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The case of Dr Know-it-all: Empathy gives us our humanity

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You do not need a philosopher to tell you what empathy is. What then do you need? How about a folktale, a fairy tale, a narrative, a Märchen?

Rather than start with a definition of empathy, my proposal is to start by telling a couple of stories, in which empathy (and its breakdown) plays a crucial role. Both stories are anonymous folktales from the collection edited by the Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The distilled wisdom of the ages accumulated in traditional anonymous narratives will do nicely. Both stories include a significant amount of humor, underscoring that humor and empathy are closely related (on humor and creating a community see also Ted Cohen’s book Jokes (1999)). 

How so? In both humor and empathy one crosses the boundary between self and other while preserving that boundary. In both humor and empathy one builds a community, even if only of two people, by transiently, temporarily weakening the boundary between self and other, then reestablishing it. In the case of humor, the boundary crossing is loaded with an element of aggression, violation of community standards, or sexuality—the source of the tension that is released in laughter—whereas with empathy proper the boundary is traversed with a respectful acknowledgement and communication of mutual humanity, whether as high spirits, suffering, or community expanding affinity and affection. 

I hasten to add that while the philosopher does not necessarily have a better mastery of empathy than any parent, teacher, doctor, nurse, first responder, therapist, flight attendant, business person with customers, professional with clients, and so on, the philosopher is useful—and at times indispensable—in clarifying distinctions, analyzing concepts, and disentangling misunderstandings about empathy. 

Thus, the fairy tale (Märchen) of Doctor Know-it-all is a perfect place to start a philosophical inquiry into 

Dr Know-it-all pointing in his picture book.
Image credit:
John Thomas Smith / Wellcome V0020405.jpg (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0)

empathy. An uneducated, illiterate, hungry peasant named “Herr Crabb” delivers a load of wood to a doctor.[1] Crabb observes the doctor eating a sumptuous lunch; and Crabb asks him how he (Crabb) might improve his station by becoming a doctor. The doctor tells him to sell his ox and cart and buy an ABC book, buy a fine suit of clothes, and put a sign in front of his hovel that says “Dr Know-it-All.” (Note that the English “Know-it-all” is a translation of the German “allwissend,” which is also the standard translation of the divine attribute “omniscient.”) 

Scene two: thieves steal the treasure from the rich noble lord of the manor on the hill. Dr Know-it-all is called in to consult on the case, solve the crime, and recover the treasure. 

Now getting a good meal is a recurring theme in this story, and Crabb insists on beginning the consulting engagement by coming to dinner. The nobleman, Crabb, and Crabb’s wife, sit down to a fine three-course meal served by the nobleman’s servants. The first servant brings in the first covered dish, and Crabb says, “That is the first.” Likewise with the other two courses: “That is the second” and “That is the third.” 

Now the servants are starting to get worried, because, as is sometimes the case with such crimes, the theft was an inside job, and the servants were ones who did it. “This Crabb guy seems to be onto us,” say the servants to one another between courses. Meanwhile, the nobleman challenges Crabb to say what is under the third covered dish, testing Crabb’s credential as Dr Know-it-all. Of course, Crabb has no idea, and in frustration, he gestures as if to slap himself in the head and says his own name “Oh, Crabb!” Right! The meal is of crab cakes. 

Now the servants are really worried—this guy really does know-it-all. The servants create a pretext to take Crabb aside and confess their theft to him, telling him that they will tell him where the treasure is hidden and even give him an extra fee in addition if only he does not identify them as the culprits. An agreement is reached. Crabb shows the lord where his treasure is hidden, collects ample fees from all sides, does not betray the servants, who, after all, are fellow suffers of social injustice like Crabb himself, resulting in the latter’s becoming rich and famous. By the end of the story, living into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his performance catches up with his reputation, Crabb does indeed become Dr Know-it-all. 

This is the perfect narrative with which to begin an engagement with a group of philosophers and thinkers who propose answers about the core issues in the study of empathy. One could let one’s scholarly egoism result in a narcissistic injury; but a better response would be self-depreciating humor. The occupational hazard of over-intellectualization looms large whenever philosophers sharpen the cutting edge of their analytic tools. And there is nothing wrong with that as such, but the approach does have its risks and constraints. 

