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A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy (the book)
You don’t need a philosopher to tell you what empathy is; you need a philosopher to help you distinguish the hype and the over-intellectualization from a rigorous and critical empathy.
Every parent, teacher, health care worker, business person with customers, and professional with clients, knows what empathy is: Be open to the other person’s feelings,
take a walk in their shoes, give them back their own experience in one’s own words such that they recognize it as theirs.
It is important to note that one may usefully take off your own shoes before trying on those of the other individual. This is perhaps implied in the folk definition of empathy, but overlooked in the over-intellectualization that occurs in academic treatments of the subject.
Okay – I’ve read enough – I want to order the book (compelling priced at $10 (US)): Order A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy
So why is empathy in such short supply? Because we are mistaking the breakdowns of empathy – emotional contagion, conformity, projection, gossip, and getting lost in translation – for authentic empathy with one another in community. Drive out cynicism, shame, resignation, bullying, and empathy naturally shows up. There is enough empathy to go around. Get some here.
In this volume, Lou Agosta engages thirty three key articles from the great contributors to empathy studies such as William Ickes, Shaun Gallagher, and Dan Zahavi. Agosta distinguishes the hype from the substance, the wheat from the chafe, and the breakdowns of empathy from a rigorous and critical empathy itself as the foundation of community.
After debunking the prevailing scientism of empathy, this volume lays out a rigorous and critical empathy, leading the way forward with empathy studies that actually enable us to relate to one another.
rigorous and critical empathy itself as the foundation of community.
After debunking the prevailing scientism of empathy, this volume lays out a rigorous and critical empathy, leading the way forward with empathy studies that actually enable us to relate to one another.
Meanwhile, even more praise from the critics for A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy by Lou Agosta
“Agosta’s book is at the right place and the right time. One of the most exciting things about emerging areas of academic study is when a dialogue can be enjoined among those with various insights. It is in this way that an understanding of the core subject matter (in this case empathy) can grow and be enriched. Lou Agosta’s latest book does just this. It begins with an artifact […] The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy (2017) and it engages with the various contributors individually and with some of the major themes in a multi-disciplinary way—such as social psychology and the phenomenology of empathy, and situates them into how empathy might be practiced. (Thus, it continues the practice-oriented methodology of Agosta’s Empathy Lessons that has been influential.)
“What makes A Review so successful is that we are presented with one mind (Agosta’s) in dialogue with many minds. This does two things: (a) it pulls together [the Handbook’s] vision; and (b) it extends the dialogue inviting other essays to be written to further enrich the dialogue. Both of these objectives creates space for the debate and discussion of empathy which has established itself as an important component of several disciplines, e.g., ethics, social/political philosophy, sociology, literary theory, and psychology. I predict that this influence will continue to grow. It is a great read for scholars and a crucial acquisition for university libraries.” Michael Boylan, professor of philosophy at Marymount University and author of Fictive Narrative Philosophy: How Literature can act as Philosophy,and the philosophical novel T-Rx: The History of a Radical Leader.
“In this, his fifth book, Lou Agosta cements his status as the preeminent expert on empathy. I, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, know of the view of empathy in my fields. Agosta here deftly acquainted me with the way empathy is seen by other disciplines, such as philosophy, cognitive science, neuroscience, anthropology, and aesthetics. With his lively mind and fluent, playful writing style, he enlightens and entertains the reader.” James W. Anderson, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University, and President, Chicago Psychoanalytic Society (2017-2019)
“Lou Agosta calls it as he sees it. His distinct voice is both knowledgeable and radical in his advocacy of a conscious and deliberate embrace of empathy. He is passionate in putting forward that the understanding of empathy and its daily application is the essential element in improving the human condition in modern times.
“Lou Agosta’s most recent book in his series on empathy reviews the philosophical origins of empathy and current controversies. His tour de force reviews thirty three authors on empathy and makes a critical evaluation of both important contributions and limitations of the extensive literature regarding key concepts in the field of empathy studies. The book will appeal to those who believe empathy is critical in all aspects of interpersonal relatedness from psychotherapy to organizational culture.
“Topics covered include the core importance of empathy in human being. Empathy is reviewed from an historical perspective including philosophical, moral, aesthetic, cultural and clinical frames of exploration.
