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

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

Review: Politics of Empathy by Anthony Clohesy

The Politics of Empathy by Anthony M. Clohesy is a compellingly original and innovative engagement with empathy in a political context. 

[Anthony M. Clohesy. (2013). Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 160 pp.]

I begin by expressing my admiration and enthusiasm for Clohesy’s contribution. Encountering this straight up, occasionally understated, frequently dense, work was thrilling. For me it was a page turner, albeit in a scholarly way.  I saw old things in new ways. This book changed my thinking. At the risk of a military metaphor, Clohesy’s work is like two inbound cruise missiles: the first blows off the door of conventional political thinking, the second, blows up the bunker. Not for the faint of heart. 

Clohesy’s big idea is that empathy is about identity and similarity, but it is just as fundamentally about differences. Key term: empathy of differences. This provides a powerful angle on that vexing issue of empathy and ethics, which has the frustrating aspect of being a chicken and egg dilemma. Does empathy found ethics, which seems too “touchy feely”; does ethics found empathy, leaving us with the counter-intuitive sense that the “bad guys” sometimes use empathy; or do empathy and ethics develop separately, leaving us with a non-empathic ethics or a non-ethical empathy? The matter starts to spin.

Clohesy’s idea (continued): the challenging relation between ethics and empathy is that they both emerge

The threat of violence: pushing that boulder up the hill and fearing it is going to slip down again – and it does!

simultaneously in the encounter with difference –  the encounter with the other individual – and the result is – politics. 

I now try to motivate the discussion of this innovation of an empathy of difference and recognition from an eventual encounter with the other individual. Key term: the event of an encounter.

Speaking in the first person, when I encounter an individual who is different than I am, then I have an experience of otherness. However, every person I encounter, without exception, is different than I am, even if there are many similarities between us. The other is different. Period. And, here is the punchline, without the other individual there is no empathy. Empathy is born in otherness. Empathy is a function of otherness. Empathy emerges from and in otherness. Without the other individual there is only myself – oneself – all alone. Empathy is the one thing you cannot do all alone. 

The empathy of differences emerges in encountering the other individual, who resists one’s spontaneity, initiative, and one’s action, pure and simple. This resistance creates a boundary between self and what is other. The attempt to traverse this boundary and overcome the resistance requires an expenditure of effort, force, energy. This dynamic of effort and resistance, strictly speaking, is different than violence, but resembles the “violence” of Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill (in the myth), only to have it slide down again. 

Clohesy does not use the term “resistance” and he may not agree with it, but I find I need to get to the key role in Clohesy of “violence,” which is not standard violence. This expenditure of effort, energy, or reaction to resistance, is experienced as a kind of violence. 

As I read Clohesy – and he is extremely subtle on this point – the encounter with otherness inevitably turns violent in some metaphysical and even mystical sense. Or more precisely was already violent. The encounter with otherness thus entails a struggle with otherness. Otherness shows up as resistance to my will.  

Clohesy denies that he uses “violence” in the ordinary sense of the word as to kill someone: “My use of the term “violence” should not be misunderstood. It does not refer to how we kill and oppress each other [….] Rather, it refers to how the fragile interiority of our lives is constituted and sustained by power” (p. 85). 

Clohesy writes: “My central claim is that empathy is important, not because it can eradicate our inherited capacity for violence and cruelty, or reconfigure the deep structural forces that inhibit a transition to a more ethical world, but because it can make us more aware of our violence and cruelty. Thinking of empathy in this way is important because it allows for the emergence of a space in which more ethical relationships between us can develop” (p. 67).

I agree and align: empathy expands our awareness. But if that is all, then we are in even more trouble than we imagine because we humans are an aggressive species, highly territorial, intermittently over- or under-sexed, now armed with weapons of mass destruction. Heavily armed. Absent an intervention, this is not going to go well – indeed it is not going well. Where to go from here?

Clohesy comes into his own with an empathy of recognition. With an empathy of difference, instead of identity politics, we get a politics of recognition. Though we are different, our interests, experiences, and aspirations as human beings are recognized. Our possibilities converge instead of conflict. Our opportunities align instead of clash. We are able to cooperate instead of obstruct one another. We are able to build instead of tear down. 

Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes yields an empathy of differences. One discovers the otherness of the other. The shoes rarely fit right. One discovers where the shoe pinches – but the other’s shoe almost inevitably pinches at a different spot than it pinches one’s own foot, because the other foot is slightly different – longer or shorter than one’s own. 

Clohesy traces the empathy of identity and difference (recognition) through nature, religion, and culture. He invokes and critiques “otherising”: the act of essentializing the identity of others. He cites Kathleen Taylor: we are hardwired for contamination – to experience contamination or a sense thereof from contact with the othered other (p. 8). 

 According to Clohesy, empathic experience of difference allows us to recognize others. This is the encounter with difference: feeling into the life of another person as culture (p. 30).

On a good day, the way we engage with “others” is sufficiently empathic to understand the reasons why their values, norms and practices are often so different from our own. Clohesy is clear that “understanding” is not confused with “condoning” or “agreeing” or “approving.” We must deploy a rigorous and critical empathy that challenges practices and values with which we have issue or divergences. 

Nature brings with it an empathy of identity – essentializing differences which makes them difficult if not impossible to overcome.

With nature, the shadow of tribalism falls over politics – and empathy. The empathy of identity is ultimately that of proximity to family, tribe, local community. There is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent. We would be less than human without it. But it is ultimately derivative and incomplete without an empathy of difference. 

Empathy of identity gives us communalism, which provides a strong internal empathy towards family and friends and those near and dear, but does not recognize the otherness of those remote – does not acknowledge the otherness of those not proximal (those who are remote) – they are not other – they are invisible – pre-other – we may think of them but we think of them in the way of not thinking of them 

Clohesy properly cites evolutionary psychology as to how our first instinct is to favor those of our own tribe, those we see as ‘our own’ (p. 47).  Yet when seen in the context of empathy, the violence of nature requires that we humans must engage with strangers in a spirit of recognition and solidarity, rather than distancing ourselves from them.  Clohesy does not cite Martin Luther Kind but I do: “Learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Easier said than done. 

Perhaps religion can help. Regarding transcendence, Clohesy’s argument is that we can and should recognize the importance of religion without necessarily having conventional beliefs about it. He makes good use of Karen Armstrong:  Religion “works” when it is appreciated in the context of myth or when it is seen in the context of unknowing. Logos could not undo, assuage, or cure human grief or find meaning in life’s suffering. For that, people turned to mythos or myth. 

What then of myths? Clohesy’s is a slim volume with limited word count, but the religious and political myths are legion – mostly as echoes and allusions. The time of the mythical violence of Hobbes’s “war of all against all” or Rousseau’s State of Nature or Rawls’ Original Position. The struggle of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Freud’s band of brothers murdering the tyrant father and inventing an early version of the blessed Eucharist, Cain and Abel, are one-and-all echoed mystically. 

Then there is the matter of The Event. One needs an encounter with The Other to get empathy started. This encounter takes on the quality of a logical reconstruction and even mythical Event. It is like the Big Bang in cosmology. It does not make sense to ask what happened before this Event, because the before/after distinction itself did not exist prior to the Big Bang, which is when time itself emerged, time being the source of the before/after distinction. Clohesy has a lot to say about the Event in the context of empathy and politics (cosmology does NOT come up, but maybe it should). 

It’s not like there is a temporal sequence at this point. The other already has always been a synchronous aspect of oneself. If there is a myth, it is that human beings are unrelated. We are always already related. Definitely.  

At this point, we (and Clohesy) are in mystical or metaphysical time (as near as I can figure out). Empathy is one thing one cannot an individual cannot do all alone. One may be the creator of one’s entire universe – life is literally but a dream – until one encounters the other – then one wakes up to the reality of the resistance of the other – the otherness of the other. I would rewrite certain passages using “resistance” rather than “violence,” but I do not claim this is the truth with a capital “T.”

For many people, life is experienced as pushing a boulder up a hill at which point the boulder slides down and has to be pushed up again (think about Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus). One works all month to put food on the table for the family and pay the rent, then next month one has to start over and do it again. For people who are born rich life is easier, and yet at some point everyone has the experience of pushing that boulder up the hill. 

When pushing the boulder up the hill, it is hard to empathize with the boulder. It is easy to hate the boulder. But that hatred is already a form of negative empathy with the boulder. But in a mythical context one might discover that the boulder was made by the other or is itself the ultimate other.

Though Clohesy does not explicitly say so, I believe he would agree that empathy is the foundation of community, that is, the political community. But it is an empathy of difference, not one of identity. If you go with an empathy of identity, the result is tribalism. “I get you, man, and you get me, bro, because we are [mostly] alike.” But then there are all these different tribes – Democrats, Republicans, Progressive, Conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Quakers, all 193 member nations of the United Nations – not to mention the Chicago Cubs Baseball team. 

Once again, though Clohesy does not explicitly say so, tribalism itself sets in motion a dialectic whereby each individual can belong to multiple tribes with multiple identities and affiliations. Even you get enough tribes and enough overlap between tribal identities, the notion of identity starts to dissolve into a kind of melting pot of  multiculturalism or ecumenical spirituality or market place of competing political ideologies. Even if the melting pot never completely melts, it can at least become a colloidal suspension – cosmopolitanism – where the identities and differences are fine-grained enough not to subvert individual diversity or the aspiration to universally shared values. 

But absent such a dialectic – for example, in traditional societies or insular communities – the empathy within the communal group works well enough but breaks down at the boundaries.

Clohesy’s response to the breakdown of the empathy of identity? He asserts that the protection of culture and the recognition of difference require an account of cosmopolitanism (informed by an empathy of difference). In turn, cosmopolitanism “is able to subvert essentialist conceptions of difference … the most toxic enemy of the politics of recognition” (p. 43).  

Clohesy endorses a cosmopolitanism that recognizes others as equals and opposes committing arbitrary  violence against others in a context of values disclosed to us by the empathic experience of difference (p. 44). Presumably nonarbitrary  violence would be a police man stopping a home invasion by the bad guys. Presumably non-arbitrary violence would align with Max Weber’s definition of the state as having a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. 

The mythico-metaphysical ontological aspects of Clohesy’s contribution emerges with his innovative application of Alain Badiou’s distinction of the Event, itself perhaps inspired by Heidegger’s Vom Ereignis. “Or, to put it differently, our constitution as ethical subjects requires experience of an Event in the form of the empathic encounter with difference” (p. 92). “…[E]mpathy is important in this respect because the experience of difference it makes possible to give form to our ethical lives by allowing us to emerge as beings aware of our finitude, but also aware that we are condemned to commit violence to realize that which is impossible” (p. 93). What could be clearer or more transparent?

