or models the other person’s state of being. This needs attention but not conscious attention.
The next state is more active and more thoughtful. We imagine ourselves in the place of the other. This could result in some vague sense of distress perhaps, or at the other end of a spectrum, in a clear exploration of how we imagine the other person is seeing the world, how they are feeling and thinking.
If we go to the developing child we can see the gradual growth of this ability and wish to share with another. It is rooted in the growing realisation, first, that others are like me and, second, the growing recognition, for the child herself, that she has her own plans and intentions. Bring these two dawning developments together and the child begins to reach out towards sharing. She will follow the gaze of her mother to find out what she is interested in, she will imitate the movements of her mother and find her way into their purpose, she will point and call her mother’s attention towards her own interest.
On the next, deeper, interactive level comes the double step of being able to see another person as someone who sees me as an individual, separate from them. In this intersubjective relationship, both people have the chance to step out of their ‘I’ perspective, but also to recognise themselves as separate entities in the world. A new possibility of self-consciousness has arisen, and a newfound complexity about what it is to be a “lived body”. I am aware of myself as my own unique intimacy, and as an element in an inter-subjective world – but my identity depends on my being able to experience, via empathising, that other people recognise me. I have a sense of here and there, but also, on a more complex level, the sense of ‘I’ and ‘you’ who help define each other and can’t simply swap places.
This leads on, I think, to the fourth stage of empathising, in the recognition of the other as a person who deserves, or calls forth, our concern and respect. This is the fundamental birth of our moral sensibility. Perhaps empathy will most obviously be expressed through language, and will become individual and refined only through language, but it begins in the body and can be expressed at all levels in deeds. I believe, in whatever way it is expressed, there is something happening in the nature of a conversation, a dialogue. What is important here for me is that a conversation is not predictable or symmetrical. There are no fixed procedures, no duties. There is a spirit of interest, of enquiry in the act of empathising which doesn’t seek to console or to know. It is not the realm of the expert, unless it be in attentive interest. The process of empathy involves the subtlety of experiencing oneself both as ‘I’ and ‘other’. This can lead on to the conscious experience of self-empathy, entering into one’s own experience imaginatively. This too can begin in the body – we are able to touch ourselves, to hold one hand in the other and, in a sense, be both self and other. This idea comes more to life in my remembering how I once was, when I recall a recent situation and my part in it, or when I imagine how I will feel in a future meeting. Bodily being, and feeling, ground our morality.
But without knowledge of other minds it is impossible to have knowledge of our own. Our connection to others begins more via intentions and desires than the recognition that they have beliefs and thoughts and knowledge. This progression towards the centre, towards the inner life of the other comes about through conversation. What the Alexander Technique adds, for me, to this conversation is, first, a celebration of the bodily resonating, bodily responsiveness, which supports the growth of empathy, and, secondly, a path of calming which clarifies and opens the channels of imagination, of empathy, both to myself and to other people. Sympathy is merging, empathy is about meeting, about making music from our individual instruments, about improvisation which allows us all to find our voices.
I heard by chance a voice of forty years ago – Bob Dylan singing ‘positively 4th street’ – and its relevance to this essay was too good to miss. The singer addresses with bitter wit the friend or lover he feels has betrayed him.
I wish that for just one time
you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes I wish that for just one time
you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
to see you
End of song.