Philosophically speaking, the peasant Herr Crabb, Dr Know-it-all, is the personification of our Socratic ignorance. Socrates’ fame was assured when the Oracle at Delphi—a kind of latter day Wikileaks—proclaimed him as the wisest person in the world, because he acknowledged (i.e., knew) that he did not know.  

Socrates was a commitment to pure inquiry; and that has remained a valid approach to philosophizing in such thinkers as Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hume in his skeptical phase, and the Kant of the transcendental dialectic. Nevertheless, the commitment of this review is to provide both questions and answers about empathy, in a Socratic spirit, even if those answers then become the basis for further debate, argument, and inquiry.

Meanwhile, the story of Dr Know-it-all is meant to be told with a totally strait face. Notwithstanding the relatively primitive state of medicine in 1804, one still had to go to the university, even if only the better to understand how the planets influenced disease as in influenza. Nevertheless, it is a depreciating and mocking guidance that the doctor gives in the opening scene to the peasant to sell his ox and get a sign that says “Dr Know-it-all.” The peasant follows the advice.

This is the first empathic encounter in the story. Crabb brings the mind of a beginner to the relationship. In a “once upon a time” moment, this is Crabb’s Socratic ignorance, though of course the story does not use such language. Crabb often seems to be thinking about his next meal, and, in that limited sense, he has a desire—to be well fed like the ruling class. However, in a deeper sense, Crabb is without desire and without memory. That is empathy lesson number one in this story: bring the innocence of a beginner’s mind to one’s relationships. That is the readiness assessment for empathy: be open to possibility, no matter how unlikely or counter-intuitive.

Next, in a series of seeming coincidences, Crabb makes simple, ambiguous statements such as: “That is the first one,” “That is the second one,” and so on. These statements become ambiguous Gestalt figures like the famous duck-rabbit, which spontaneously reverses between one figure and another, depending on one’s perspective. Is it a duck or is it a rabbit? (For an image of the duck-rabbit see Wittgenstein 1951: 194 (or Google it).) Likewise, in the folktale, does the statement refer to the dish of food being served or to the answer to the discussion question, who is the thief? Yes.

This is top-down cognitive empathy; take a walk in the other person’s shoes. The servants employ top down empathy—imagining that they are the consultant(s) brought in to solve the mystery of the missing treasure, taking Crabb’s perspective, putting themselves in his shoes. But their empathy misfires. It doesn’t work. Instead of taking a walk with the other person’s personality—Crabb is after all a poor peasant like the servants (but they do not necessarily know that)—they project their own issue onto Crabb.

Their issue? The servants know who are the thieves and they have one thought too many about it. They have guilty consciences. Though they are hungry peasants in their own way, they identify with the values of the dominant class. When authentic human relatedness misfires, then one gets the psychological mechanism of projection. The thieves guiltily project their knowledge onto Crabb. They imagine that Crabb knows their secret. Here the servants’ empathy is in breakdown. The readers learn about empathy by means of its misfiring, breaking down, going astray, and failing. 

Taking a step back, the fundamental empathic moment is so simple as to be hidden in plain view. Crabb’s empathy tells him what the servants are experiencing. Fear. They are afraid. If Crabb identifies them as the thieves, they will be hanged. The servants actually say that to Crabb in the story. 

Note this is a world circa 1804 in Central Europe, in which there is a different set of rules for judging servants and noblemen. When a nobleman steals, it is called rent, taxation, or user fees. When the servants steal, it is a hanging offense. Theft remains a transgression, so the treasure must be returned. But when the hungry steal to eat, it is arguably a much less serious offense if not an actual entitlement. “Cast not the first stone: go—and sin no more.”

So the story also belongs to a type in which the servant outwits the master, a type of which The Marriage of Figaro is perhaps the most famous example. (See also the narrative approach of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There, a major motion picture that features Peter Sellers as a naive gardener educated only by watching TV.) In our narrative, integrity is restored at multiple levels. The treasure is returned, the peasant Crabb and his wife acquire the means to eat well going forward, and the servants escape an unfair punishment.