Since this is not a softball review, it msut be said, this is as clear as mud – and yet there is something extremely original and powerful going on here. I can make some sense out of it in terms of a rational reconstruction of the encounter of the self and other, in which the other offers resistance to the self thereby bringing the intersubjective world of conditional possibilities and impossibilities into existence. 

Another word of caution: Clohesy’s is work of significant scholarship, and merely well-educated readers without an academic background may find parts of it to be a challenging read, though a valuable one. I think Clohesy has read everything – okay, almost everything, relevant to politics and empathy. An impressive accomplishment. 

My most significant concern is with his use of the term “violence.” As quoted above, Clohesy does not mean “killing” – I believe he means a kind of struggle or resistance or encounter with the otherness of the other than deteriorates into the violence that creates what Hegel called the butcher bench of history. 

Clohesy writes of arbitrary violence. Presumably when Cain slays Abel it is arbitrary violence, but when David slays Goliath that is nonarbitrary? When Pharaoh or King Herod slaughter the First Born that is arbitrary violence? But when Yahweh takes the first born Egyptians that is non arbitrary? How about when Burnham Wood come to Dunsinane, and McDuff kills Macbeth, the tyrant? How about when the posse chases down the John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, and burn down the barn in which he is hiding? 

In this regard, Clohesy might have done well to deploy Hannah Arendt’s fundamental distinction between violence and power. When political power of a state or regime goes down, then out come the riot police, the tear gas, the rubber (and lead) bullets. “Power down, violence up” – Arendt’s proposal – is as predictable as night following day. 

In conclusion, Clohesy asserts his use of empathy opens the articulation of an account of politics that promotes and reflects a sustainable vision of the good life. He  claims that the relationship between empathy and politics can and should be understood in the context of reciprocity or as elements within a virtuous circle. Clohesy further claims that, because empathy provides use with a sense of our duties to others, it allows us to see politics as something that is enabling, necessary, noble and ethical (102). 

References

Anthony M. Clohesy. (2013). Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 160 pp. 

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy  Project

Review: Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past by Thomas A. Kohut

Review: Thomas A. Kohut. (2020). Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past. London and New York: Routledge: (Taylor and Francis).Routledge (Taylor and Francis). (155 pp.)

Thomas A Kohut’s book is an important one, even ground breaking, for several disciplines including history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and psychology. However, the book is an even more important one for – empathy. 

Kohut’s book is a small masterpiece. It is penetrating, incisive, well-argued, wide ranging, thorough, scholarly, and ground breaking in its validation of empathy as a practice relevant to historical studies and research. History writing will never be the same after this work, which is why it needs to be better known. 

Though this reviewer is not a historian, I have published widely on empathy, and Kohut’s is the book I wish I had written. Empathy is no rumor in Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Past. Empathy lives  in this book, and those who engage with it will be enriched historically and empathically.

Kohut properly begins by calling out the suspicion and skepticism of historians in relation to empathy. Empathy is fraught. Debates about the meaning of the term itself are legion. 

In the face of these issues, Kohut’s definition of empathy is a rigorous and

Cover Art: Paul Klee, The Magic Mirror (1934)

critical one. Empathy is a mode of observation that gives one access to the thoughts and feelings of other human beings as subjects. Key term: subjectivity. Empathy is the foundation of intersubjectivity and that intersubjectivity has a temporal horizon extending from the past into the future. 

In Kohut’s overview of the many definitions and debates about empathy, he distinguishes three approaches. They are: Theory of mind, simulation theory, and phenomenology of the Husserlian (and Edith Stein) flavor plus an admixture of Max Scheler. Without going into the details here, Kohut makes good use of the debate around the discovery in the mid-1990s of mirror neurons in monkeys and the implications of a parallel neurological mirroring system in humans, even if it is not exactly mirror neurons. 

Kohut, the historian, is a trained but not currently practicing psychoanalyst. He learns from psychoanalytic practice in a historical context by deploying vicarious introspection – a short version of the definition of empathy. More on that shortly. 

The innovation: Empathy is not only empathy of identity and similarity but even more importantly empathy is an empathy of differences. As the historian encounters otherness or alterity, the differences in experience call forth empathy. Empathy has a profound impact on historical thinking and experience, and, in a space of presence to humanity, enables a translation of meaning of affect and thinking. Ultimately this empathic engagement with other individuals and communities expands our historical understanding of humanity and deepens our own humanity. 

Human beings are complex. They are notoriously self-deceived. We humans have blind spots about what are our motivations and incentives – Marx’s false consciousness, Sartre’s bad faith, Freud’s unconscious. 

This means that even if the historian (or psychoanalyst) has access to another individual’s consciousness through their free associations (not available to the historian), journal entries, expressions in historical documents, art, artifacts, and traces of human life, as historians we may really be knowing how these individuals and groups have deceived themselves subjectively, not what authentically motivated them or how they experienced their life and predicaments intersubjectively. Yet such subjective and intersubjective data are of the essence. History often consists precisely in engaging with the unanticipated consequences of self-deception. 

Individuals and entire communities and nations subscribe to ideologies and interpretations that are breathtakingly inaccurate, of questionable morality, or just plain confused, with profound consequences for their neighbors and historical successors. While not a therapeutic practice in the narrow psychoanalytic sense, the study of history humanizes – it expands and deepens our humanity. This is so even if it sometimes appalls and disappoints us as to what human beings are capable of perpetrating. 

Kohut’s innovation is to assert that “empathy…recognizes and appreciates difference, even while attempting to know and understand it” (p. 41). 

Since both empathy and ethics emerge simultaneously out of the differences of the encounter with other individual and groups, empathy can be used for both good and evil. Empathy tells me what the other person is experiencing; ethics tells me what to do about it. Thus, the Nazis attached sirens to their dive bombers, the better to get inside the heads of the innocent civilians they are bombing and terrify them. 

The good news is that for the most part, civilized human beings use empathy to create a clearing of acceptance and tolerance for compassion, generosity, and prosocial affects to come forth and empathy training can expand such a clearing; but there is nothing intrinsically prosocial about empathy as such. At least, such is the position of Kohut the historian and psychoanalyst, as I read him. 

Kohut has many fellow travellers and teachers in empathic history writing. Elizabeth Lunbeck and John Demos deserve mention for their empathically attuned history writing. Kohut endorses Dominick DaCapra’s distinction of “empathic unsettlement,” which is “the historian’s pervasive experience of difference even while attempting to know and understand it” (p. 43). 

At another level, the authority of the past over us in the present is a strong motivator for Kohut’s approach. Kohut answers to the postmodern historian’s critique of Eurocentric history, is direct. High political history and dead white male leaders (p. 18) may have monopolized the empathic conversation, but it need not be that way. Marginalized peoples and oppressed individuals who make an empathic claim on us – as historians – to engage, articulate, and call out the experiences of alterity and otherness. 

The use of empathy in cultural history is pervasive and provides further evidence that the role of empathy requires rehabilitation and extension. 

But what of history written from the so-called objective observational perspective, which tends to emphasize broad trends and sweeping generalizations about politics and society – Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Modernity, the Nuclear Age, post Modern Society – in which individuals and entire countries are caught up? 

Kohut acknowledges that such history is wide spread and is a paradigm that contributes to historical understanding. What it does not do is give us a sense of what it was like to be alive in such times. When done badly, such writing is little different than reading a rail road time table, and, even at its best, entails the risk of sending us down a deterministic labyrinth that produces problematic narratives.  When done well, such sweeping, broad historical panoramas can and do enrich our humanity, but precisely by deploying and applying empathic methods. And that is a point that Kohut drives home: historians are unwittingly – and thus uncritically and rigorously – employing empathy and they may usefully take their method up a level and do so explicitly, rigorously, and critically. 

I do not know if Kohut would agree with me, but I was inspired by him to assert that there are at least two kinds of non-empathic history writing. Non-empathic history can be a chronology. Names and dates. This is important and a foundation, and not a trivial matter, to be sure, yet not ultimately what makes a difference in terms of meaningful human understanding and development. 

Alternatively, if one is unambiguously committed to deterministic trends in history such as in certain caricatures of Marxism, then one goes down the causal dead end as determinism is regularly refuted by experience when the inevitable deterministic outcome fails to show up. History has come to an end so many times only then to demonstrate in the ongoing course of events that the ending of one individual or group’s history is the beginning of another’s. 

The third alternative is that, yes, such sweeping, broad trends may indeed be significant, even indispensable, but if you read the historical text carefully, empathy is richly present intermittently and all-too-often on a scattershot basis. But that is what makes the text come to life. Perhaps not present on every page, but there is inevitably a report of an individual or a personal anecdote or an imaginative experiment by the historian; and it is precisely those moments and passages that act like a lightening rod to bring vitality and aliveness to the narrative. The sweeping history of historical trends without empathy lacks vitality and human significance.  It is empty of humanity. It is like plate tectonics or geology – nothing wrong with plate tectonics as such – but as a model of history writing, it lacks relatedness to human meaning or value. 

This speaks directly to Kohut’s point that historians frequently use empathy but they use it implicitly and unconsciously. It is wroth repeating: Kohut’s intervention is to urge that the historians must take their practice up a level and be explicit about when they are deploying empathy or not. Under Kohut’s skillful treatment, empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Meanwhile, the shadow of the tribal falls over the historical. The use of empathy that seems to affirm structures of domination and false consciousness (e.g., Foucault) only gets traction if one’s definition of empathy is restricted to that of an empathy of identity. Though not called out by Kohut, Ian Hacking’s notion of historical ontology belongs here, inspired as it is by such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Willard Quine. However, if one allows for an empathy of differences, empathy is the encounter with the other individual or community who is different than I am and who one grasps in the other’s alterity [othrness], then the objection of tribalism fails to get traction and falls way. 

This speaks directly to Kohut’s point that historians frequently use empathy but they use it implicitly and unconsciously. It is wroth repeating: Kohut’s intervention is to urge that the historians must take their practice up a level and be explicit about when they are deploying empathy or not. Under Kohut’s skillful treatment, empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Meanwhile, the shadow of the tribal falls over the historical. The use of empathy that seems to affirm structures of domination and false consciousness (e.g., Foucault) only gets traction if one’s definition of empathy is restricted to that of an empathy of identity. Though not called out by Kohut, Ian Hacking’s notion of historical ontology belongs here, inspired as it is by such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Willard Quine. However, if one allows for an empathy of differences, empathy is the encounter with the other individual or community who is different than I am and who one grasps in the other’s alterity [othrness], then the objection of tribalism fails to get traction and falls way. 

