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EmpathyReview - Empathy
Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives
by Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Dina Mendonça, Ph.D.
Jun 5th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 23)

Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives is a collection of eighteen original essays edited by Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. The volume begins with an insightful introduction which traces the history of the concept of empathy explaining how it has been important both to understand others as well as to ethically respond to them. In addition, it explains how empathy has been important in our relations to works of art.

The volume is organized into three sections of six essays each: Empathy and Mind, Empathy and Aesthetics, and Empathy and Morality. The essays from the section on "Empathy and Mind" define and debate empathy from the perspective of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of mind. The first chapter, 'Understanding Empathy: Its features and effects' by Amy Coplan, distinguishes lower from higher level empathy identifying three central elements of higher-level empathy: affective matching, other orientated, and self-other differentiation. Coplan argues that empathy should be restricted to the higher-level process described in the essay. In the second chapter Derek Matravers, in 'Empathy as a Route to Knowledge' defines empathy as a conscious imaginative project that requires a full understanding of the target's mental states in order to be able to engage with them imaginatively. Also, he argues how empathy can provide knowledge about unfamiliar mental states. In contrast with the previous two essays, the following chapter, 'Two Routes to Empathy: Insights from Cognitive Neuroscience' by Alvin Goldman, defines two possible routes for empathy equivalent to the lower and the higher-level empathy. Goldman describes some of the fascinating new findings of mirror neurons and mirroring processes stating that they constitute one type of route of empathy, and then adds another type of empathy that he calls reconstructive empathy, which is a more effortful and constructive process. Next, Marco Iacoboni describes the neurophysiological mechanisms that underlie empathy in 'Within Each Other: Neural Mechanisms for Empathy in the Primate Brain'. Iacoboni argues that there are many different kinds of mirror neurons, and that human mirror neurons are anatomically much more widespread than previously thought. Explaining how the self and other are two sides of a same coin and can only be understood in relation to each other, he suggests that there is a very sophisticated neural system that supports complex forms of mindreading and empathizing. The next chapter by Jean Decety and Andrew Meltzoff, 'Empathy, Imitation and the Social Brain', discusses the connection between empathy and imitation looking at the affective and cognitive components of empathy. Showing how imitation has a central role in childe development they point out the dangers of the egocentric bias in imagining oneself in perspective taking. The last essay of this section, 'Empathy for Objects' by Gregory Currie, is a transition chapter to the following section on Empathy and Aesthetics. In this chapter, Currie argues that we also empathize with things, speculating that bodily simulations are a pervasive feature of our relations to the external world. Currie says that addressing intentionality and consciousness helps us to understand how simulative states puts us in contact with works of art.

The section on Empathy and Aesthetics looks at the strong historical link between the concept of aesthetics and of empathy. The first essay by Murray Smith, 'Empathy, Expansionism, and the Extended Mind,' considers the role of empathy in movies. Murray argues that films are cognitive prostheses that aid imaginative capacities, because empathy is an important part of our retrospective and anticipatory engagement with narratives. The following essay by Dominic McIver Lopes, 'An empathetic Eye,' is concerned with our engagement with pictures showing that empathy comes from social refereeing and from what we see in pictures and is caused by the fact that pictures evoke experiences. Putting forward that empathetic ability is a skill, McIver says that improvement can come with exercise, and that pictures can provide the exercise for some of the components of empathetic responses. In 'Infections Music: Music-Listener Emotional Contagion', Stephen Davies argues that our response to music happens by contagion, in clear contrast with cognitive accounts of emotions. He argues that music emotional contagion invites critical consideration of models of human-to-human emotional contagion. The following three chapters are concerned with the empathetic engagement with literature. The first of these by Susan Feagin 'Empathizing as Simulating', puts forward a simulation account of empathy with literary characters, arguing that for such empathy one must simulate the relevant mental processes of the character. Next, Noel Caroll, in 'On some affective relationships between audiences and the characters in popular fiction', considers the different emotional engagement with fictional characters. Carroll explores first how our emotions are identical with the characters because of our independent evaluation of the situations; second, how are emotions are vectorially converge with emotional state of characters and, third, when we sympathize with the character with care and concern for another. Finally, Graham McFee's 'Empathy: Interpersonal vs. Artistic?' compares empathy in aesthetics and empathy in interpersonal relationships. With strong influence from Wittgeinstein, McFee argues that the body is the ultimate barrier to empathy and that empathy is an achievement of which we should look for its failure conditions.

The last section of essays of the volume on Empathy and Morality, begins with an essay by Jesse Prinz which asks: 'Is Empathy necessary for Morality?' Prinz writes there is little evidence for thinking that empathy is necessarily for moral judgment, for moral development, or for moral conduct. Thus arguing that the capacities that make up basic moral competence (acquisition of moral values, making moral judgments and act morally) do not necessarily require empathy. Also Prinz points out some of the many problems of empathy for moral life, such as how it can lead to preferential treatment, how it can be easily manipulated. The next two essays consider the role of empathy is particular aspects of moral life. In 'Empathy, Justice, and the Law', Martim L. Hoffman shows the importance of empathy in justice and the law illustrating it with court cases in which empathy had a role, both showing empathy's positive impact as well as its more problematic side. The next essay 'Empathy and trauma Culture: Imagining Catastrophe' by E Ann Kaplan examines the role of empathy in our responses from images of horrible events (Iraq, the Holocaust, and Hurricane Katrina). Kaplan identifies and criticizes three forms of empathy in response to these images: the 'vicarious trauma response', where the pro-social motivational of empathy is blocked off; second, 'empty empathy' where pro-social motivation is lacking and feelings are replaced by bland sentimentality; and finally 'ethical witnessing' which may change the viewer in a positive pro-social manner. The following essay by Heather Battaly entitled 'Is Empathy a Virtue?' begins by stating that we conceive of empathy as a quality that makes us morally good in pre-theoretical level, and then outlines four different concepts of empathy (common sense, and three more technical definitions). Then Battaly identifies the main features of virtues pointing out the difference with skills and capacities, and argues that the adoption of the theoretical concepts of empathy means adopting the perspective that empathy is not a virtue. The last two essays of this section focus on the difficulties that shifting our perspective can have. Peter Goldie in 'Anti-Empathy' criticizes the type of empathy which does in-his-shows perspective shifting, that involves imagining yourself in the other's circumstances, and argues for the specificity of empathetic perspective-shifting in which we imagine being the other in the other's circumstances. The last essay of the collection, 'Empathy for the Devil' by Adam Morton, examines how morality can be a barrier to empathy, since the internalization of moral code and restriction of actions limits one's capacities to empathize with people who commit horrible actions.

This volume of collected essays provides a good sample of the importance of empathy and its wide impact on several issues, and is a gateway contribution for the future work to be done in philosophy, psychology and elsewhere.

 

 

   © 2012 Dina Mendonça

 

Dina Mendonça, Ph.D. Instituto de Filosofia da Linguagem, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa


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