The Banality of Empathy

By: Namwali Serpell

In: The New York Review of Books

Date: March 2, 2019

Key Quotes:

  •  Empathy:
    • Rather than virtually becoming another, imagine using your own mind but from their position.
    • It’s a matter of keeping your distance, maintaining integrity, in both senses.
    • It has some affinity with Bloom’s emphasis on cognition rather than feeling. (see Econtalk Podcast)
    • Something in common with John Rawls’s veil of ignorance, which is also geared toward political justice rather than moral feeling: What would I want the world to offer me if I were born in another person’s situation?
  • Empathy and Kant:
    • “Representative thinking” from Kant’s aesthetic theory in The Critique of Judgment.
    • To make an aesthetic judgment, you cannot use reason alone; you need input from other people.
    • Because humans are social beings, judgment requires an investment in what others believe.
    • When others disagree with you, you reconcile your beliefs with theirs by adopting a Kantian “disinterestedness,” which Arendt sometimes calls “impartiality.”
    • In so doing, you shift from being an actor in a situation to being a viewer detached from what Arendt elsewhere disdained as “the inner turmoil of the self, its shapelessness.”
    • You achieve this “general standpoint” by enlarging your mind to encompass the positions of others.”
  • Empathy and Hannah Ahrendt:
    • “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.”
    • “This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.”
    • “The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions…”
    • “The very process of opinion formation is determined by those in whose places somebody thinks and uses his own mind, and the only condition for this exertion of the imagination is disinterestedness, the liberation from one’s own private interests.”
  • Empathy and literature:
    • Function of literature is not to teach empathy.
    • Literature, is rooted in the “disinterested pursuit of truth”: “The political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.”
    • Arendt argues that it’s not about “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”, about helping you care more about what others go through.
    • What is helpful and what is trained in literature is an ability to judge “using your own mind but from their position” and how that informs your opinions and behavior.
    • A more constructive way to think about empathy and applies not only to literature, but to many of your everyday social experiences.

Worth Reading:

Deeply interesting perspective on the concept of empathy and its role in being human, in trying to discover what is true from a human, social perspective.

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