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Empathy and Hermeneutics

Empathy has been given a bad rap in hermeneutic circles by being degraded to a psychological mechanism whereas empathy is rather a way of being in relatedness to individuals and community. Key term: being in relatedness. (For those who may not be tuned into “hermeneutic circles” the short definition is: theory of interpretation. When we open our mouths and speak, a lot of what comes out is interpretation.)

The power of empathy – like that of hermeneutics at large – occurs in cleaning up misunderstandings, breakdowns, and miscommunications. A single diagram on p 35 of Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide says it all, reproduced here for your convenience.


Enter the hermeneutic circle of empathy and create a breakthrough – success – in relatedness out of the breakdown(s). The empathy lesson is that, when handled with empathy, breakdowns often lead to breakthroughs.

If empathic relatedness misfires in emotional contagion, conformity, projections, or getting lost in translation, then one approach is to abandon empathy and become angry, resigned and cynical. An alternative and better approach would be to expand empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness.

For example, if one is experiencing emotional contagion in relating to another person, then one can respond with what I call the favorite indoor sport of academics – over-intellectualization. Go into your head. Nothing wrong with that as such, but it does not expand empathy. A different approach is to take the vicarious experience – the feeling of the feeling of the other – that has been communicated in emotional contagion like an after image of the other’s experience. Use this vicarious experience to be receptive to the other’s experience. Use it as input to understanding what the other person is experiencing.

In another example, empathy can break down in conformity – pressure to conform to social standards or practices that actually empty one’s experience of satisfaction and even be destructive of community. One follows the crowd. One does what “they say.” With apologies to Henry David Thoreau, one leads the life of quiet desperation of the modern mass of men. Instead of promoting conformity – or even a superficial nonconformity – one can use empathic understanding and ask: Who is this other person as a possibility?

If you look at the rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. You have a breakthrough in what is possible through empathic understanding. Satisfaction in relatedness expands. Relationships become satisfying in ways not previously envisioned. Empathy grows and life is enriched.

So far, this is “bottom up” – so-called affective empathy. Yes, even the empathic understanding is understanding of the possibilities in which we live. Strictly speaking, that is not affective, but neither is it cognitive. It is precognitive. However, when I truly get stuck in trying to understand the other individual and her situation, then I make use of “top down” empathy. This is the folk aspect of empathy: I take a walk in their shoes. I think about – try to grasp in fundamental thinking – what it may be like being in their predicament. I “jump start” my relatedness through interpretation.

Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation?

Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited.

Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.”

This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her.

Without empathic responsiveness, my empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures.

Many additional examples of empathy successes and empathy breakdowns are available in the light-hearted look at the subject: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, including some twenty-eight full color illustrations by that celebrated artist Alex Zonis. If you only read one non-academic book on empathy, this is the one. Check it out here: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide.

(c) Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy Project

See Lou Agosta’s other books on empathy – academic and popular here: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f

Translation, Bible Stories, and Empathy: The Contribution of George Steiner (1929 – 2020)

George Steiner passed away in the fullness of time at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 90. This blog post acknowledges and honors him for his contribution, largely previously unnoted, to the understanding and practice of empathy.

 Those who are interested in learning more about his many, many books and the

Tower of Babel: Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

Tower of Babel: Frans Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

details of his biography can consult the New York Times obituary cited below – he grew up speaking French, German, and English and claimed not to able to remember which came first and he graduated the University of Chicago after a single year in 1948.

 In so far as one of the major breakdowns of empathy is when empathic response gets “lost in translation,” George Steiner’s book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) is devoted to empathy and restoring it in the fact of misunderstanding. This turns out not to require the use of the word “empathy.” What is basically a Bible story and a single paragraph in Genesis turns out to be nuanced enough to sustain a five hundred page plus treatment.

 Thus, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 11: 1–9) forms the backdrop for one of Steiner’s major contributions and, at the risk of oversimplifying his diverse and multidimensional contribution, may be the single best presentation of his life’s work.

 As you may recall, in what is basically a Babylonian, not a Hebrew, myth, which gets included in Genesis, there is a Golden Age. It consists in the earth and the peoples of the earth being “of one language and one speech.” I elaborate the point: Disagreements between people about the meaning of truth, beauty, goodness, utility, or freedom simply do not occur because there is only one language, which everyone shares.

 So misunderstandings are impossible on principle in this Golden Age. Not only does this make life very agreeable, it gives the people enormous power. You know the expression “Power to the people!” Well, such is actually the case in this story. The people are one, and the people decide that they are not going to settle for life here on earth, they are going to move into heaven. They start building a tower – the Tower of Babel – because heaven is “up there” and how else would you get there?

 Next scene. The Gods are looking down from above, as the tower is getting taller and taller. And it is not like just a few people are coming. They are all coming. The Gods are even getting a tad worried about this development – but not for long. A stratagem is needed to foil this unacceptable and obvious sin of pride. Pride goeth before the fall. The Gods “confuse the tongues,” mix up the languages, of the people. The people now become the peoples with each separate community having its own identity and manner of speaking incomprehensible to its neighbors. Before there was only one language, now there are many.

