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The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of EmpathyReview - The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy
by Heidi Maibom (Editor)
Routledge, 2017
Review by Flavia Felletti
Mar 6th 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 10)

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy constitutes a comprehensive, likely the most comprehensive, collection of papers dealing with the most diverse topics and important debates within the philosophy of empathy. Some but not all the approaches to empathy presented are that from the history of philosophy and psychology, just as the phenomenological, the evolutionary, and the neuroscientific approach. Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this book that, despite being primarily concerned with the philosophy of empathy, it provides the reader with a vast interdisciplinary background on empathy. Not less important, it brings together the different traditions in philosophy in the discussion of the common topic of empathy, helping the reader to broaden his knowledge of the phenomena and of the issues at stake in the discussion proper to the various traditions, thus overcoming some limitations that one might experience when constrained to a single philosophical tradition. The literature on empathy abounds in many disciplines, and the deeply interested readers should be aware of it.

This review aims at providing an overview of the book, briefly presenting to the interested reader the topics that discussed and the many strengths of this Handbook, which in my opinion should be on the bookshelf of all those interested in doing research on empathy and of those curious about this so important and yet so complex phenomena. Given the large number of topics discussed and the different approaches adopted by the authors, it will not be possible for me to provide a critical review of every chapter. Rather, I will provide a brief description of any chapter and I will elaborate more on those chapters which focus on the most discussed issues on empathy. Those are the issues on which research on empathy tended to focus and that inspired research on different and newer topics. I would advise the inexpert reader interested in pursuing his own research to read carefully the foundational issues discussed in this book in order to develop an excellent background on empathy and the main related issues, but also to explore the newest and hottest debates on which she or he can contribute with the most original contributions.

The handbook brings together over thirty papers grouped in six parts, respectively dealing with core issues in the philosophy of empathy (Part I), the history of empathy (Part II), empathy and understanding (Part III), empathy and morals (Part IV), empathy and aesthetics (Part V), and empathy and individual differences (Part VI).

An important issue all those who do research on empathy have to deal with is that of making clear what they talk about when they talk abut empathy. This is the issue addressed in the first part of the handbook. Not only empathy is generally thought of as having a cognitive and an affective component, but disagreement exist on what these components consist of and which is the role that they play in the process of empathizing. The first two chapters deal with issue. In Ch. 1, Shannon Spaulding presents the theory theory and the simulation theory approach to cognitive empathy and argues that when empathizing we make use of both approaches depending on the situation we are in. Heidi L. Maibom, in Ch. 2, focuses on affective empathy. As the author highlights, affective empathy is a complex phenomenon, influenced by the situation, the target of empathy, the personality and the cognitive style of the empathizer. Furthermore, it involves personal distress, a feeling of discomfort experienced in response to another person’s distress (Davis, 1980), which might lead to a self-focused and not always positive behavior on the part of the empathizer (cf. Coplan, 2011). Ch. 3 in concerned with the phenomenology of empathy, discussed by Dan Zahavi. When we think about, imagine, or empathize with another person’s feeling we have three different experiences. The author defends a phenomenological reading of empathy, according to which empathy requires bodily proximity, which allows for a distinct experiential grasp and access to the psychological life of the other. In the next two chapters, the discussion moves toward the neuroscience of empathy. Christine Cong Guo discusses, in Ch. 4, neuroimaging studies and lesion studies in order to shed light on the neuroanatomical structures involved in empathy and on their precise contributions. Ch. 5 is devoted to Remy Debes’s discussion of empathy and mirror neurons. The discovery of mirror neurons gave raise to numerous hypothesis and speculations on their role in action anticipation, attribution of mental states and empathy (see, e.g., Rizzolatti & Craighero (2004) for a review of the topic). In Ch.6, Armin W. Schultz discuss the evolution of empathy, with a particular focus on why empathy developed and which are its implications with respect to further questions concerning empathic abilities. 