Since this is not a softball review, I suggest that Kohut bends so far backwards to accommodate tenuous objections to empathic practices that he sometimes unwittingly ends up underestimating and being unfair to the powers and importance of a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Kohut is generous and gracious in addressing every imaginable objection – possibly from some hair-splitting reader or editor – generous to a fault. Yet once a thinker (not Kohut!) embraces a Cartesian fragmentation of human relatedness by locking the historical individual up in the warm room with Descartes sitting alone by fire, yet without relating to him, all the paradoxes about how to build a bridge back to the other consciousness come forth. 

One point that is flat out missing from Kohut’s is a treatment of retrospective grasping or understanding (Nachträglichkeit) – “afterwardness” – a key distinction in Freud and the understanding of the past. This is important because empathy is needed to grasp the change of meaning between what the event meant in the past and what it comes to mean at a different, later time. 

For example, a child of tender age is exposed to adult sexuality, whether accidently seeing the parents engaging in such or through a boundary violation such as molestation. The child does not grasp what happened, and does not like it, but is not traumatized. Years later the child becomes an adolescent, remembers the incident, and then falls ill with hysteria or an obsessional neurosis. Did the child experience the boundary violation in the sense that the child was present in the room? Yes. Did the child fall ill at that time. No. What happened? Retrospective understanding!

Likewise, in history, the Nazis systematically and with malice of forethought exterminate – slaughter – murder – some six million Jewish people, including some homosexuals, gypsies, handicapped, socialists, and so on. Years later one of the architects of the genocide, Adolph Eichmann, is captured, put on trial, and executed for the crime. The killing of the six million is redescribed as the Holocaust during and shortly after the trial. Were the people killed? Yes. Did “Holocaust” exist as a distinction in language or reporting before Eichmann’s trial? Not as far as we know. What happened? Nachträglichkeit! The description is grasped and validated retrospectively. 

Meanwhile, as noted by Kohut, the result of “cultural Cartesianism” (p. 119) is that the shadow of tribalism falls upon the historical. Consciousness encompasses but is not reducible to its expressions such as historical documents, works of art, architecture, and traces of all kinds of peoples’ marks upon the land. 

Anything that qualifies as an expression of the life of a human subject and gets embodied in a fixed form and survives in a transmittable form becomes the raw material for empathically processing the thoughts and feelings that are embodied in the resulting historical narrative. The result is a narrative that imaginatively enlivens the artifacts with empathic vitality and evokes the world that generated them.

Kohut’s is a slim volume (a pervasive problem in publishing in this post hard copy era), and he does not have the word count to lay down his obvious commitment to rigorous historical practice in any detail. He repeatedly suggests that those who go to the archives may usefully [must] bring their empathy with them. That is one of Kohut’s recurring themes: Explicitly bring your empathy. Archives, documents, ruins, artistic artifacts, archeological digs, etymological traces in language, dusty old bones with hatchings in museums, and all manner of expressions of human life, form the basis for the historical narrative and interpretation that becomes the rigorous study of history and humanity. 

Anything that qualifies as an expression of the life of a human subject and gets embodied in a fixed form and survives in a transmittable form becomes the raw material for empathically processing the thoughts and feelings that are embodied in the resulting historical narrative. The result is a narrative that imaginatively enlivens the artifacts with empathic vitality and evokes the world that generated them.

Kohut’s is a slim volume (a pervasive problem in publishing in this post hard copy era), and he does not have the word count to lay down his obvious commitment to rigorous historical practice in any detail. He repeatedly suggests that those who go to the archives may usefully [must] bring their empathy with them. That is one of Kohut’s recurring themes: Explicitly bring your empathy. Archives, documents, ruins, artistic artifacts, archeological digs, etymological traces in language, dusty old bones with hatchings in museums, and all manner of expressions of human life, form the basis for the historical narrative and interpretation that becomes the rigorous study of history and humanity. 

Empathy is called forth by the expressions of human life whether in the presence of a person in the same room just now or the artistic and documentary artifacts left behind. It is a tactical advantage in the theory of knowledge (epistemology) that one can ask such a present person, “What do you mean by that?” However, absent a four-year psychoanalysis, she is not going to have any better access to her blind spots, self-deceptions or ambivalences than the person writing in her diary a century ago. Extra data is remarkably useful; yet sometimes more data is just more data. Empathic interpretation is needed to bring it to life and make it speak and contribute to our understanding. 

Kohut is the professional’s professional. He relegates to the footnotes his disagreement with Rudolf Makkreel, whose monumental (re)construction of Wilhelm Dilthey’s “Critique of Historical Reason” relies on an innovative reading [Makkreel’s reading] of Kant’s Third Critique. But, once again, since this is not a softball review, I have no such constraints (or footnotes).

Notwithstanding Makkreel’s substantial contribution, he is the one who is responsible for throwing empathy “under the bus” in the context of Dilthey, denying an entire generation of scholars an appreciation of Dilthey’s highly empathic methods. Though, admittedly, Dilthey never uses the word “Einfühlung [empathy],” Dilthey is a preeminent historian and philosopher of empathy, and Kohut properly treats him that way. 

Curiously “Einfühlung [empathy in German]” is now an English word. German historians and self psychologists having translated “empathy” back into German as Empathie. Curious also the vicissitudes of translation: the process of translation itself becomes a metaphor for empathic relatedness. The point is that Kohut’s command of the intricacies of translations (from the German) is second to none and his clarifications are penetrating and incisive. 

Dilthey’s invocation of Nacherleben [vicarious experience] and Nachleben [vicariously experience life or vicarious life] capture the process of empathic receptivity while Dilthey’s commitment to Verstehen [(human) understanding] do the work of [cognitive] empathic understanding as opposed to causal explanation [erklären].  So much for Makkreel, who seems to have forgotten to read Max Scheler.

Kohut makes the case that our relationship to the past is a dynamic one, and the dynamo – the driver – of the dynamic is empathy. The historian brings his methods and requirements to the past, but the astute historian soon realizes that the past also has requirements of him. Under the skillful treatment of Kohut, history becomes a kind of psychological transitional object or selfobject, infused and imbued with the shared humanity that connects us across time as psychoanalytic transference calls forth the meaning of the past for the present. Though Kohut properly plays it close to the vest, I think we have more than a little of that here. 

Kohut provides many examples of empathic history writing including his own work with the history of the Weimar Republic, the Wannsee Conference of the Nazis as well as John Demos’s research on witches, being kidnapped and raised by native Americans, and more. In every case, the facts are the facts, the trends are the trends, the debates are the debates, but it is empathy that brings to life the moving and frequently shocking realities of futures past and past futures. 

By the way, Kohut makes good use of Reinhart Koselleck’s (1974) distinctions of the horizon of experience and horizon of expectations [of the past]. Tom also makes good use of the ground breaking work of his father, Heinz Kohut, MD, who I would describe as a towering practitioner of empathy and who put empathy on the map and in the psyche of entire generations of psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, humanists, and thinkers, but not historians – until now. It is often not easy to be the offspring of an individual who invents an entirely new discipline, Self Psychology in the case of Heinz. For example, consider the struggles of Freud’s children and grand children – but Tom Kohut seems to have done just fine, thank you, to his credit – and Heinz’s.

History writing sometimes lacks empathy or is ambivalent about its empathy. However, without rigorous and critical empathic practices, as endorsed by Kohut (Tom), history goes off the rails as an anachronism – attributing to the past distinctions and ideas (e.g., childhood) that did not exist and could not even be imagined by the peoples of past times. 

Likewise, the past had distinctions (e.g., witchcraft) that we do not have or, more precisely, do have without experiencing the distinction similarly, and we have distinctions that were unknown in the past. Historical peoples had distinctions that we now know only as an abstract concept empty of the influence and experience the distinction had for inhabitants of the past world. 

Empathy comes into its own as an essential method in accessing a world lit only by fire (to recall William Manchester’s empathically attuned title), in which demons and spirits were abroad in the land, impacting everyday life in ways we can hardly imagine. With Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past, the reader’s imagination – and empathy – are expanded in his stimulating engagement with the uses of empathy for historical understanding. 

References

Reinhart Koselleck. (1974). Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, tr, and intro., Keith Tribe. Columbia University Press, 2004.

Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery. London and New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis), 2015. 

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.

References

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

The Limits of Empathy in Politics

If freedom of expression and free speech are flourishing, but no one is listening, then empathy becomes a tree that falls in the forest when no one is present. Empathy does not make a sound – or a difference. 

Even in politics empathy is always empathy. However, politics brings along a whole new set of questions, issues, and challenges by with which empathy is confronted and to which empathy gets applied. The political becomes personal, unsettlingly so at times.

What then is the limit of empathy in politics? This is the limit: the practice of empathy does not work well with bullies, sociopaths, psychopaths, QAnon style delusional thinkers, the criminally insane, and [some] autistic children. 

The prevalence of bullying in the school playground and politics is widespread and toxic; and one should never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. Yet, if your political opponent is behaving like a bully, empathy is not going to be enough. You will need to find supplementary methods – empathy alone will not work on her or him. These hard cases literally will not “get it.” They will not perceive the empathy. They will not experience your empathy. 

Worse yet, some bullies and psychopaths will accept your empathy and turn it against you, the better to control, manipulate, and dominate you. If the practice of empathy is not the way forward, how then does one deal with bullying without becoming a bully oneself?

The answer is direct: set limits. Set boundaries. Thus, far and no further! Stay in your own lane. Get back into your own corner. Stay in your own space. Keep your hands to yourself! In so far as empathy is all about firm yet flexible boundaries between the self and the other, a rigorous and critical empathy is engaged here; but until the boundary is reestablished, empathy cannot come into its own. Indeed once boundary violations occur and safety or security is at risk, the issue is no longer an empathic one – call for backup, implement self-defense measures, or escape and continue the struggle on another day.  

The FBI hostage negotiating team understands that empathy reduces rage and upset; and they use empathy in context for that purpose, though, as far as I know, they do not use the word “empathy” as such. Yet once the bullets start flying, the time for empathy has passed. Send in the swat team. For an illuminating article on the margins of empathy see Elizabeth Bernstein on “Advice From a Hostage Negotiator” (WSJ.com 06/14/2020) [https://on.wsj.com/3ajoYon]. Law enforcement gets empathy. Bad guys watch out. Once again, never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. 