The one builder says: “Pass me the slab.” But he is now speaking a different language than his coworker, who thinks he is saying, “Pass me the mud” or even worse, thinks he is saying, “You are an idiot.” General chaos breaks out with significant aspects of paranoia, xenophobia, hostility, and aggression. Fistfights break out (not actually in the story, but “off stage”). The work on the tower is halted. The project fails. History begins. The Golden age ends; the people are scattered and become different communities (nations); history as we know it starts.

 It is a history of misunderstanding between people and peoples, resulting in border disputes, personal disputes, contractual disputes, inheritance disputes, disputes over disputes. Often attempts are made to settle such disputes with aggression, resulting in more disputes. Thus results the current situation of humanity, in which we are not only separated by different languages but misunderstandings occur even within the same language, which becomes other to itself due to ambiguity and vagueness. Not a pretty picture.

 So what has this to do with empathy? In so far as empathy lives within language, this is a story about empathy. The Golden Age was one of perfect understanding – empathic understanding. Much of history consists in human understanding getting lost – lost in translation. The result when misunderstandings occur is the current state of the relations between diverse communities – one of hostility and the risk of aggression.

 Enter George Steiner’s work: After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translations. The word “empathy” does not occur in this work, yet it is one permeated by the empathic project of overcoming breakdowns in understanding as meaning gets “lost in translation.”

 When we practice translation, we are practicing getting in touch with the world of the other person in its nuances and significance. That is top down, cognitive empathy. When we practice translation, we create a clearing for the experiential dimension of a person’s experience to emerge into a clearing in which the feeling can be communicated. That is bottom up, affective empathy.

 After Babel is a work of vast learning in which Steiner makes the case for the study of languages, especially as they occur in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Proust, since that is what humans speak and use and live in, rather than language as such as an ideal abstract system. We quite often succeed in translating, even though our translations are far from perfect, in need of revision, and vulnerable to ambiguities of nuance and significance.

 To make the connection between translation and empathy, something that Steiner never explicitly does, we are cast upon the seas of the interrelations between different texts. Jorge Luis Borges is celebrated for his fictions that expose the deep structure of nonfictional reality. Early in After Babel (p. 70), Steiner turns to Borges’ short piece “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939).

 The title itself points to what is absurd, even logically alien in Borges’ approach, since everyone knows that Miguel de Cervantes is the author of Don Quixote. Menard’s project was not to compose another Quixote, which would be easy, but the Quixote itself (p. 71). 

 This is the empathic moment: “Far more interesting was ‘to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard’, i.e., to put oneself so deeply in tune with Cervantes’s being, with his ontological form as to re-enact, inevitably, the exact sum of his realizations and statements.

 Here empathy is no mere psychological mechanism for the transmission of a contingent feeling, but the foundation of relatedness between persons in time and history.

 At this point Steiner quotes Borges’ quoting Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts. They are of course identical quotations from Don Quixote. The reader of Borges’ text (and of Steiner’s use of it) is left scratching his head. But then the punch line:

 To write of “history as the mother of truth” at the beginning of the 17th Century when Cervantes was authoring the work was eminently sensible. But to write this way three hundred years later, at the beginning of the 20th Century is a work of towering genius (no pun intended!). When Menard was re-enacting Cervantes’ act of authorship – i.e., transforming Cervantes’ being into his own – Menard did this three hundred years later – after William James has stated that history is not what happened but what we judged to have happened. This a work of supreme and prodigious translation: “The arduousness of the game is dizzying [….] When the translator, negator of time and rebuilder at Babel, comes near succeeding, he passes into that state of mirror [….] He does not know ‘which of us two is writing this page’” (pp. 71, 72–73).

 Strictly speaking, this could be seen as a breakdown of empathy, since it implies a merger of the two beings, but the integrity of empathy is restored when the merger turns out to be temporary and transient, preserving the distinction between self and other.

 Though Steiner makes the case for comparative literature as the lever of humanization – even while intermittently deploring the state of the humanities as a discipline – in translating back-and-forth, the idea of a logically perfect, ideal language and radical translation are never far away. Radical translation, in turn, puts us in mind of radical empathy – the progressive liberal trying to empathize with the Evangelical Christian and vice versa. How is that going?

 Translation is indeed a metaphor for the situation of human understanding, community, and the challenge of expanding empathic relatedness. But in so far as translating is also occurring literally and constantly within a given natural language whenever we ask another person what they are trying to say, even as they say something that seems meaningless, translation is virtually identical with historical existence, our way of being in the world after the fall at Babel.

 Granted the matter is devilishly complex, rather than ask what is wrong, point out what is missing – what gets lost in translation? Each of ten thousand distinctions leads to more distinctions and the “fan out” is virtually beyond calculation. Is space available for a space of acceptance and toleration and to resume work, if not on a tower, on a bridge over troubled waters?


 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William Grimes, (2020), George Steiner, prodigious literary critic, dies at 90, February 03, 2020, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/books/george-steiner-dead.html

Lou Agosta, Empathy Lessons, (2018), Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278312&sr=1-1-spell

George Steiner, (1975), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, London: Oxford University Press (a Galaxy Book). 507pp, $4.95 (original price): https://www.amazon.com/George-Steiner/e/B000AQ1YD6?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278399&sr=1-1

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