“Lou Agosta is a natural teacher and rare will be the reader who does not learn something significant from his new book.” Dennis Beedle, MD, former Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Saint Anthony Hospital, Chicago
Click here to order: Order A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy
Short BIO: Lou Agosta, PhD, teaches and practices empathy at Ross University Medical School at Saint Anthony Hospital, Chicago, Il. He is the author of three peer-reviewed books in the series A Rumor of Empathyand the best selling, popular book, Empathy Lessons. His PhD is from the philosophy department of the University of Chicago and is entitled Empathy and Interpretation. He is an empathy consultant in private practice in Chicago, delivering empathy lessons, therapy, and life coaching, to individuals and organizations.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Empathy is the New Love
The idea is that what people really want more than anything else is to be gotten for who they are – i.e., people want empathy. This is an unexpressed and undeclared commitment; and something of which most adults are only dimly aware until they get some and discover, “Oh, that’s really cool. It seems to work. May I have another?”
You know how in the world of high fashion grey is the new black? Well, empathy is the new love. This is not an exclusive either-or choice; and people still want to be loved too. Just not quite as much as they want to be gotten empathically.
People can get love from Hallmark Cards or from the Internet. There is really a glut in the market for this kind of love, and many issues remain with quality. Like any mass product, the quality is questionable. Really fine love remains a scarce commodity in the final analysis. Empathy is a relatively even rarer capacity in the market – though, truth be told, it is common to every mother (or care-taker) and a newborn child, every business person with satisfied customers, every educational student-teacher encounter, and every neighborly encounter in the community. An example of the intersection of love and empathy will be useful.
Bull Durham, the movie, is one my favorite Valentine’s Day shows of all time. This is because it succeeds in bringing together love and desire, affection and arousal, silly valentine style sentiment and sexual satisfaction. Also, it has a happy ending. It is not really about baseball, though you would not be crazy for thinking it is. A guilty pleasure? Perhaps. However, much more than baseball, this movie demonstrates powerfully that empathy is the new love.
In Bull Durham, the heroine, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), explains that she believes in the Church of Baseball. There are 108 beads in a Catholic Rosary and 108 stitches in a baseball. Can this be a coincidence? She “chooses” one guy, a baseball player, with whom to consort—that is, hook up–during each minor league baseball season. Suffice to say, it makes a good adolescent fantasy.
The top two “hook up” candidates are Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis, the latter played by Kevin Costner. Crash is a talented catcher who never broke out from the minor leagues. He is given an extension and asked to play for one more season to “bring along” Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, who, it seems, is destined for the major leagues – The Show, as it is called. Nick named “Nuke LaLoosh,” for his powerful fastball, Nuke lacks control, and his 90+ miles an hour pitch is depicted as “beaning” the Big Bird type Mascot of the team. Funny.
The nick name, “Nuke LaLoosh” expresses an empathic understanding of who the person is and induces an experience with which the person leaves the viewer—powerful like nuclear energy but perhaps a tad out of control and about to blow up. Crash asks Annie: “Why do you get to pick?” Before making her choice of LaLoosh over Crash, Annie’s answer nicely outlines a position close to mine if one includes that she is choosing:
“Well, actually, nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other, I mean, it’s all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing. Why, there are laws we don’t understand that bring us together and tear us apart. Uh, it’s like pheromones. You get three ants together, they can’t do dick. You get 300 million of them, they can build a cathedral.”
There’s something for everyone in this film. Suffice to say, Nuke desires any woman he can get his hands on. He is a real “Lil’ Abner” type. He does definitely not have the distinction “desire of desire,” and women are as opaque to him and he is opaque, period.
Annie provides the empathy lessons. Nuke lets himself be tied up by her up, tightly, as he is a big guy, in anticipation of a sexual adventure—and she paints his toe nails! Nuke doesn’t really “get it,” but he kinda likes it. This puts a certain “spin,” more like a slider than a fastball on female empowerment. The lesson includes learning to wait—presumably his fastball gets more controlled along with his bedside manner.