Part II groups together five chapters on the history of empathy. It is widely now that the term ‘empathy’ originated by a translation of the German term ‘Einfühlung.’ There is an aesthetic history of this term, which Derek Matravers discusses in Ch. 7. As it was characterized by Robert Vischer,  Einfühlung involved a distinction between active processes and mere bodily reaction, a form of passive mirroring and a projection of oneself into an object, which is this way imbued with content. His ideas were later developed by Theodore Lipps, which had a great influence in the later discussions of empathy. Empathy has a great importance also in the phenomenological tradition, as James Jardine and Thomas Szanto show in Ch. 8, especially in the work of Husserl and Stein, both critics of Lipps. The two phenomenologists characterize empathy as a sui generis intentional experience which has two different forms: a basic forms, which is perception-like, and an imagination-like higher-order form. Empathy was also central to the work of Hume and Smith. In Ch. 9, Imola Ilyes explores their conceptions of empathy and the role that empathy play on moral motivation in the Humean and Smithian philosophy. Ch. 10 focuses instead on empathy in the twentieth-century psychology. Here are discussed the cognitive tradition, which as Piaget as the most important exponent, the affective tradition of Stotland and colleagues, and the multidimensional tradition based on the work of Hoffmann and Eisenberg. Part II closes with Ch. 11, which introduces the non-western perspective on empathy by discussing empathy, compassion, and self-other exchanging in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.

With Part III we enter the topic of empathy and understanding.  Karsten Stueber (Ch. 12) explores the claim that we can make sense of the notion of reasons for acting only in light of our empathic capacities, while Ian Ravenscroft (Ch. 13) focuses on the role that mirror and reconstructive empathy might play in understanding what is like to feel the emotions of someone else and on the limitation that our empathic capacities might represent for such understanding. The hot topic of empathy and direct perception, once confined to the phenomenological tradition, is discussed by Shaun Gallagher in Ch. 14. Gallagher interestingly concludes that our answer to whether we can perceive others’ mental states might depend on whether we hold that the mind is embodied and situated and that mental states consist of patterns of which some elements might be perceived. Other interesting perspectives on this issue are that of Dan Zahavi (2011) and the critical perspective of Jacob (2011). Ch. 15 focuses on empathy and intersubjectivity. To what extent one is connected or distinct from the target of her empathy? And to what extent a blurry self-other distinction might undermine the empathizing process? Joshua May provides here his perspective on such issues.  Adam Morton (Ch.16) focuses instead on the problem of “fake empathy.” When we imagine people’s mental state, we might get them wrong, especially if we are presented with inadequate evidence. However, people want to be treated empathically and the same time they want the other person’s empathic feeling to be real. This considered, it is difficult to take a stand on how one should act when an empathic behavior is required. The last chapter of this part discusses the importance of empathizing with experiences of psychiatric illness (Matthew Radcliffe, Ch. 17).

Part IV is devoted to the discussion of empathy and morals. This part of the book covers all the main topic of empathy and morality: empathy and altruism (Tomas Schramme, Ch. 18), empathy and moral judgement (Antti Kauppinnen, Ch. 19), empathy and moral motivation (Alison E. Denham, Ch. 20), empathy and moral responsibility (David Shoemaker, Ch. 21), empathy and legal responsibility (Ishtiyaque Haji, Ch. 22), and empathy and care ethics (Maurice Hamington, Ch. 23). Whether empathy is necessary to morality is a long debated issue, which saw on the one hand sentimentalists arguing for a primary role of empathy in moral judgment, reasoning, or behavior and rationalist arguing that reason is instead the primary source of morality (cf. Gill, 2006 for a review of the topic). However, an important question to address before entering such discussion is with respect to which aspect empathy plays a necessary, positive, negative, or just important role. The role of empathy in moral judgment is arguably the prominent issue in the contemporary debate. Kappinnen (Ch. 19) discusses three hypotheses on the role of empathy in making good moral judgments: the casual hypotheses, the constitution hypothesis, and the explanation hypothesis. In his view, the constitutive and causal hypothesis of empathy are implausible but empathy still plays an important role for people who lack perspective-taking abilities show serious difficulties in moral reasoning. The role of empathy in moral motivation and moral responsibility occupy the other chapters of part IV and offer the most valuable insights and informed discussion to those interested in the more practical questions related to legal responsibility, care ethics, and medical ethics.