In so far as empathy is all about respecting the boundaries between self and other, one group and another group, boundary setting is relevant to politics and empathy. So if one can reestablish a boundary, then empathy can be reintroduced, gradually, to guide us in how to cross back and forth across the boundary without submitting to bullying, provoking a temper tantrum, or getting stuck in breakdown. 

Yet the shadow of the tribalism falls over empathy in politics. Empathy gets a bad rap because empathy is often limited in contemporary political debates to empathy of identity. However, empathy – and that is the innovation here – empathy is also empathy of differences. Key terms: empathy of identity and empathy of difference.

With an empathy of differences, in addition to identity politics, we get a politics of recognition. 

Empathy shows up when one person encounters the other person and recognizes his or her differences. I hasten to add no one is asking anyone to give up or devalue his or her identity. The suggestion is that the Empathy of Differences lets identities flourish in a space of acceptance and toleration created by empathic recognition. The empathic recognition in turn creates a political arena where people can debate and compromise and get things done. 

Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes yields an empathy of differences. One discovers the otherness of the other. The shoe rarely fits exactly right. One discovers where the shoe pinches – but the other’s shoe almost inevitably pinches at a different spot when it pinches one’s own foot, because the other foot is slightly longer or shorter than one’s own. 

Though we are different, our interests, experiences, and aspirations as human beings are recognized.

Illustration of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln debating his opponent Steven Douglas in front of a crowd, circa 1858. (Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Our interests and aspirations have areas of overlap – for example, we want our children to flourish; we want to be able to make a contribution to the community; we want to be secure in our private lives and preference. With goals pursued along different paths, our possibilities converge or diverge without conflict. Our opportunities align in parallel or intersect at right angles instead of clashing. We are able to cooperate and embrace workability instead of obstructing one another. We are able to build instead of tear down. 

Once again, there is nothing wrong with the empathy of identity, but something is missing. What is missing is difference. The empathy of identity is ultimately that of proximity to family, tribe, and local community. As noted, there is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent. We would be less than human without it. But the empathy of identity is ultimately derivative and incomplete without an empathy of differences. 

If one is limited to an empathy of identity, the result is tribalism. “I get you, man, and you get me, bro, because we are alike.” No one is proposing to try completely to abolish tribalism, but tribalism is definitely limiting and constraining.

All these different tribes sets in motion a trend, which arguably is tribalism’s own undoing, dissolving its identity – Republicans, Democrats, Progressive, Conservatives, Libertarians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Quakers, all 198 member nations of the United Nations – not to mention the Chicago Cubs Baseball team. So many identities – so many tribes. If one gets and belongs to enough of them, identity starts to dissolve. 

Tribalism itself sets in motion a dialectic whereby each individual can belong to multiple tribes with multiple identities and affiliations. If you participate in enough tribes and enough overlap between tribal identities, the notion of identity starts to dissolve into a kind of melting pot of multiculturalism, communalism, or ecumenical spirituality, market place of competing political ideologies. Even if the melting pot never completely melts, it can at least become a colloidal suspension – cosmopolitanism – where the identities and differences are fine-grained enough not to subvert individual diversity or the aspiration to commonly shared values. 

But absent such a dialectic of dissolution into a melting pot of identities– for example, in traditional societies or insular communities – the empathy within the communal group works well but breaks down at the boundary at which one encounter the other individual and group and their differences.

The innovative point here – to emphasize once again – is that empathy is about identity and similarity, but it is just as importantly about differences. 

Speaking in the first person, when I encounter an individual who is different than I am, then I have an experience of otherness. However, every person I encounter, without exception, is different than I am, even if there are similarities. The other is different than I am. But without the other individual there is no empathy. Empathy is born in otherness. Empathy is born in the difference. Empathy is born in the difference of otherness and in the otherness of difference. 

If that starts to spin, enjoy the ride.  At least you are not alone – as the practice of empathy is the one thing you cannot do all by yourself. Empathy is a function of otherness. Without the other individual, there is only myself – oneself. 

Solipsism is the philosophical position – the illusion – there the entire universe consists of oneself very alone – hence, solus ipse. One is the creator of one’s entire universe – life is literally but a dream – until one encounters the other – then one wakes up to the reality of the resistance of the other – and the resistance of the other emerges from differences – the otherness of the other. You need an other – and the other individual’s differences – to get empathy started. 

Being open to the other person’s feelings, affects, experiences, beliefs, and resonating in tune with the other individual, yields inevitably both the similarity and differences of those feelings, affects, experiences, and beliefs. That is the empathic moment: I realize we are different and that difference lives and becomes accessible in the space of acceptance and toleration between us. 

This brings us again to the limit of empathy in politics. Thus, the fundamental political question for a rigorous and critical empathy in politics is what to do politically with individuals and groups that one cannot stand. 

What to do with individuals and groups who arouse a visceral dislike and antipathy that are acknowledged to be irrational? What to do with individuals and groups with whom one disagrees on policy, practices, perspectives, procedures, customs, or spiritual practices? The tribalism of the empathy of identity is not going to get you of this impasse. 

The reduction to absurdity of the empathy of identity is humorist Tom Lehrer’s satirical song,  “National Brotherhood Week”:  “Shake the hand of someone you can’t stand.” 

Humor and empathy are closely related. One crosses a boundary between self and other in both cases. In humor one crosses the boundary with aggressive or sexual innuendo; in empathy one crosses the boundary with gracious permission and generosity. 

Lehrer predictably succeeds in being wickedly funny, though deeply cynical, as he sings an upbeat tune: “…The rich folks hate the poor folks and the poor folks hate the rich folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks – it’s American as apple pie! But during National Brotherhood Week – Sheriff Clarke and Lena Horne are dancing cheek-to-cheek.” Note that Clarke was a notoriously committed racist and segregationist during the early Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and Lena Horne was a celebrated African-American singer of romantic smoky ballads – not a likely match up on anyone’s dating site.

While shaking the hand of one’s sworn opponent (or an elbow bump in a pandemic) is always a good start, it is ultimately incomplete. Unless an empathic context of toleration and acceptance is established for the hand shaking, the risk of shaking hands with someone you can’t stand is that one will end up despising the other even more. 

Lehrer’s song ends by expressing the unexpressed elephant in the room “…[Be] nice to people who are inferior to you / It’s only for a week so have no fear / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.” 

As the song implies, absent additional training in and work on empathy and critical thinking, the hypocrisy and prejudice live on. The practice of empathy becomes the practice of a rigorous and critical empathy. 

The disciplined practice of a rigorous and critical empathy is on the path to well functioning political community and successful engagement with one’s political opponents and rivals. A rigorous practice of empathy requires critical thinking to guide it, and, in turn, critical thinking requires empathy to open the space of relatedness, acceptance, and toleration of differences. 

This rigorous and critical empathy includes critical thinking. Critical thinking includes such skills as questioning in the sources of one’s facts and beliefs, examining and questioning one’s assumptions, assessing conflicting reports in the media, looking for hidden assumptions and biases, examining one’s own for conflicts of interest, recognizing one’s own mistakes and cleaning them up at once, basic listening skills, taking turns, and seeing if one’s conclusions are actually implied by one’s facts and reasoning from these facts. These are all important. But the number one skill of critical thinking is putting oneself in the place of one’s opponent, competitor, or colleague and considering the alternative point of view – cognitive empathy. Such empathy becomes a priority in a political context.

In conclusion, when empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy, then the limits of empathy in politics are the limits of politics, not the limits of empathy.

References

Tom Lehrer, National Brotherhood Week [performed]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIlJ8ZCs4jY

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy, Brain Science, Stress Reduction – the Video

Here is the short, half day course on Empathy, Stress (Reduction) and Neural Science delivered at the Joe Palombo Center for Neuroscience at the Institute for Clinical Social Work. The image depicted is the punchline to a Richard Feynman (physicist) joke about the cosmos – “It’s turtles all the way down” – in the case of neuroscience “It is neurons all the way down!” Granted that the joke is not funny if one has to explain it, the video provides all the background you need to laugh (one way or the other!)

You can also watch directly on Youtube by cutting and pasting into your command line without the dash

-https://youtu.be/bdZo5EaweJc

A famous person once said: “Empathy is oxygen for the soul.” So if one is feeling shortness of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy! This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience (“brain science”). For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. [This is an over-simplification, but a compelling one.] Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.

The session engages each of the following modules in the discussion segment, including suggested readings. Except for the first two topics, we can take them in any order and the participants will get to select:

  1. This is your mind on neuroscience – mirror neurons: do they exist, and if not, so what?
  2. Sperry on the split brain: the information is in the system: how to get at it
  3. The neuroscience of trauma – and how empathy gives us access to it
  4. MRI research: as when Galileo looked through the telescope, a whole new world opens

Image: The punch line is “turtles – all the way down” – well, likewise – “neurons – all the way down.”

Presenter: Lou Agosta, PhD, is the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy, including A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015). He has taught empathy in history and systems of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and offered a course in the Secret Underground Story of Empathy at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Education. He is an empathy consultant in private practice in “on the forward edge in the Edgewater Community” in Chicago. If you need some empathy and want to get a good listening, talk to Dr Lou. 
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Top 10 Empathy Trends for 2021

“The Year 2020 in review: One Star – definitely would not recommend!” Good things to say about 2020? As Dave Barry quipped, nobody got killed by the murder hornets. Many of my empathy trends for 2020, prepared in December 2019, were blown up on the launch pad by February 2020 as the pandemic accelerated. “Empathy interrupted!”  I acknowledge that I did not see it coming.

The year 2020 was not an ordinary year in any sense. Obviously. The really tough thought gradually dawns on us: “Ordinary” will never  mean the same thing again in quite the same way.

The fundamental meta-trend of trends is to process that there is no going back to the way things were in exactly the way they were in December 2019. 

I ask your understanding, dear reader, in that the pandemic features prominently in the first few trends, but since this is in the nature of a top ten list and the pandemic touches almost everything indirectly, significant trends stronger than the immediate pandemic issues get pushed towards the bottom of the list leading up to #1. So feel free to scan and skip ahead. 

(10) It’s gettin’ crowded under the bus – make room for your neighbor. Empathy as a practice and as a distinction is knocked back on its heels by the pandemic, fights back, and recovers – gradually. We confront the paradox of “embracing” our socially distanced neighbor. There is something about humans that makes us want to breathe on one another. Empathy? Don’t try and hold your breath – even though expanding neighborliness is the ultimate empathy trend. 

