Rhetorical empathy – a primer
The relationship between empathy and rhetoric has not been much theorized. At first, empathy and rhetoric seem to be at cross purposes. The speaker who lacks empathy cannot expect to be effective or persuasive; and empathic responsiveness needs to find its voice to be effective in making a difference. With empathy one’s commitment is to listen to the other individual in a space of acceptance and tolerance to create a clearing for possibilities of overcoming and flourishing. With rhetoric, the approach is to bring forth a persuasive discourse in the interest of enabling the other to see a possibility for the her- or himself or the community. In the case of empathy, the initial direction of the communication is inbound, in the case of rhetoric, outbound. Yet the practices of empathy and rhetoric are not as far apart as may at first seem to be the case, and it would not be surprising if the apparent contrary directionality turned out to be a loop, and arts of empathy and rhetoric reciprocally enable different aspects of authentic relatedness, community building, and empowering communications. Both empathy and rhetoric are as much arts as theories, in which the theories emerge from the practice(s). In both cases, practice is a basic part of the theory and vice versa.
Let us take a step back and use as a springboard to catalyze further analysis Lisa Blankenship’s Changing the Subject: A Theory of Rhetorical Empathy (Utah State University Press, 2019). The present commentary is not a proper book review, but if it were, the short version would be “two thumbs up!” I learned much from this short text and so will any reader.
Blankenship’s book has a throat-grabbingly powerful beginning. It quotes Eudora Welty’s imaginary account in The New Yorker (see July 6, 1963) of the assassination in 1963 of civil right leader Medgar Evers, in Jackson, Mississippi – from the shooter’s point of view. Welty’s fictional narrative was so compelling and lifelike that many readers took it to be the first-person account of the shooter. This is rhetorical empathy. It takes the other’s point of view. In this case, Welty creates a receptivity to an experience of the hatred (prejudice, racism, etc.) that motivated the shooter, but does so in such a way that the reader has a vicarious experience of the hatred. The reader does not actually become a hater, but gets a taste – a sample – a vicarious experience – of what it is like. It creates an understanding of the possibility – and in this case, actuality – that someone could be so motivated. This may be mind expanding to some – and disconverting to others – or both. And the story itself is an empathic response to the appalling crime that expands the reader’s power to cope with and engage the horror with a view to transforming it.
Blankenship contributes here to one of my own interests in the intersection of empathy and fiction, the rhetorical embedding of a fictional account in a factual one. This is not without its challenges to the integrity of the narrator, for no way exists to know “for sure” what went on in the conscious mind of the shooter – and, arguably, not even the shooter knew what went on in his unconscious mind. Welty’s story is narrated within the frame of a fictional account “as if” she were the shooter. Yet skepticism is not an option – or even required. Courts of law, historical monographs, and therapeutic processes, all ask and engage with the motives of human beings both as specific historical individuals and the ideal type, “human actor.”
A rigorous and critical empathy knows that it can be wrong about the feelings and thoughts of others, and such empathy seeks to check the validity of its empathy in a conversation with the other. Granted in a case such as this, the conversation might include a police interrogation. In addition to be a short story, Welty’s account is a proposal as to what motivated the perpetrator. To validate the account, one would have to talk to the perpetrator – as noted, even interrogate him – or peruse his diary or other (un)published communications. Indeed Welty’s bait of falsehood catches a carp of truth (as Shakespeare’s Polonius famously noted in another context). Given a firm anchoring in the factual details of the case, the way is opened to such alethic – “disclosive” – truths as learning to live with uncertainty, the conflictual dynamics of the human psyche, and acknowledging not knowing what one does not know.
In another context, Blankenship provides a moving narrative of “coming out” queer in a family of evangelical Christians. This is not for the faint of heart. One can’t top it, and I am inspired by it. This cannot have been easy, and shows that she has “matriculated in the college of hard knocks.” She is a survivor, and, as is often the case, survivors are able to make good use of the difficult, even traumatic, experiences they had to endure to inform an expanded empathic sensibility to the radical differences in experiences that empathy is committed to bridging. Blankenship’s other cases are hard-hitting, politically and factually relevant political advocacy for exploited workers, marginalized groups (e.g., LGBTQ), and teaching composition to undergraduates, the career challenging possibilities of which should not be underestimated. By the way, Blankenship capitalizes Other and uses “otherizing” [making into an Other] in a way that resonates with my own thinking.