Part V addresses the role of empathy in aesthetic. Does the painter have to empathize with the subject of her painting? And does the viewer converge emotionally with the subject of the painting to appreciate the artist’s work? Those interested in such issues should definitely read Noël Carroll’s discussion in Ch. 25. For those interested in empathy in music, literature, and film the following three chapters are recommended instead (Jenefer Robinson, Ch. 26; Eileen John; Ch. 27). In the last chapter, Kathleen Stock discusses the problem of empathy and imaginative resistance. Who might ever empathize with someone killing her own child? Arguably none. This is what is called ‘imaginative resistance’.

Part VI is devoted to the topic of empathy and individual differences. Douglas Hollan (Ch. 30) discusses the important topic of empathy across cultures. The work discussed is ethnographic in nature, rather than merely theoretical, and helps us to examine why, why, and under which conditions empathy becomes central to human life and which aspects of empathy, biologically based or not, are shared among cultures. Importantly, ethnographic studies emphasize the variability of the experience, expression, and evaluation of empathy among cultures and implicitly challenge any conception of empathy as innate and uniform, and its moral and political clarify. Vivian P. Ta and William Ickes discuss the issue of empathy accuracy in Ch. 31. Can we really know what other people are thinking and feeling? Though we might be prone to answer negatively to this question, empirical research show that it is possible. The process by which we know what someone else is feeling or thinking is called in psychology ‘empathic inference’ and can variable levels of accuracy. This phenomenon and its implications are extensively discussed in this chapter. The next discussion on empathy and psychopathology (Ch. 32). Here Jeanette Kennett brings back again to the importance of empathy in morality discussing the useful insights that autism and psychopathy provide on the connected issues. Differences between the two populations and the respective deficit that they experience in empathic abilities are discussed. Central to this chapter is the effect that alexithymia ― a condition affecting the capacity to experience, identify, and share emotions ― might have on empathic and moral impairments in these populations. Finally, Ch. 33 is devoted to Robyn Bluhm’s discussion of gender and empathy. The research on empathy and gender took three different approaches: firstly, that from the developmental psychology, successively Baron-Cohen’s approach, which saw women as having an “empathic brain” as opposed to the “systematizing brain” of men (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 2009), and finally the neuroscientific approach which is still quite recent. Whether differences in gender have a sociological or biological basis and whether research have been strongly biased by the way empathy was conceived or cultural norms are all question to some extent addressed in this chapter and that future research should certainly try to answer.

Overall, the Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy is fully recommended to all those who aims at pursuing their own research on empathy and on any of the related topics. Suggestions for further and highly specialized reading will be found all over the book as well as in the introduction. The best quality of this book is that it discusses its main topics in all the relevant aspects, bringing together foundational and the newest trends in the philosophy of empathy. Moreover, I would highly recommend this book to the layman brought to it by personal curiosity concerning the charming ad complex phenomena of empathy. Such a reader will found here the likely most comprehensive collection of papers on empathy, embracing the perspective of various disciplines and several philosophical traditions. Though in the papers collected the authors presents original perspectives and argue for their own view on the topic, the layman would find this book easily accessible due to the excellent introduction written by Heidi L. Maibom (also editor of the book) and the introductory remarks often present at the beginning of any chapter.



Coplan, Amy and Peter Goldie. (2011) Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Davis, M. H. (1980). Individual differences in empathy: A multidimensional approach. Dissertation Abstracts International, 40(7-B), 3480.

Jacob, Pierre (2011). The Direct-Perception Model of Empathy: a Critique. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2 (3):519-540.

Gill, M. B. (2007). Moral Rationalism vs. Moral Sentimentalism: Is Morality More Like Math or Beauty? Philosophy Compass. Volume 2, Issue 1, Pages 16–30

Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 2004. 27:169–92.

Zahavi, Dan (2001). Beyond empathy: Phenomenological approaches to intersubjectivity. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (5-7):151-167.



© 2018 Flavia Felletti



Flavia Felletti, PhD Researcher, University of Duisburg-Essen


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