Any trends, activities, practices that required getting close to another person physically were under stress if not banned in 2020: breaking bread together in person, hugging your grandma or neighbor, hug therapy [there actually was such a thing – before the pandemic], shaking hand(s) with someone you can’t stand [as Tom Lehrer quipped in his satirical song “National Brotherhood Week”], engaging with the kindness of strangers, dating, occupying the middle seat (or any seat?) on an airplane or bus, participating in person in artistic or sporting activities, in short, breathing with people in close quarters, sharing oxygen with them. All these and more were unceremoniously thrown under the bus in 2020 by the requirement for social distancing. The thing is – it’s getting crowded under the bus. 

Any action, behavior, or practice that takes into account the dignity or well-being of the other person or community expands and empowers empathy. A silver lining: empathy is already “action at a distance,” as I know the experience of the other person because I too experience the experience.

Empathy trends for 2021: how long can you hold your breath?

Empathy in the age of Covid-19 really does mean wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, getting the vaccine (subject to availability). To quote Noah Lindquist: “Wear a mask – think of someone other than yourself, it’s all we ask – get your head out of your [bleep] – no, the mandates aren’t malicious; your conspiracies are fictitious; try not to be so grouchy have some faith in Fauci!” – to be sung to the tune of Disney’s “Be my guest” from The Beauty and the Beast. The part about “thinking of someone other than yourself” is the cognitive empathy moment, which is especially challenging in the face of pandemic fatigue. 

The New York Times (https://tinyurl.com/y9tczw8c) points out that, as President Trump’s trade war with China escalated, the administration all but eliminated the public health partnership with Beijing that had begun after the debacle of the SARS epidemic and was intended to help prevent potential pandemics. 

By pulling out, current and former agency officials say, Washington cut itself off from potential intelligence about the virus, and lost an opportunity to work with China against it. President Trump is voted out of office, while Mr Chairman Xi of China is handing out bonuses and deciding which scientists stay under house arrest.

As my friend David Cole astutely observed, “If you live mostly by yourself in the country, you can afford think about yourself a lot; if you live in the big city, you are forced to think about others.” He did not say “presumably because some of the others might be muggers,” but maybe he didn’t have to. Granted that thinking about others is top down, cognitive empathy, not the full package, still it provides useful training in perspective taking of different points of view and walking in the shoes of others, even if the others can be decidedly un-neighborly.

In terms of creating and expanding inclusive communities, the pandemic has been a significant set back. Empathy is all about being inclusive – take your in-group and reach out to outsiders and include them. The pandemic has made doing that problematic. It is hard to distinguish between being inclusive and a super spreader event such as we in the USA saw over the summer of 2020 with the ten day Sturgis motor cycle rally, which reportedly spread contagion across the upper Midwest. The recommendation is review Robert Pirsig’s influential  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance prior to the next event.

 (9) Empathy continues to expand its political footprint. Empathy inhabits politics, even when empathy is conspicuous by its absence. Regardless of what one thinks of the individual candidates or economic platforms, the messaging of decency and cooperation reliably gets more votes than bullying and chest thumping. 

The bridge between the political present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the engaging thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. It is consistent with social distancing. Nor does it require agreement. 

Different viewpoints are available with regard to anyone’s action, including that of the one with whom one is least likely to agree. This is not the narrow psychological mechanism of empathy in which one simply reverses perspective with another person. Political engagement is the  attempt to take on the multiplicity of standpoints represented in a given community. Historical empathy is trending, too (see Kohut 2020). 

The greater variety of perspectives that one has present in one’s mind on the present and past while one is engaging a given issue, and the better one can imagine how one would think and feel if one were in their place. This brief note to point to more discussion in the coming year. 

The politics of rage are abroad in the land. When people are spoken to using ethnic or racial insults, they get enraged. When people feel their values and commitments are not respected, they are aggrieved – and they get enraged. Dignity violations are experienced as breakdowns of empathy – and that causes people to get angry; and the anger often escalates into rage. It gets worse – and more ambiguous.

Demagogues tell their constituents that other groups do not respect them, are out to get them. Demagogues take advantage of people’s sometimes legitimate grievances. The result is that the rage is displaced onto those groups. This becomes especially problematic when the dignity violation is imaginary such as a non-existent Pizzagate Conspiracy. 

The emotional contagion that precedes mob action is a demonstrable breakdown of empathic receptivity. The communicability of negative emotions such as fear, anger, and panic are aroused and the humanity of one’s neighbors is denied. The comparison of the intended victims to insects is a distressing symptom of the denial of empathy, followed by dehumanization, followed by violence. 

The first step in eliminating any natural inhibitions on violence is to deny empathy to the intended victims that accompanies their humanity. Wherever one’s opponent is described in devaluing and dehumanizing language, the red flag is out. Get ready for human rights violations. 

Once called forth, rage can be channeled in a number of different directions. If it is channeled into burning down one’s own neighborhood, that is the self-defeating response to breakdowns in empathy. If it is channeled into a lynch mob, it is an appalling human rights violation that must rally people everywhere to the cause of justice. If it is channeled into righteous indignation and civil disobedience, that is an approach with potentially better outcomes. 

The empathy lesson? An empathic response on the part of the authorities will deescalate the rage and interrupt the potential for violence. People in the community use their empathy as a way of data gathering to determine if the authorities initial empathic responsiveness is the real deal or just more propaganda. 

(8) “USPS, yes!” from a song by The Bobs entitled “Drive by Love.” Add logistics and supply chain genius to the list of “unsung heroics” of empathy. It takes something to “get” that on-time delivery is actually a form of empathic responsiveness. 

Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dead of night – nor pandemic – stopped the US Post Office from delivering the mail – which included many mail-in ballots. Hats off to the unsung heroes – there are so many of them – in this case, the logistical accomplishments of forwarding the US mail. What happened once the mail got there is – predictably – more politics. 

Yes, of course, the nurses and doctors and first responders are eminently worthy of our recognition. Of course they are heroes – heroes of restoring health and well-being, cheating death, and survival, even as we also acknowledge that the need for so many heroes is a troubling sign that significant social systems are in breakdown. So do not forget to add to the list the unsung heroes of the solution to the pandemic – the supply chain men and women – the logistics guys. I do not just mean the actual delivery folks driving the trucks as in the song “UPS, yes!” I mean the logistics required to distribute two shots of the first approved vaccine at – what? – 90 degrees below Fahrenheit. No trivial accomplishment.

(7) Empathy is distinguished from simulated empathy (again). People will continue to try to listen to one another, and, by practicing listening, will make progress in distinguishing simulated (“fake”) empathy from empathy – gradually. The matter is complex – and troubling.

Social networking platforms (e.g., Facebook in its current form (Q1 2021)) are unmasked as the ultimate training ground for simulated empathy, a synonym for fake empathy and un-listening. 

In the section late in Shoshana Zuboff’s book (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Hachette Press)) on “Homing to the Herd,” Zuboff writes: 

“[Facebook’s] operations are designed to exploit the human inclination toward empathy, belonging, and acceptance. The system tunes the pitch of our behavior with the rewards and punishments of social pressure, herding the human heart toward confluence as a means to other’s commercial ends.” 

I would spit hairs and say, “simulated empathy.” However, the basic point is valid. The user ends up “over sharing” personal information in a kind of tranquilized state of semi-hypnotic psychic numbing similar to that induced in gambling casinos by blinking lights and bells. On FB, you are not the customer – you are the product. 

As bad as that may be, it gets worse. The damage to one’s humanity is already done when one’s personal experience is treated as raw material for the surveillance capital’s revenue model. Facebook and Google users – you and me – are not customers; we are the raw material. The customers are the advertisers, corporations with services and goods, whose selling requires a guaranteed outcome. Machine intelligence operating on big data at hyper-scale has within view behavioral modification the results of which B. F. Skinner, wizard of operant conditioning, can only have dreamed. You do not so much search Google as Google searches you. With that in mind, the next up trend is –

(6) Big brother is overtaken by Big Other without, however, decisively expanding empathy. Empathy scores [some] points against Big Other’s fake news, alternative facts, dangerous half truths, total nonsense, and simulated empathy, but the back-and-forth continues. 

The opponent is no longer “Big Brother” (as in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984) but “Big Other” (first identified by S. Zuboff in her book (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Hachette Press)). Millions of Americans and their representatives in the US Congress subscribe to the fake news promoted by Big Other that the 2020 election was “rigged”; but millions more reject alternative acts, dangerous half truths and total nonsense. 

While fake news is perhaps as old as the Trojan horse in Homer’s Iliadand the warning about Greeks bearing gifts, social networking takes the risks and damage to a new level. Fake news aligns in detail with surveillance capitalism (see Zuboff cited above), because fake news maximizes social conflict, controversy, and most importantly – clicks.

Big Other is itself a Trojan horse appearing to be free search and free digital services. However, without advance in listening skills – i.e., the “free-ness” is illusory. It is more like the first settlers handing out blankets that were used to swaddle small pox patients to the indigenous peoples.

Just as the science of physics and engineering enabled industrial capitalism to master nature, a vision of socialphysics (Alex Pentland’s book of the same name features prominently) is being implemented in big data and machine intelligence to implement behavior modification. Thus Zuboff: “Social media is designed to engage and hold people of all ages, but it is principally molded to the psychological structure of adolescence and emerging adulthood, when one is naturally oriented toward the ‘others,’ especially toward the rewards of group recognition, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion.”

Big Other can mimic empathy, all the while capturing and aggregating the responses such that the predictive modeling can suggest targeted advertisements. Freedom of speech and self-expression continue to flourish. No one is listening.

As noted, social media provide the appearance of connectedness and intimacy – a simulated empathy – while actually perpetrating the equivalent of gossip, social climbing, narcissistic self promotion, and out-and-out deception. Ultimately the idea is to get you to engage in a transaction to buy, use, and consume Big Other’s product or service.

The proper function of education is to promote training in perspective taking (empathy), critical thinking, argumentation, distinguishing fact and fiction, assessing the reliability of reportage in the media, assumption questioning, and how to quote facts in context. These get traction in 2021 and play an expanded role in the school curriculum(s), even as in-person learning makes an all-too-slow comeback. 

(6a) True Believers (TB) are moved by empathy, not the facts, to abandon their illusion(s). The illusion/delusion holds the personality together; sp it is impervious to facts or arguments. Try some empathy? The story that one tells to other people is nothing in comparison with the story that one tells oneself. (Here “story” equals “belief system” or even “fiction.”)

You know the TB as the one who Doubles Down on his illusion when things do not go his way. Key term: Double Down. For example, when the space ship does not arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the TBs to the promised land (or your candidate does not win the election), does the TB inquire: Maybe I was mistaken about some of my facts? Maybe I made a wrong assumption? Or perhaps my messaging was a tad off? No! The TB doubles down. “We musta bin cheated!” “We was robbed!” 