This highly subversive message must be wrappered in humor, so as not to so threaten the prevailing social hierarchy or social injustice of rigid class distinctions with violent revolution. Getting the message out overrides transforming the social order, a perhaps unrealistic expectation in the listening of the folk audience. Crabb’s empathy tells him what the servants are experiencing; his compassion tells him what to do about it—not identify the servants as the perpetrators. I do so like a happy ending, rare though those be.

The case of the young man lacking empathy

The second fairy tale is a kind of thought experiment, a condition contrary to fact. What would be the case if someone completely lacked the capacity for empathy—and how would one acquire such a capacity? 

“The story of the youth who set forth to learn fear” is about a young man who is such a simpleton that he does not even experience fear.[2] It is a long and intricate story. I simplify. The folktale is a ghost story. In the story, as people are telling ghost stories, they say “it made me shudder”—a visceral sensation of “goose bumps” in German the onomatopoeic “grüseln.” This simpleton says: “I wish I knew what that was—shuddering. It sounds interesting, maybe I could make a career out of it.” His poor father is now in despair, thinking, “What am I going to do with this one?” Being charitable, we might say nothing is wrong with this young man, the protagonist in the story, but there is definitely something missing. 

The father is agreeable. He apprentices the youth out to the local sexton to teach him fear. The sexton tries to scare him by dressing up in a sheet as a ghost at midnight, but the sexton breaks his leg when the youth is not scared and fights back. Thus, the youth is exiled, going on an educational journey into the world to learn visceral fear—shuddering. Having no idea what fear is, he volunteers to spend three nights in the haunted castle, from which no visitor has ever, ever returned alive. 

The youth is a simpleton, but one might say, no fool. He takes with him, a knife, a turning lathe with vice grip, and a fire, the three things one is likely to need in case of an emergency. The first night he is confronted by dogs and cats with red-hot chains—the beasts of hell. He uses the knife to dispatch them. The second night he is confronted by fragmentation and dismemberment. Disconnected arms, legs, and heads fall down the chimney, and the zombie-like, quasi-men propose a game of bowling. But the heads, being elliptical, do not roll well. Fearless as usual, he uses the turning lathe to make well-rounded bowling balls, and all enjoy the game. 

All the while, the youth is obsessively complaining: “I wish I knew what was shuddering. I wish I could shudder.” On the third night, pallbearers bring in a coffin with the dead body of his cousin. In a scene that authentically arouses the reader’s shuddering, the youth gets into bed with the corpse to warm it up. He succeeds. The corpse comes alive, and, not behaving in a friendly way, threatens to strangle him. But the youth is as strong as he is simple. He overpowers it. Then the old spirit appears, the old man in a long, white beard appears. They struggle. Though consistently depicted as a simpleton, the youth has a breakthrough in his intelligence. Instead of using the physical strength that has served him up until now, the youth cleverly catches the old one’s beard in the vice grip; and he thrashes him until the latter surrenders. The youth wins, and the old spirit shows the youth the treasure hard-to-attain, one third of which goes to the king, one third to the poor, and he gets to keep one third. He also gets the hand of the princess in marriage. 

However, the youth has still not learned to shudder. Fear not! On the morning after his wedding night, the chambermaid hears of his persisting complaint from his wife. The chambermaid asserts that the problem is easily fixed. She takes the decorative bowl of gold fish in cold water and throws it on him, as he lies in bed still asleep. The little fish flop around. He awakes. He gets it: Goose bumps. “At last I understand shuddering!” 

Fear is perhaps the most primordial and basic emotion. The flight/fight response is a function of the basic biological response of the organism to situations that threaten the integrity of our creaturely existence. The amygdala is activated, adrenalin (norepinephrine) pours into the blood stream, a visceral state of arousal of the body is mobilized that includes increased heart beat, rapid pulse, enhanced startle response, hair standing on end, and a withdrawal of blood from the surface of the skin that results in “goose bumps.” It is a thought experiment similar to riding on a beam of light, going light speed, to imagine a person who does not experience fear in the face of the fearful. Such a thought experiment might not require as much equipment as riding on a beam of light, but, in any case, it is just as rare.