Blankenship’s work contains and insists on an important caution, which hereafter my own work is committed to acknowledging. When the privileged and powerful call for empathic vulnerability, they must lead by personal example, not call for the powerless to be even more empathically vulnerable. This is obvious to common sense, but our own fractured political and cultural battlefields have long left common sense behind. Therefore, it is necessary explicitly to call out such things. Rhetorical empathy as such is not mere talk, yet it reverses the direction of our traditional understanding of empathy as listening, empathic receptivity, from inbound to the outbound direction of communication (speaking). There is precedent for it, for example, as President Obama’s speaking (and rhetoric) powerfully articulated the value of empathy for the marginalized and under-privileged, calling on the powerful and privileged to be more inclusive. That such a shift is not easy to bring about and is still a work in progress, makes it all the more urgent to further the shift.
Blankenship properly calls out the fundamental acknowledgement that Heidegger gives to Aristotle’s treatment of pathos (emotion, affect, passion) in Book II of his (Aristotle’s) Rhetoric. Her analysis is on target and penetrating. Yet I have one point of disagreement. She attempts to line up “empathy” with some particular pathos in Aristotle such as elos (pity) or clemency. This will not do, and it goes beyond what Blankenship proposes.
Empathy – the phenomenon, not the word – is not a particular emotion, but the form of the receptivity to and understanding of all the emotions – any arbitrary emotion – everything from sadness, anger, fear, and high spirits to subtler emotions such as guilt, jealousy or righteous indignation; and there is no word for that in Aristotle. Aristotle’s use of the term “empatheateros” (εμπαθέστερος) occurs in his treatise On Dreams(460b). In this text, the term and its use do not mean what the tradition understands by “empathy” or what we mean by it today. Rather it means being in a condition of being influenced by one’s emotions. When in a state of emotional excitement, sense-perception is more easily deceived by the imagination than is normally the case. When excited by the emotion of fear, the coward is more likely to think that his enemy is approaching (though it is only a distant figure); or when excited by love, the amorous individual believes it is the beloved one approaching from a distance. This suggests that empathy without adequate interpretation is blind. However, projection is also operating here. The individual perceives the situation in line with his or her pre-given emotional set, and attributes to the object what is merely a function of the individual’s own affective condition. The distortion of empathy emerges along with the possibility of empathy.
At this point, my discussion goes beyond what Blankenship writes, though I believe it is consistent with her position. This discussion is less concerned with the struggle for social justice causes, worthy though it be, than delivering on a neo-Aristotelian account of rhetorical empathy in a way that makes sense out of both empathy and rhetoric.
As one might expect, an Aristotelian account of what is entailed in capturing and responding to the emotions relies on an analysis in terms of what are designated as Aristotle’s “four causes” – formal, final, efficient, and material. With the possible exception of the material cause, what one calls the formal, efficient, and final causes are redescriptions of the same underlying phenomenon in nature according to different aspects of causality. Yet Aristotle lived in a profoundly different world than we inhabit today. Vision consisted of rays reaching out from the eyes to grasp the visible object. As the gypsy and savant Melquiades said, “Things have a life of their own; it is just a matter of waking up their souls.” This can be particularly puzzling if one thinks of causal relations between events in terms used by David Hume, for whom the causality by which one billiard ball impacts another and causes it to move is invisible. One sees the first ball hit the other and the other immediately jumps forward. Nowhere is a separate causal relation to be perceived. In contrast with the modern conception of causality, for Aristotle the principles of change (“causes”) are visible. For Aristotle, only one event is transpiring—a change in a total field of potentiality in which motion is actualized. The carpenter is the efficient cause of the cabinet as is the sculpture of the statue. Objects such as billiard balls are sublunary objects empowered to move at their own level, and are not significant problems requiring attention.