No marshaling of facts, no amount of logical argument, whether overwhelming or debatable, makes a difference. It does no good – it makes no difference – to take the belief system away from the True Believer. The True Believer is not engaging any alternative point of view. Why not?

The answer is direct: the story, belief system, or ficiton is what is holding the True Believer’s self, his or her personality, together. Take away the belief system and the personality falls apart. The person experiences emotional fragmentation, anxiety, and stress. This is why the True Believer becomes angry, starts to shout, escalates to rage in the face of countervailing arguments and facts. The TB experiences a narcissistic injury that threatens the coherence of the TB’s personality. 

The secret of empathic relating to the True Believer is not agreeing or disagreeing, undercutting or sidestepping, antidepressants or antipsychotics, the secret is the relationship the empath has to his own inner True Believer. If you can find an area in which you really are a True Believer, then it is likely you can relate to a True Believer in a conversation for possibility in which both individuals are left in integrity, whole and complete. It does sometimes happen that when the True Believer gets the empathy he or she needs to feel whole and complete, the TB is able to “stand down,” “back away from the ledge,” and rejoin the diverse space of acceptance and tolerance of multiple points of view. It happens, but it takes a lot of work. 

(5) Empathy goes online – and stays there. This is one of the few trends from 2020 that were on target – and the trend continues. Here “empathy” refers to the gracious and generous listening that occurs in therapeutic counseling, behavioral health, life coaching, and empathy consulting, to individuals and organizations.

In particular, while nothing can substitute for an in-person conversation for possibility to shift out of emotional stuck-ness, after two people get to know one another, an online conversation is a good option in case of relocation, bad weather, unpredictable scheduling dynamics – or an especially infectious pandemic. The genie of online therapeutic conversations is out of the bottle, and not going back in. 

Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications 

Think about it: Those who complain about the lack of reality in a conversation over Zoom may usefully consider the amount of fiction and fantasy in any psychodynamic conversation, full stop. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.

(Note: This trend is in part an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To learn more about the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc])

(4) Empathy in law enforcement. The police struggle with policing themselves – succeeding in many cases, failing dramatically in others – and, as a result, we all struggle. I acknowledge the dedication, commitment, and hard work of first responders. And yet the police [need to] do a better job of policing themselves. Expanded empathy training gets traction.

The trend to train the police in empathy to deescalate potentially violent situations continues to get traction – and is making a positive difference in many communities – but the list of people of color that end up dead after an encounter with the local constabulary also continues to grow. Disturbing – verrry disturbing. More progress is needed. 

This is definitely a “hot button” issue. A coherent position is hard to find amid the shouting. I am a radical moderate. I am an extreme centrist. If my house is being burglarized or on fire, I am definitely not  going to call a hippie. Heck, a couple already live there [okay, a bad joke].

However, the trend is to promote accountability – and prevent defending – I almost said “defunding” – and in the case(s) of a few “bad apples” by eliminating organizational obstacles. It lacks credibility that a police union would never  expel one of its members for violating the human rights of a citizen according to the union’s own code of police conduct. The union has a code of conduct that aligns with promoting human rights, right? I acknowledge: The problem is that one person’s bad apple is another’s dedicated professional. However, when unarmed civilians end up taking bullets fired by the police, I assert that we can all tell the difference. 

This is not primarily a public relations problem – it is a human rights one. The police struggle to police themselves, and so, absent expanded empathy in the community with the community for the community, we all struggle.

Communities will benefit from expanded empathy on the part of the law enforcement. However, there is another reason that indicates this trend has traction. The public does not always hear about the multi-million dollar financial settlements that municipalities are required to pay for wrongful death or excessive use of force, because these agreements come with rigorous confidentiality clauses. 

Police who lack training turn out to be extraordinarily expensive to the taxpayers. In this context, “lack of training” does not mean insufficient time taking target practice. It means the need for practice in putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and considering possibilities for conflict resolution, de-escalation, and community building. In short, empathy is an important part of the gear deployed by law enforcement as the warrior cop, who will still be needed in extreme situations, gives way to community policing. Really, is there any other kind?

(3) Expanded empathy in the struggle against domestic violence. Men will find their voice and speak out even more loudly and provide leadership against domestic violence to those of their own gender who just do not get it. Victims and survivors of intimate partner violence face expanded risks if they have to “shelter in place” in the pandemic with the perpetrator(s). 

This is grim – beyond grim. Once again, this is not new news but has been just beneath the surface and underreported because it is so confronting. While women have provided the leadership and will continue to do so, powerful men will step up and provide guidance to their fellow about proper boundaries and respect for them in relationships. This is ongoing. What is new: powerful men step up and speak out and provide leadership among men in establishing respect for boundaries in creating communication, affection, and affinity.

For data- and empathy-based innovations that have occurred in the past year in the fight against domestic violence see No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Some sixty percent of domestic violence (DV) victims are strangled at some point during an abusive relationship (p. 65): Big red flag that the perpetrator is escalating in the direction of homicide/Femicide. 

Turns out that only some 15% of the victims in one study had injuries visible enough to photograph for the police report (p. 66). Most strangulation injuries are internal – hence, the title. Good news/bad news: The Fatality Review Board is an idea that is getting attention with law enforcement and the local states attorney function. More progress and action is needed in this area. 

(2) A rumor of empathy in Big Pharma. The rumor is validated. After the debunking of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) completed by Chris Lane (2007) and the disappointing DSM 5th edition (2013), Big Pharma has a real opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of the community. There is probably no other group of organizations on the planet that can do it. A crash project. High risk. Utterly urgent. The Covid-19 vaccine gets into people’s arms. Vaccine deniers say: “Oh, how I wish I were already experiencing the minor side effects of the shot!”

No, not a new psychotropic intervention for shyness, social anxiety, or hording. A vaccine(s) against Covid-19. The stakes are high, and it actually required [procedural] innovations at the FDA, CDC, and the US Congress (a high bar indeed) to enable treatments to be trialed without the usual ten-year plus long protocols (which are usually appropriate but not in this case). Fingers crossed (as of this writing 12/2020). Seems to be working – albeit gradually. Here me say it again (tongue in cheek): Don’t be so grouchy; have faith in Fauci! We are all most beholden’.

(2a) Empathy intersects with the struggle over climate change. It is a common place that empathy is oxygen for soul. If the human psyche does not get empathy, it suffocates in stress and suffering. Climate change makes the metaphor actual. If we do not drown as the Greenland and Antarctic ice fields slide en masse into the oceans, we are surely doomed to suffocate as the levels of carbon dioxide and heat overwhelm temperate habitats. 

The problem is that this eventuality does not live like an actual possibility for most people, who cannot imagine such an outcome – for example, just as in December 2019 no one could envision the 2020 pandemic. The bridge between the gridlocked present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the interesting thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. Lots more work needs to be on this connection. For purposes of this list of tasks, this “shout out” will have to suffice. For specific actionable recommendations, see David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80216393

(1) Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic and they an expanding appreciation of empathy suffuses the community. 

The one-minute empathy training is trending: Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously emerges.

Most people do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not  expand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.

The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!

Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple. 

Selected Bibliography

Shoshana Zuboff, 2019, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For the Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs (Hachette).

Tom Kohut. (2020). Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past. London: Routledge (T&F). 

Louise Snyder. (2019). No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Lou Agosta. (2012). A Rumor of Empathy at Apna Ghar, the Videohttps://tinyurl.com/y4yolree [on camera interview with Serena Low, former executive director of Apna Ghar about the struggle against DV] 

Lou Agosta. (2015). Chapter Four: Treatment of Domestic Violence in A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator). (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pairs Press.

Okay – have read enough and want to order the book Empathy Lessons to learn more about expanding my empathy: I want to order the book HERE.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Narcissism gets a bad rap: On empathy and narcissism

Narcissism has gotten a bad name. “Narcissism” has become a euphemism – a polite description – for a variety of integrity outages and bad behaviors. These extend from antisocial, psychopathic actions through bullying and domestic violence all the way to bipolar spectrum disorders or moral insanity. “Narcissism” has become the label of choice when an individual is behaving like a jerk. 

In the face of narcissism’s bad name, I am not here to give narcissism a good name,  but rather I suggest the matter is more nuanced than that presented in the popular psychology press today. Like Mark Anthony commenting on Julius Caesar in his funeral oration after Caesar’s assassination, I come not to praise narcissism but to bury it – and to differentiate narcissism from more serious forms of bad behavior with which it is confused. This article suggests that if a person behaves in an anti-social, bullying, boundary violating or other problematic way described above, then narcissism is the least of the worries. 

Whip-sawed as the narcissist is between arrogant grandiosity and vulnerable idealization, the authentic narcissist will reliably provide a positive developmental response to empathy. However, if repeatedly providing empathy to the alleged narcissist just gets you more manipulations, bullying, integrity outages, and broken agreements, then you may really be dealing with an anti-social person and personality, moral insanity, psychopathy, or undefined lack of integrity, in which case, empathy will not work. Neither will compassion. Limit setting is the order of the day. Fill out the police report and get the order of protection. 

The truth of narcissism is that people need and use other people to regulate their emotions. When Elvis sang “I wanna be – your teddy bear” (Elvis Presley, that is), he was bearing witness to the truth that we use other people to sooth our distressed selves, provide emotional calming when we are upset, and give us the empathy we need to fell good about ourselves. 

“I wanna be your teddy bear” means “I wanna give you the empathy, recognition, acknowledge that you need to feel good about yourself.” If the other person subsequently does not respond to you as a whole person, then that is surely a disappointment but the shortcoming is not necessarily in anything you did. The other person did not keep their commitment. 

People want people who respond to them as a whole person. People want people who appreciate who they are as a possibility. People need that sort of thing. People are vulnerable to the promise of such satisfaction because it feels good when it actually shows up.  

Of course, the big ifs contained in such a proposal are that the other person is capable of providing such empathy; the other person is reciprocally acknowledged as being someone from whom empathy is worth receiving, and then the other actually behaves in a way that is understanding and receptive. 

If the other person expresses hostility, withholds acknowledgement, does not honor his or her word, perpetrates micro aggressions (“narcissistic slights”), manipulates in subtle and overt ways, or behaves in a controlling or dominating way, behaves like a bully, then is that narcissism? It might be – but it might also be a lack of integrity (dishonesty), anti-social personality behavior, criminality, boundary violations, and abuse. It might or might not be narcissism – but it is definitely behaving like a jerk [just to use a neutral, non vulgar term].