For Crash, the empathy lesson is that Annie is the ultimate unattainable object. She plays hard to get in the most authentic possible way. By freely withholding her desire—even though one suspects the desire lives in her. Crash knows he’s desirable—hey, he looks just like Kevin Costner. But she won’t give in, and unless she does so freely, it may be a power trip or a notch on someone’s pistole, but it’s not authentic sexual satisfaction. It’s barely even sex.
In addition, Crash’s challenge is that he has standards. Yes, he desires Annie, but more than that he desires her desire, which, unless freely given, just does not get the sexual satisfaction job done for him. When asked what he believes, he gives one of the great soliloquies on empathic love:
“Well, I believe in the soul, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe I long, slow deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”
Such kisses require empathy. Crash is frustrated in his desire because he longs to unite his desire with his affection for Annie and receive hers and her desire in return. I tell you, you cannot “get” this movie without the distinction “desire of desire,” which it so eloquently exemplifies. So when Crash does finally unite desire and affection in uniting with Annie and her desire of his desire, it makes for a happy ending. Everyone in the film reconciles desire and affection, and Nuke gets control over – premature ejaculation – oops, I mean, his fastball.
If empathy is the new love, what then was the old love? A bold statement of the obvious: the old love is akin to a kind of madness. The one who is in love is hypnotically held in bonds by an idealization by the beloved. In one way, love presents as animal magnetism, a powerful attraction; in another way, in a quasi-hypnotic trance, love idealizes the beloved, and, overlooks the would-be partner’s shortcomings and limitations.
According to Nobel Prize winning novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, love is akin to a physical illness, cholera. In Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), also a major motion picture, the mother of Florentino Ariza treats his love sickness for the inaccessible Fermina Daza with the kinds of herbs used to relieve the diarrhea of cholera. Key term: inaccessible. The inaccessible object—whether the mother who is already married to the father or the girl next door whose family is feuding with one’s own—arouses one’s desire to a feverish pitch.
Note that in Spanish and English cólera and choleric, respectively, denote an emotional upset, expressing irritability and a kind of manic rage, hooking up with Plato’s definition of love as madness. In a diverging register, in Saint Paul, love is God, love is community, and love is neighborliness. According to Bob Dylan, now also a Nobel Prize winner, “love is just another four letter word.” No sublimation here. Just hormones all the way down; though, to Dylan’s credit, he did not claim or publish the song as his own after Joan Baez made it famous.
According to Freud, love is aim-inhibited sexuality. When sexual desire is unable to attain its goal, which, by definition, is sexual satisfaction, the desire undergoes a transformation. The desire turns away from reality and expresses itself in fantasy. The desire becomes articulate. It learns to speak. It expresses symbolic statements of romantic dalliance and even love poetry. It lives on in the hope of recovering the erotic dimension as when, in Cyrano De Bergerac, Roxanne invites Christian to mount up the balcony to get a kiss. Cyrano is in love, and his love makes him blind – as in the stereotype – to the spoiled-princess-like behavior of Roxanne and the arrogant narcissism of Christian.
The celebrated Athenian “bad boy,” Socrates (c. 470 BCE – 399 BCE), famously said, “I know that I know nothing”; but then it turned out that he did know something after all, though only as a kind of myth (but what kind of knowledge is a myth?), and he distinguished four kinds of madness, the last of which is love:
“And we made four divisions of divine madness corresponding to four gods: to Apollo we ascribed prophetic inspiration, to Dionysus mystic madness, to the Muses poetic afflatus; while to Aphrodite and Eros we gave the fourth, love-madness, declaring it to be the best” (Phaedrus: 265).
The Symposium, a drunken party with Socrates and friends, as told by Plato, painting by Anselm Feuerbach
Due to a sin of pride, the gods punished these spherical humans by dividing them into two—which results in the present predicament of separate male and female human beings, as we know them today. The two halves are incomplete; and each wants to be reunited—and completed—by the other half.
We speculate that the division into male and female is not the only division. The separation of desire and affection is also a source of struggle, but about that Aristophanes has nothing to say.
The novelist Stendhal (1743–1842) said that beauty is the promise of happiness, but he got the idea from Aristophanes. Beauty is the promise of happiness experienced as the felt attraction between the two halves of the original spherical creatures. Thus, fast forward to the current predicament of humanity (and Match.com) with the two parts running around trying to hook up like crazed weasels, or, at least, attempting to get a date with that “special someone.”