However, no sooner did I pen these words, then I came across a case, in which an individual was identified who did not experience what we would conventionally call “fear.”[3]

As usual, the real world is more complex than one’s thought experiments. It turns out that the individual in question (SM-046) does experience fear in certain situations, but much less so than most “normal” people, so-called “neurotypicals.” The subjective experience of suffocation upon inhaling carbon dioxide in a controlled setting did indeed arouse panic (fear) in her. Panic, fear—close enough? 

A further analysis is required to determine what parts of the interpersonal world—personal space, trust of other people, social skills—are impacted (and by how much) by damage to the amygdala. In no sense is SM “less human”; but there is something missing from her empathic repertoire. This missing capacity for fear seems to diminish her social skills and ability to relate. She does not experience vulnerability in situations that are dangerous or risky when most other people would do so, which could be problematic in avoiding injury due to everyday hazards. In that sense, she may actually resemble the simpleton-hero in the folktale, who is so impervious to what others would experience as fearsome or scary that he naively acts courageously and triumphs in the face of long odds against success. 

SM does not spend three nights in a haunted castle, so her experiences cannot be compared to those of the protagonist in the folktale. Yet, in any case, physiological fear becomes a symbol of empathic, struggling humanity and its quest for self-knowledge. 

The hero-simpleton tries so hard to experience fear that he is effectively defended against his own emotional life. It is ironic that the simpleton is guilty of over-intellectualizing, usually an occupational hazard of philosophers. The youth imagines that someone can tell him in a form of words what is fear as shuddering, visceral goose bumps.

This lack of feeling points to an underlying deficiency in the capability to empathize. Today we might say that this youth is “on the spectrum”—the autistic spectrum—in that he is emotionally isolated and struggles with the reciprocal communication of affect. In short, the youth has an empathy deficit. 

As in all classic folktales, the youth has to go forth on a journey of exploration of both the world and of himself. He becomes a traveller on the road of life, which is the narrative of his emotional misadventures to recover his empathy—and his affective life—and become a complete human being. 

This must be emphasized. The recovery of feelings is the recovery of his humanity. The youth’s journey into the world can be described in many way; but I urge that it is a journey to recover his humanity in the form of experiencing the full range of human emotions in himself and others, the basic paradigm of which is fear and the basic capacity for which is empathy. 

The youth’s recovery of his ability to shudder, his emotions, and his empathy unfold as a running joke. After each increasingly creepy encounter with something most people describe as fearful, he complains, “I wish I could shudder.” This is repeated a dozen times just to make sure the audience gets the point. 

As noted, the folktale, the Märchen, is a ghost story, to be told on dark October nights around Halloween. The empathy of the audience is aroused by increasingly gruesome images of dismembered bodies. The audience definitely shudders, getting the creeps, but not the protagonist. Meanwhile, the audience is taken through the three stages of overcoming over-intellectualization, overcoming resistance to empathy, and recovering his full humanity in a rich emotional life. 

We retell the story, emphasizing the empathic and emotional aspects.

In the first stage of recovering one’s empathy, one must descend into the hell of one’s own lack of integrity and inauthenticities to regain access to and expand one’s humanity. The dogs and cats with red-hot collars and chains are images from hell. The assignment? One has to descend into the hell of one’s empathy breakdowns, misfirings, inauthenticities, blind spots, self-deceptions, and failures, in order to break through the refiner’s fire of self-inquiry with renewed commitment to empathy, relatedness, and community. One must clean up one’s own act, restoring integrity where it is missing in one’s own actions before carrying empathy forward to others; otherwise the attempt to recover and expand empathy is like putting butter cream frosting on a mud pie. It doesn’t work. 

However, even if one cleans up one’s act, acknowledges one’s blind spots and inauthenticities, and commits to empathic relatedness, the risks of failure are significant. That one is committed to relating empathically can leave one vulnerable to the risks of burn out, compassion fatigue, or emotional fragmentation. 

The second night in the castle is filled with images of dismemberment. The youth’s self is vulnerable to fragmentation.

Images of fragmentation: Illustration by Otto Ubbelohde to the fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was (public domain)

None of the dismembered body parts matter to the youth in the way they would matter to an affectively, emotionally whole person. Ghouls and living corpses surround him, but, ontologically speaking, he is the one who is an emotional zombie. Without empathy, the individual is unrelated and isolated—emotionally dead. 