The person who survives such an encounter or relationship with the alleged psychopath in narcissistic sheep’s clothing then has two problems. The first problem is that the individual has been deceived, manipulated, or cheated. The second problem is that he or she blames himself. 

Narcissists are supposed to be excessively self-involved, self-centered, self indulgent. To succeed in life, most people need to have a dose of healthy self confidence. By a show of hands, who reading this article lacks a strong sense of self-interest? Get some help with that. Okay – that’s narcissism, but not pathological narcissism.

When I read the latest denunciation of narcissism in the pop psychology magazine, I wonder where are all of these people who are not self-involved, self-centered, self-interested, looking out for “number one”? 

I go to social media where self-expression is trending. My take-away? Freedom of speech and self expression are flourishing – no one is listening! Is such lack of listening narcissism? Perhaps. But more likely is not lack of listening rather just lack of listening? Lack of commitment of expanding listening skills, inclusiveness, and lack of community?

So suppose the popular press is all mixed up about narcissism. What does the disentangling of this mess look like? 

People who are described as narcissists have [some] people skills. Even if one’s empathy is incomplete and defective at times, most people crave an empathic response and are able to provide one, at least on a good day. The challenge is that the narcissist’s empathy breaks down in emotional contagion, conformity, lack of perspective taking, and messages getting lost in translation. 

Most people want to look good and avoid looking bad, and narcissists are especially prone to doing that. Most people are committed to being right and, while we theoretically acknowledge we might be wrong, few people actually behave that way. Most behave like “know it alls,” especially in areas about which they literally know nothing. Narcissists are especially prone to that too. So we are all narcissists now? 

The differentiator is that the narcissist ends up feeling like a fake, experiencing an empty (not melancholic) depression, even in the face of authentic accomplishments.

Even when the narcissist actually performs and wins the gold ring, he (or she) still feels like a fake. There is a kind of empty depression, lack of energy, lack of vitality. This lack of aliveness may cause the narcissist arrogant, cold, haughty withdrawal or acting out using substances of abuse or sexual misadventures. In spite of actual accomplishments, the narcissist may feel that life is passing him by. A pervasive sense of lack of aliveness, vitality, or apathy dominates the narcissist’s emotional life. 

The one thing that narcissism is not confused with is autism spectrum disorders. The narcissistic has access to empathy, values it, “gets” it, craves it, even if the narcissist’s empathy is distorted and incomplete. I speculate that the psychopath is good at faking empathy, like an empathy parrot, prior to his perpetrations, whereas the narcissist is just not very good at it. He may seem to be faking empathy, but that is his clumsy effort to get it right, which is not working. 

It seems as though the narcissist has an exaggerated self worth and, if in a position of authority, has the power to enforce his or her distorted view on others. The narcissist shares his suffering in a bad way by causing pain and suffering to the people in his environment. When such a person has authority, the result indeed can be dysfunction behavior, which is hard to distinguish from bullying. 

As with most forms of bad behavior, the optimal first response is to set a limit to the bad behavior by pushing back, calling it out, expressing concern, or using humor to deflect: such behavior (bullying, bad language, physical or financial abuse,  etc.) is unacceptable. “That doesn’t work for me.” “Stop it.” Without establishing a context of safety and security, we do not have a set up for success in which empathy can make a difference. Few people are in a position to up and quit their job. No easy answers here. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, then document, call for backup, and escalate to the authorities, including a call to 911 or a police report as applicable. 

At this point, the narcissist may get the idea, “Hey maybe I need someone to talk to – professionally.” 

While every case is different, no one size fits all, and all the usual disclaimers apply, the intervention with the narcissist often consists in a conversation for possibility. Talk to the person. Give him or her a good listening, and she what shows up. The person’s experiences as a child of tender age show deficiencies in the areas of empathic response, opportunities for emotional regulation, or distress tolerance. This is no excuse for bad behavior; never will be; however, it can point to transformation if the person is open and willing. 

The narcissistic encapsulates his true self into a cocoon, hiding behind a fake self, in order to preserve the hope of aliveness and vitality if an empathic environment were ever to show up. If, in a context of safety for all, the narcissist is encouraged to lay back and to take a look at the precursors, triggers, and behaviors that he experiences as narcissistic insults and injuries causing him to break down or act out, then something starts to shift. They did not get enough empathy, did not get feedback on their own empathic responses (or lack thereof), got empathy but the responses were distorted or flat out crazy (causing the above-cited retreat into the emotional cocoon). 

If the intervention gets off to a good start and the narcissist has a therapeutic response – that is, he feels better and stabilizes – then the work consists of trying to provide empathy, restoring understanding when empathy breaks down, restoring communication when communications break down, and restarting the development of positive personality traits such as empathy, humor, creativity that got lost in the narcissist’s deficient environment coming up. 

The bottom line? Like most human beings, those with significant narcissistic tendencies and behaviors are susceptible of improvement. Sometimes there is no way to know for sure except to attempt the intervention in a context of safety and security. Unlike more serious forms of bad behavior exemplified by anti-social personality disorder, significant bullying, or boundary violating behaviors in which people get hurt, many narcissists are sufficiently in touch with their feelings and cravings for empathy that they will respond positively to an intervention in a context of safety and empathy. 

Bibliography

Heinz Kohut, (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press. 

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator), (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pears Press.

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) by Lou Agosta on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]

Okay, I have read enough. I want to get Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, a light-hearted look at empathy, containing some two dozen illustrations by artist Alex Zonis and including the one minute empathy training plus numerous tips and techniques for taking your empathy to the next level: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)

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

Noted in passing: Arnold Goldberg, MD, Innovator in Self Psychology (1929-2020)

The passing of Arnold I. Goldberg, MD, on September 24, 2020 is a “for whom the bell tolls” moment. No doubt his family, students, friends, and colleagues feel the loss most acutely; however, the community is diminished, though in another sense irreversibly enriched by his contributions and innovations in expanding empathy.

Our loss is great, yet we breath easier thanks his lessons in empathy, which is oxygen to our souls.

Arnold I. Goldberg was an innovator in psychoanalysis and self psychology, a prolific author (really prolific!), an inspiring educator, and simply a wonderful human being.

My personal recollections are of Dr Goldberg inspiring my younger, graduate student self to pursue and complete a dissertation on empathy and interpretation at the

Arnold Goldberg, MD, enjoying Labor Day September 09, 2010 at his vacation home at the Indiana Dunes, illustration by artist Alex Zonis

University of Chicago Philosophy Department. I fondly recall introducing Arnold to one of my dissertation advisors, Paul Ricoeur, over a wine-enriched dinner at the middle eastern restaurant that used to be on Diversey Avenue (the Kasbah?). I was also lucky enough to take a year long case conference at Rush Medical that he taught to the psychiatric residents as part of the Committee on Research and Special Projects sponsored by the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. Notwithstanding a multiyear gap during which our paths diverged, I have known him and his wife Connie (herself a Self Psychology power) since I was a twenty-something; and I still have in my possession a couple of his hand written letters to me regarding hermeneutics that I used to good purpose when “roasting” him at a retirement event at Rush Medical. What a privilege: I experienced Arnie’s deep listening, incisive and penetrating wit, the humor, the humanity, the remarkable learning and even-handedness in disagreement, and above all – his empathy. 

I choose to republish this book review from June 23, 2013 precisely because its provocative title best encapsulates the validity of Goldberg’s contribution to psychoanalysis and self psychology while subtly and humorously “sending up” some of his less flexible colleagues. Arnie, thank you for being you!

Read the complete review in the International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology: click here: GoldbergAnalyticFailureReview2014

The power of Arnold Goldberg’s approach in The Analysis of Failure: An Analysis of Failed Cases in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis (Routledge) is twofold. First, if a practice or method cannot fail, then can it really succeed?  If a practice such as psychoanalysis or dynamic therapy can fail and confront and integrate its failures, then it can also succeed and flourish.

Such is the point of Karl Popper’s approach to the philosophy of science in Conjectures and Refutations. For those who have not heard of hermeneutics, narrative, and deconstruction, and who are still suffering from physics envy, the natural science have advanced most dramatically by formulating and disproving hypotheses. Natural science is avowedly finite, fallible, and subject to revision, advancing most spectacularly within the paradigm of hypothesis and refutation by failing and picking itself up and pulling itself forward.

The Analysis of failure is inspired by this lesson without engaging in most of the messy details of the history of science. Second, for a discipline such as psychoanalysis (and psychodynamic therapy) that prides itself on the courageous exploration of self-deceptions, blind spots, self-defeating behavior, and the partially analyzed grandiosity of its practitioners (and patients), the well worn but apt saying “physician heal thyself” comes to mind.

The professional ambivalence about taking a dose of one’s own medicine upfront is a central focus not only in psychoanalysis (in its many forms) but in related area of psychiatry, psychopharmacology, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), social work, clinical psychology, and so on. Goldberg’s openness to alternative conceptions and frameworks along with his exceptional knowledge of and commitment to psychoanalysis (and self psychology) is an obvious strong point.

As a former colleague of the late Heinz Kohut, Goldberg studiously avoids (and indeed fights against) adopting the paranoid position with respect to failed analytic and psychotherapy cases – what’s wrong here? When a therapy case fails (the determination of which is a substantial part of the work) a series of blame-oriented questions arise: What’s wrong with the patient? What’s wrong with the therapist? What’s wrong with the treatment method(s)? What’s wrong!? And, yes, these questions must be engaged; but, Goldberg demonstrates, they must be put in perspective and engaged in the context of a broader question What is missing the presence of which would have made a difference? The answer will often, but not exclusively, turn in the direction of a Kohut-inspired interpretation of sustained empathy.

This leads to the part of Goldberg’s argument that is explicitly humorous. Having announced a case conference on failure and invited all levels of colleagues, Goldberg reports the casual laughter of many colleagues as they announced that they had no failed cases and so could not be helpful. “One person agreed to present but the following day he yelled across a long hall that he could not and quickly walked away (p. 41).

The list of excuses goes on and on, producing a humorous narrative that is definitely a defense against just how confronting the whole issue really is. Less humorous and more problematic is what happens when a case comes to grief and the candidate reportedly does exactly what the supervisor recommends. How one would know what is the “exact recommendation” is hard to determine, but relations of power loom large in such a triangular dynamic. Even Isaac Newton acknowledged that the “three body problem” of the (gravitational) relations between any three bodies is theoretically computable but practically intractable. The number of variables changing simultaneously is such that we are dealing with expert judgment rather than algorithmic results.