In summary, the old love is a kind of madness; it makes a person blind, and causes somatic distress. So far the old love is indistinguishable from tertiary syphilis!
Let us be clear that no one is proposing an either/or choice between love and empathy. These two phenomena have existed and coexisted together since the beginning and will continue to do so. Granted that in the English language the history of the distinction “empathy” was covered by diverse meanings of the word “sympathy,” but, in any case, it goes way back.
My proposal is that love contains an empathic core in its stimulating and exciting aspects and that which is the “love sickness” part is due, well, to the struggle to unite affection and desire. In particular, that which is the “love sickness” is due to a breakdown in empathy.
The goal in love is to erase, at least temporarily, the boundary between the self and other. Merger of both mind and body with the other mind and body is the result. In contrast to love, empathy navigates or transgresses the boundary between self and other such that the integrity of the self and other are maintained. One has a vicarious experience of the other—but the difference and integrity of the self and other are maintained. So love emerges as a breakdown in empathy—from the perspective of too much or too little engagement with the other. It is love versus empathy. Yet in love, empathy lives.
In the examples of Annie and Crash Davis, the love-madness described by Socrates, the connection between Aristophanes’ spherical halves, the attraction, is a kind of magnetism—animal magnetism, to be precise.
In attraction Jeopardy, “animal magnetism” is the answer; what then is the question? How does a vicarious experience of someone else’s desire show up? A desire of desire? If we let our empathic receptivity inform our experience, stage one of the intersection of empathy and love can be redescribed as animal magnetism.
Simply stated, such animal magnetism is what you get when two lovers stare semi-hypnotically into one another’s eyes. Speaking from the guy perspective, to really turn on a woman, a guy has to get in touch with his inner female. He does not have to tell his softball buddies about this, but in the language of the Kama Sutra such a guy turns out to be worth his weight in diamonds. This is especially so if he sees value in getting in touch with his inner female, by practicing cooking and changing diapers.
When empathic receptivity shows up, can empathic understanding be far away? In this case, the empathic possibilities are rich and rewarding, but since this is not a book on sex tips and techniques, the reader is referred to resources for empathic possibilities in the above-cited realm of the sexual expression of love that are more eloquent—and better illustrated—than I could possibly provide here. Same idea with empathic interpretation, in which role-playing is a significant opportunity.
We feel chemistry with some people and not others because our empathic receptivities, understandings, and responses are aligned. We are able to fit the other person into the narrative we tell ourselves about what we are seeking in a partner.
The other person fits into our imagination in a role we assign, imaginatively, and the person is a good enough fit that they are willing and able to play the role assigned. Notice this means that the “love” part is the aspect that is the most problematic. If she “gets it” that he is good “boy friend” material—he has a nurturing side that will make him a good father—but this turns out not to be accurate, because he is a spoiled child himself, then it was love’s idealizations and wishful thinking, a breakdown of empathy into projection, not authentic empathy. On the other hand, if the initial empathy is accurate, it paves the way for love and empathy to enhance each other mutually in creating the community called a family.
The empathy lesson is that people are sometimes what they appear to be, but that sometimes appearances are misleading. This explains the common sense lesson that you need to talk to someone and listen to them before making serious commitments of the heart, of one’s finances, or of one’s time and effort. People come in all different shapes and sizes. Aristophanes’ joke gets the last word and lives on because the original spherical beings were in all different shapes and sizes before they were cleaved in two. People complete one another in different ways. After all the categories, labels, diagnoses, arguments, and projections are removed; empathy is being in the presence of the other spherical being without anything else added.
Ron Shelton, (1998), Bull Durham, the movie.: https://www.moviequotedb.com/movies/bull-durham/ratings.htmlquote checked on 02/13/2021. Staring Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner, and Tim Robbins.
Lou Agosta, (2018), Chapter 9: Empathy Application: Sex, Love, Rock and Roll – and Empathy in Empathy Lessons. Chicago: Two Pairs Press. Order book here: https://shorturl.at/agCY9