Now shift this analysis in the direction of the emotions. It may be a function of our primitive understanding of the emotions or the subtlety and power of Aristotle’s analysis, but the Aristotelian account of the emotions is a strong contender. In the context of the emotions, for example, the anger aroused by an insult is not separate from that insult, but is part of the processing of the anger in context. In addition to the physiological concomitants (material cause), one elaborates the occasions that arouse the anger (efficient cause), what one is trying to accomplish in expressing anger (final cause), and the process of being angry and expressing the anger (formal cause). One is dealing with the totality of a human interaction and situation.
According to Aristotle, “Anger must be defined as a movement of a body, or of a part or faculty of a body, in a particular state roused by such a cause, with such an end in view” (On the Soul, 403a: 25). The emotion of anger involves “a surging of blood and heat round the heart” (403b: 1) as the material cause. Being in a particular state of emotional upset involving “a craving for retaliation” (403a: 30) is the formal statement of the essence, though the retaliation itself might be redescribed as the final cause, the end in view. It is almost impossible to describe the primary principle of change (“efficient cause”) without falling into a modern, sense of disconnected events such as those described by David Hume when two billiard balls impact, the first being the cause of the second’s motion. Granted, there are certain things which arouse our anger—various insults, slights, disdain, frustration with things and people, spitefulness—Aristotle understands these as being part of the activity of being angry. Nevertheless, if one encounters an person angry, there is no better way than to appreciate the efficient cause – or trigger – of her anger than to ask, “Who perpetrated a dignity violation against the person?” From the perspective of the final cause – the purpose – one’s anger has a certain end in view, a target, which is usually an action directed against a person, that for the sake of which the activity is undertaken, retaliation (“pay back”). So at least one thing is plain: Aristotle makes it clear that the understanding of emotion involves more than knowing what the other person feels like “inside.” Emotion is a complex human activity involving the possibility of redescriptions of the phenomenon of emotionality from the four perspectives of Aristotelian causality.
Having laid out an account of the emotions, we turn to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The power of the Rhetoric lies in recreating the listening of the audience in the oratorical performance of the speaker. “Recreating the listening of the audience” in the speaker means precisely that what the speaker utters expresses what the listener is experiencing, has experienced, or may usefully consider experiencing going forward. These are not necessarily consistent with one another, and some listeners are only willing to hear what they already believe or of which they are “certain”. That is whether rhetorical techniques and strategies – such as empathy – may be appropriate to persuade or get around defensive certainty to allow the communication to land in way that makes a difference.
Aristotle does not need to call out an explicit term for empathy because his method is informed by empathy from the start. The speaker’s character and how that character is shown in his speaking is responsible for how the speaker’s discourse is received – how the speaking “lands” – in the listening of the individual in the audience. Aristotle’s guidance to the empathic rhetorician is in effect to recreate the way in which the listener is listening to the speaking of the speaker.
© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Being an empathic (“good”) orator depends on being a certain kind of person rather than possessing a body of knowledge (see also Eugene Garver, Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character (1994)). Persuading the listener means being a certain kind of person – having the depth of character to demonstrate one’s integrity, wholeness, leadership by example – rather than rhetorically providing the best syllogism (though sound and valid reasoning is also important). Providing a gracious and generous response to the listener (audience), the orator forms a vicarious experience that is subject to further empathic processing. In order for the other to be in enrolled in the orator’s speaking, does the orator then have to demonstrate to the listener (audience) that the speaker has listened? The speaker (orator) has to become an empathic rhetorician in the sense that she demonstrates in her speaking to the other that the orator has gotten or captured or understood what is of utmost concern to the listener (audience). This is inevitably complicated by the possibility that the individuals in the audience themselves do not fully appreciate what is that possibility.
This account of the emotions comes into its own in the place where Aristotle gives his most complete account of the emotions, Book II of his Rhetoric. Aristotle’s account of the emotions in other context (e.g., On the Soul) calls out bodily effects such as “blood surging” and accelerated physiological effects. If Aristotle had known of mirror neurons (or a biological mirroring system), then he might well have marshaled these as part of his account of the material cause. As things stand, Aristotle gives his analysis in terms of just three aspects of the emotions in his Rhetoric. He distinguishes the disposition or frame of mind of the emotion, the person with whom or towards whom one feels the emotion, and the occasions which give rise to the emotion (Rhetoric, 1378a: 9-10).