The guidance of the folktale is to be persistent. Set limits with courage and humor. The youth rounds the egg-shaped heads in his turning lathe, the better to play at bowling with the now-rounded heads and the dismembered legs as pins. It works. The youth’s good sense of humor and fellow feeling serve him well in relating empathically to what would otherwise be a harrowing encounter with emotional fragmentation. The integrity of the self is sustained and expanded. Everyone has fun, and the ghouls depart with the body parts at the end of the game. 

On the third night, in a scene that is really quite creepy (and in which the audience, if not the youth, learns shuddering), the coffin of his dead cousin is delivered. The youth gets into bed with the cold corpse of his cousin, charitable lad that he is, in order to warm it up—and, even more uncanny, succeeds in awaking it! 

The emotions are not pleasant that have long lain dormant and “dead” and are brought back to life. The person is at risk of choking on them due to their intensity. Anger and narcissistic rage are the order of the day. The awakened corpse tries to strangle the youth, but the youth overpowers it using physical strength. 

The old spirit, the old man with the long, white beard, shows up for the final struggle. The simpleton youth has a breakthrough in his intelligence. He cleverly catches the old man’s beard in his vice grip and starts wailing on him. 

As noted, the old spirit yields, and, delivers the treasure-hard-to-attain—the hidden gold and the hand of the princess in marriage. But, though the missing empathy ought to have been recovered by now, for rhetorical reasons, the story continues in describing the youth as still complaining about not yet having learned how to shudder. The climax is complete; the dénouement is at hand. 

The individual cannot recover his empathy—or his humanity—on his own. The other is required. A relationship with the other is indispensable. The youth has raised the curse from the haunted castle and won the hand of the fair princess, and he stops trying to shudder. That is key: he finally stops trying. He stops thinking about it—over-intellectualizing. He has a passive overcoming, letting matters be. Then the other teaches him shuddering at the first available opportunity.

The wife’s chambermaid teaches him shuddering in a pun that cleverly masks the physical and sexual innuendo, throwing the cold water and flopping gold fish, causing goose bumps, a visceral experience hard to put into words.

Now the youth is finally a whole, complete human being. The absence of the ability to shudder becomes a symbol for the absence of empathy, the ability to communicate affectively. This youth had no feelings—not even fear. Thus, in this story, in contrast to Dr Know-it-all, we are dealing with bottom up, affective empathy. The absence of the emotion of fear is an extreme paradigm, a negative ideal case, of an absence of the underlying, bottom up capacity for empathy. 

Taking the interpretation up a level, the youth is ontologically cut off from the community, who share emotions empathically. Life is disclosed and matters to members of the community based on their affects and emotions. 

In the narrative, empathy becomes conspicuous by its absence. This absence of empathy is equivalent to the absence of the individual’s humanity. It is only after the youth undertakes a kind of training program in recovering his empathy—and his humanity—by descending into the hell of his own blind spots and inauthenticities that he is able to experience the full range of human emotions—and, ending with a laugh, shuddering.

With the assimilation of these two pre-ontological documents, we turn to the less humorous but equally significant task of defining different methods and approaches to understanding and applying empathy. The philosophy of empathy engages with diverse philosophical methods that provide access to it. 


[1] Anonymous. (1804). Dr Know-it-all, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, eds., trs. Margaret Hunt and James Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972/1994: 456–457; translation modified.

[2] Anonymous. (1804). “The story of the youth who set forth to learn fear,” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, eds., trs. Margaret Hunt and James Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972/1994: 29–38; translation modified. This is a complete reworking of Lou Agosta. (1980). The recovery of feelings in a folktale, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287–297.

[3] See: R. Adolphs, D. Tranel, H. Damasio, A. Damasio. (1994). Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala, Nature. 372 (6507): 669–72. DOI: 10.1038/372669a0. 

Image credit: Dr Know-it-all: Creative Commons: An old man in a top hat sitting in a wooden cart with wheels Wellcome V0020405.jpg 

Image Credit: Otto Ubbelohde (artist) – Images of fragmentation: Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen (Public Domain)

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project


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