For my part I cannot help but think of the process for airline pilot reporting of errors in procedures, operations, and maintenance. Yes, pilots are part of a complex system and “pilot error” does occur – pulling back on the stick to get lift rather than pushing down – yet they are usually given more training and rarely blamed or faulted, absent illegal or blatantly unethical conduct (e.g., drinking on the job).

Goldberg calls for an ongoing case conference inquiring into failed cases, and thereby implicitly calls for taking our thinking to a new level of professional rigor, encompassing scientific objectivity that is consistent with talk therapy being a hermeneutic discipline. One might call it looking at the entire system, but not in the sense of family therapy –rather in the sense of the total professional-cultural-scientific milieu.

However, Goldberg’s approach differs decisively from a Check List Manifesto (a distinction not in Goldberg (he does not need it) but abroad in the land and by a celebrity MD, Atul Gawande) in that individual chemistry looms large between the therapist and the patient. In analysis or therapy, the number of unknown variables in fitting a prospective patient to a prospective treatment (whether analysis, therapy, psychoparm, CBT, etc.) is so large as to be nearly intractable. These are areas where we simply lack the super-shrink who has mastered the basics of all these methods and can make an objective, upfront call of what just might have the best odds of a favorable outcome without the usual trial and error. For the foreseeable future, mental health professionals can be expected to continue to “sell what they got.” If a person knows Talk Therapy, then that is most often what is initially recommended. If that does not work, try CBT or medication – and vice versa.

This reviewer does not agree that the crashes in the mental health area are usually not so spectacular – and they do make the papers in the form of suicides and inexplicable violence – though the track record is no where near the five-nines (one error in a million) that characterizes the airline industry. Goldberg’s subtext for mental health professionals is that we are still learning to live with uncertainty even as we organize case conference, postmortems, and the equivalent of crash investigations that strive to look objectively at outcomes without blame and without omniscient rescue fantasies in the service of healing and professional (“scientific”) development.

In some thirty cases that were reviewed by Goldberg, using the method of expert evaluation and feedback by the participants in the local case conference, the definition of failure included cases that never get off the ground; cases that are interrupted and so felt to be unfinished by the therapist or analyst; cases that suddenly go bad, characterized by a negative eruption whereas previously therapy was perceived to be going well; cases that go on-and-on without improvement; cases that disappoint whether due to the initial goal not being attained or being modified and not attained or endless pondering of what might have been.

Since this is not a “soft ball” review, one category of failure that is conceivable but missing from The Analysis of Failure is the example where treatment arguably left the person worse off (other than in terms of wasted time and money, which itself is not trivial). What about someone who did not experience impotence, writer’s block, or (say) hysterical sneezing until they tried psychoanalysis (psychotherapy)? What about compliance and placating behavior, reportedly a significant risk in the case of candidates for analytic training? What about regression in service of treatment that was initiated within the empathic context of the therapeutic alliance, but something happened and the regression got out of control and a breakdown or fragmentation occurred? Work was required to contain the fragmentation that was minimally successful, prior to an untimely termination that was a flight from fragmentation, a flight into health or a statement that in effect said “Let me otta here for my own good!” To his credit, Goldberg identifies “a patient who was getting worse off” (p. 162), but leaves the matter unconnected to regression mishandled or any other psychodynamic explanation. It is possible that such a scenario is already encompassed in the category of “cases that go bad,” at least implicitly, but in an otherwise through review of possibilities, this one was conspicuous by its absence.

The book itself is Goldberg’s answer to the question, given that failure occurs, what do we do about it? We inquire, define our terms, organize the rich clinical data, identify candidate variables, take the risk of making judgments about possible, probable, and nearly certain reasons, causes, and learn from our failures, pulling ourselves up by our boot straps in an operation that seems impossible until it succeeds. The role of lack of  sustained empathy, counter-transference, rescue fantasies, disappointments, uncontrolled hopes or fears, partially analyzed grandiosity (on the part of the therapist), lack of knowledge of alternative approaches to therapy, are towards the top of a long (and growing) list of issues to be engaged in the classification of causes for failure.

The turning point of Goldberg’s argument occurs in his chapter on “How Does Analysis Fail”? This is an obvious allusion to Kohut’s celebrated work on How Does Analysis Cure? Once again, failure is a deeply ambiguous term, and the ironic edge is that in contrast to an analysis gone bad where the patient leaves in a huff with symptoms unresolved, a successful self psychology analysis proceeds step-by-step by tactical, nontraumatic failures of empathy that are interpreted and used to promote the development of self structure. The short answer is that analysis cures through stepwise, incremental, nontraumatic breakdowns – i.e. failures – of empathy, which are interpreted in the analytic context and result in the restarting of the building and firming of psychic structure of the self. In turn, these transformations of the self promote integration of the self resulting in enhanced character traits such as creativity, humor, and expanded empathy in the analysand.

The entertaining and even heartwarming reflections on Goldberg’s relationships with his teachers Max Gitelson and Charles Kligerman, betrayed (at least to this reader) a significant critique of the “old guard,” resolutely defended against the possibility of any failure, thanks to a position that avoided any risk – analysis is about improving self-understanding. According to this position, the reduction of suffering and symptoms relief is a “nice to have” but not essential component. Analysis is a rite of passage into an exclusive club, where you are just plain different than the untransformed masses.

Though Goldberg does not emphasize the debunking approach, the reduction to absurdity of the description of the old guard makes psychoanalysis sound a tad like the est training from the late 1970s. You just “get it” or you don’t – in which case here is your money back and now go be miserable and unenlightened (only analysis does not give you your money back). In both cases failure is not an option, though not in the sense initially intended by the slogan, namely, that risk is analyzed and mitigated through interpretation. Failure is not an option because it is excluded by definition from the system of variables at the onset, thus, also excluding many meaningful forms of success. In short, many things are missing including sustained empathy, which, in turn, becomes the target of the analysis of failure in the remainder of the book

The net result of the compelling chapters on Empathy and Failure, Rethinking Empathy, and Self Psychology and Failure, is to challenge the analyst and psychotherapist to deploy sustained empathy in the service of structural transformation. While I personally believe that agreement and disagreement are over-valued in terms of creating authentic understanding, the section on Empathy and Agreement raises a significant distinction between the two terms. It is insufficiently appreciated by many clinicians how agreement becomes a smoke screen – and defense against – basic inquiry and exposure to the other’s affects in all their messiness and ambivalence. It remains unclear how sustained empathy undercuts agreement (or disagreement).For example, Dr. E. wants his analyst to agree with him that it is okay to sleep with his patient(s). For the sake of discussion, the analyst mouths the form of words, “Okay, given your marriage, okay, I agree.” But Dr. E. then asserts that he can tell the analyst does not really mean it (an accurate observation). So why not raise the question what is agreement doing here other than disguising Dr. E.’s own unacknowledged commitment to “being righteous and justified”. There is nothing wrong with being righteous, everyone does it. However, is it workable?

The resistance has to be engaged and interpreted at some point in order to make a difference in treatment. Agreement (or disagreement) remains a conversation with the superego, even in the mode of denying there is amoral issue. It may stop a tad short of moral justification, but it is on the slippery slope to it. There are many cases along a spectrum of engagements but the really tough one is empathizing with behaviors that are ethically and legally suspect such as doctors sleeping with their patients and other relations of power where one individual uses his or her position to dominate the other as a mere means not an end in him- or herself. This is a high bar in the case of empathizing with the child molester or Nazi who have used a form of empathy (arguably a deviant one) to increase his domination of the victim. This remains a challenge to our empathy as well as to our commitment to treating a spectrum of behavior disorders (where Goldberg has made a life-long contribution) that are significantly upsetting to large parts of the mental healthcare market. Keeping in mind the scriptures and the sayings of Jesus(the rabbi), which Goldberg does not mention but arguably is the subtext, we are still challenged to love the sinner but hate the sin.

In a concluding rhetorical flourish, Goldberg claims that the book is a failure. The prospective reader – a very wide audience as I am any judge of the matter – may see the many complimentary remarks that properly disagree with this rhetoric printed on the back cover (which this review endorses and agrees). In a further ironic and richly semantic double reverse in the title of the final chapter, failure has a great future. This is especially so when failure is scaled down from a global narcissistic blind-spot on the psyche of the therapist (where failure remains a valid research commitment) to an expanded tactical approach in the form of “optimal frustration … disappointment being real, tolerable, and structure building” (p. 200).

The concluding message is an admirably nuanced clarion cry for further study rather than condemnation, finger pointing, or blame of some particular therapeutic modality such as Talk Therapy versus CBT. The concluding message is a sustained reflection on de-idealization, the difficult process of taking responsibility for the inevitability of one’s parents’ lack of omnipotence. Failure is part of the development process in analysis and psychotherapy, and, by implication (and taken up a level), the study of failure in broad terms will be part of the development of the profession going forward. The analyst and therapist must give up the rescue fantasy, give up being right and justified, give up misplaced ambition, but also give up guilt, self-blame, disappointment, and embrace an approach that interpretation of the pathogenic situation of early childhood in which traumatic deidealization of the parent occurred, becomes inherently transformative. It reactivates the process of structure-building internalization. Learning to live within one’s limitations invites a process of risk taking that sometimes results in failure, sometimes results in success, and always results in – redefining one’s limitations outwards towards an endless horizon of progress in satisfaction and meaning making. Our thanks to Arnold Goldberg both for the journey and the end result.

Chicago Tribune Obit, Sept 29, 2020: https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/chicagotribune/obituary.aspx?n=arnold-i-goldberg&pid=196869091

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

A Rumor of Empathy is now a podcast (series)

Got to Empathy Lessons on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1OvEwkDD9b3IH66erzehnM?si=MeQ6C1uTQDyYGuAUGbegBw ] [more episodes coming soon]

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]

A rumor of empathy (the podcast) hears of a report of an alleged example of empathy in the work, action, or conversation of a person or organization. I then reach out to the person and talk to them in detail about the work they are doing try to get the facts and confirm or disconfirm the validity of the rumor. Makes sense?

A Rumor of Empathy is committed to providing a gracious and generous listening, empathy, in conversation with its guests and listeners. Join the host in chasing 

down and confirming or debunking an unsubstantiated report of empathy in the community and engaging in an on the air conversation in transforming human struggle and suffering into meaningful relationships, satisfying results and contribution to the community. When one is really listened to empathically and heard in one’s struggle and effort, then something shifts. Possibilities open up that were hidden in plain view. Action that makes a difference occurs so that empathy becomes less of a rumor and an expanded reality in your life and in the community. When all the philosophical arguments and psychological back-and-forth are over and done, in empathy, one is quite simply in the presence of another human being. Join Dr Lou for an empowering conversation in which empathy is made present.

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]