This rational reconstruction of the role of empathy in Aristotle, who did not use the word “empathy” here, is guided by the hypothesis that a speaker without empathy is not going to be effective, persuasive, or successful. Empathy is the reenactment or recreation of the audience’s listening in the orator’s speaking. The choice of arguments and facts to be persuasive must be guided by the speaker’s empathy with the audience. Who are they and what possibilities, potential and actual emotions, and reactions are present in their listening? The speaker who can answer these questions will be most powerful and persuasive.
The really Big Idea here is that the speaker gets his humanness from the audience. Rhetorical empathy invites the audience’s empathic receptivity to the speaker only to give it back to them (the audience) in an empathic responsiveness that validates the audience’s own experience. It is not just that the audience confers on the speaker his (or her) social role as orator but, in the sense that by his character and who he is as a speaker demonstrates empathically that the speaker is part of the community, persuasively carrying the day by an example of leadership.
Consider now an exercise. One may well want to take this Aristotelian analysis a step further and raise a question that did not occur to Aristotle, namely, “What are the four [Aristotelian] causes of empathy?” This did not even occur to Aristotle because, arguably, he lived in an understanding of empathy that was a fundamental part of the dynamics of emotions in practical deliberation and speaking. A brief outline of the answer is worth considering, as a rational reconstruction of what Aristotle might have argued, though it goes beyond Aristotle’s text.
As the material cause of empathy, one may usefully focus on the way in which the betrayal of feeling in another individual arouses corresponding feelings in oneself. So someone yawns. Pretty soon one feels like yawning too. Laughter and tears can frequently be induced in this way as one’s “laugh lines” and “grief muscles” are activated by a kind of contagion at the level of one’s physical organism. The evidence of mirror neuron as a “common coding” scheme at the level of the organism also warrants recognition.
If by formal cause or essence one understands Aristotle’s interpretation in the Rhetoric as disposition or frame of mind, then the subject of empathy would be in a particular state of receptivity or openness. But open to what? Open to different possible ways of being in the relationship to the speaker and the matter being addressed in the speaking. In everyday terms where communications are enacted and delivered through language, the audience would be listening receptively. But this also extends to the speaker. The speaker would be recreating the listening of the audience in his/her own speaking by being responsible for how the message “landed.” Thus, if the speaker was giving a funeral oration, he would be responsible for speaking in such a way as to call forth the loss and sadness of the listener. When ML King iteratively calls out “I have a dream,” describing black and white children holding hands in a community free of racial prejudice (which children of all races generally do anyway unless adults “teach” them prejudice), King’s speaking calls forth in the listener the possibility of overcoming prejudice (and related injustice). Yes, there is art and perhaps even artifice involved, technically called “anaphora,” repeating the same phrase to heighten engagement towards an emotional peak. One may say this form of empathic receptivity is not empathy at all but emotional contagion or infectious feelings, and there is truth to that statement. However, what is missed is that the same underlying function is employed in empathy as in emotional contagion and that a rigorous and critical empathy sets a limit to the contagion, further processing the emotion in empathic understanding, interpretation, and responsiveness. In its rhetorical enactment, the empathic responsiveness, in addition to including acknowledgement and recognition of the listener’s struggle and humanity, usually includes a call to action. If one stops with emotional contagion, the result is unpredictable – one gets a riot. If one further processes the empathic receptivity, one creates a possibility – such as a peaceful demonstration, speaking truth to power, working on oneself and one’s own spiritual development, and so on.
Returning now to the traversal of the four causes, the final cause of empathy is the purpose or end in view of the speaker’s expression of emotion. For example, when Malcolm X, addressing a largely African American audience, says “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock was landed on us!” – the applause, laughter, and exclamations of “Amen!” “Right, brother,” indicate the accuracy of the empathic gesture. (Malcolm used this line many time – one example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Aq2Z0i8D6A .) The final cause of rhetorical empathy is to build a community between the speaker and the listener(s). Another way of saying this in Aristotelian terms is the speaker’s empathic response recognizes the listener’s humanness and recognizes the listener’s struggle or accomplishment. Acknowledgement and recognition are the final causes of empathy in general and empathic rhetoric in particular.
Finally, the efficient cause of empathy would be what immediately releases one’s empathy. This forms a whole that is indistinguishable from the context of emotionality, though, as indicated above, we moderns represent separate, disconnected events. Aristotle’s practical wisdom (phronesis) of the virtuous individual enables the speaker to recognize details of the situation that are suited to the situation (Nichomachean Ethics VI.5). This requires taking the other’s perspective and assessing what is relevant; and doing so with the appropriate emotions. The empathic speaker deploys language to present a case that arouses a vicarious experience of the situation such that the listener is touched by it and is enrolled in – “buys into” – the request for action made by the speaker. The request may be “consider the possiblity,” “let go of prejudice,” “commit to acceptance and tolerance in human relations,” “find the defendant ‘not guilty’,” “buy the product,” “marry me,” “hire me as an employee,” “elect me your representative in the assembly,” and so on. In rhetorical empathy, one tries to imagine what would make one behave, feel, speak or otherwise respond the way the other is behaving or one wishes him to behave. If one’s empathy is not spontaneously released by the here and now, the speaker (or listener) will try to reconstruct the other’s situation imaginatively in order to further his empathy (and vice versa).
Rhetorical empathy is not empathy as traditionally understood. Indeed rhetorical empathy invites the possibility that effective but unethical speakers may misuse empathic methods to control or dominate. This too is a possibility of empathy, available already at the start. The devil may (and does!) quote scripture. The fact that rhetoric can be misused for purposes of manipulation should not blind us to the consequences which Aristotle’s account of the emotions has for empathetic receptivity. This opens up a whole conversation, which cannot be completed here. However, the position of this speaker is that “empathy tells one what the other individual experiencing; one’s morals and good upbringing tell one what to do about it.” One cannot expect one’s empathic receptivity to encompass the depths of another’s emotions unless one lets one’s empathy be informed by the occasion, the object, and the disposition of the person. In a way, the introduction of empathy into the context of rhetoric requires a transformation of the function of the rhetorical speaker into that of the listener. One not only strives to arouse and guide emotions, but rather permits one’s own emotions to be aroused by what the other (the audience) is experiencing, what one would like the audience to experience, what imaginatively one believes the audience is likely to be experiencing, and a rigorous and critical combination of all of these. It is a further challenge to manage or control a rigorous and critical empathy once it is explicitly called forth and that is – the art of rhetorical empathy.
 Aristotle, “On dreams” in Loeb Classical Library: Aristotle VIII: On the Soul, Parva Naturalia, On Breath, tr. W.S. Hett, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936: 348f.
 Jonathan Lear. (1988). Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988: 31.
 Aristotle, “On dreams” in Loeb Classical Library: Aristotle VIII: On the Soul, Parva Naturalia, On Breath, tr. W.S. Hett, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936: 2f.
 Aristotle, “Art of Rhetoric” in Loeb Classical Library: Aristotle ‘Art’ of Rhetoric, tr. J. H. Freese. London & Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann &Harvard University Press, 1926: 169f.
 Philip L. Jackson, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Jean Decety. (2005). “How do we perceive the pain of others? A window into the neural processes involved in empathy.” Neuroimage 24 (2005). See also J. Decety & P.L. Jackson. (2004). “The functional architecture of human empathy” in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, Vol 3, No. 2, June 2004, 71-100; V. Gallese. (2007). “The shared manifold hypothesis: Embodied simulation and its role in empathy and social cognition” in Empathy and Mental Illness, eds. T. Farrow and P. Woodruff, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007: 452f. [Editorial note: this material duplicates that cited below in the context of Hume – one of the occurrences should be deleted, assuming the material on Aristotle goes forward.]
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project