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Review: Empathy, Embodiment, and the Person by James Jardine

The occasion for James Jardine’s engaging and complex book is the publication of the critical edition of Husserl’s drafts for Ideas II, edited (separately) by Edith Stein and Ludwig Landgrabe as Husserliana IV/V [Hua]. Jardine notes:

“I draw upon a forthcoming volume of Husserliana which, for the first time, presents the original manuscripts written by Husserl for the project of Ideen II (Hua IV/V), a now-finished editorial task which was carefully pursued for several years by Dirk Fonfara at the Husserl-Archiv in Köln” [Jardine 2022: 4].

For this substantial scholarly contribution, we, the academic reading public, are most deeply grateful. We are also grateful for James Jardine’s penetrating and dynamic engagement with the cluster of issues around empathy, ego, embodiment and community raised in Husserl’s Ideas II. This is also the place to note that like many academic books, the pricing is such that individuals will want to request that their college, university, or community library order the book rather than buy it retail. 

Empathy is a rigorous and critical practice. The commitment is always to be charitable in reviewing another’s work, and this is especially so when the topic is empathy. An empathic review of a work on empathy requires – sustained and expanded empathy. Any yet is not a softball review and Jardine’s work presents challenges from logical, phenomenological and rational reconstruction perspectives. It is best to start by letting Jardine speak for himself and at some length:

“I motivate and explore in detail the claim that animate empathy involves the broadly perceptual givenness of another embodied subject as experientially engaged in a common perceptual world. Interpersonal empathy, which I regard as founded upon animate empathy, refers by contrast to the fully concrete variety of empathy at play when we advert to another human person within a concrete lifeworldly encounter” [Jardine: 5].

“ […] [O]nce we recognise that the constitution of a common perceptual world is already enabled by animate empathy—without an analysis of the latter being exhausted by our pointing out this function—this allows us to render thematic the specific forms of foreign subjectivity and interpersonal reality that are opened up by interpersonal empathy, which involves but goes far beyond animate empathy” [Jardine: 88]. 

The key distinction is clear: “animate empathy” is distinct from “interpersonal empathy.” This distinction is widely employed in empathy scholarship, even if not in these exact terms, with many varying nuances and shades of meaning. This distinction roughly corresponds to the distinctions between affective and cognitive empathy, between empathic receptivity and empathic understanding, and, most generically, between “top down” and “bottom up” empathy. Arguably, the distinction even corresponds to that between the neurological interpretation of empathy using mirror neurons (or a mirroring system just in case mirror neurons do not exist) and the folk definition of empathy as “taking a walk in the other person’s shoes (with the other’s personality)”. 

I consider it an unconditionally positive feature of Jardine’s work that he does NOT mention mirror neurons, which are thoroughly covered elsewhere in the literature (e.g., V. Gallese, 2006, “Mirror Neurons and Intentional Attunement,” JAPA). 

From a phenomenological point of view, Jardine succeeds in showing that Husserl is a philosopher of empathy – animate empathy. Even if Maurice Merleau-Ponty does carry the work of phenomenology further into neurology and psychology, having inherited Jean Piaget’s chair, Husserl is already the phenomenologist of the lived experience of the body. The human (and mammalian!) body that one encounters after every phenomenological bracketing and epoché is a source of animate expressions of life. A pathological act of over-intellectualization is required not  to see the body as expressing life in the form of sensations, feelings, emotions, affects, and thoughts. There are dozens and dozens of pages and lengthy quotations devoted to this idea. Here are a couple of quotes by Husserl that make the point: 

“We ‘see’ the other and not merely the living body of the other; the other itself is present for us, not only in body, but in mind: ‘in person’” (Hua IV/V 513/Hua IV 375, transl. modified [1917]).

“The unity of the human being permits parts to be distinguished, and these parts are animated or ensouled (beseelt) unities (Hua IV/V 582 [1916/1917])” [Jardine 2022: 78].

Animate empathy LIVES in Husserl’s Ideas II. In addition, the shared space of living physical bodies creates a clearing for the intersubjective perception of natural (physical) objects in the common world of things and events. In that sense, empathy is at the foundation of the shared intersubjective world of thing-objects (as Heidegger would say “present to hand”). 

However, the big question – for Husserl, Jardine, and all of us who follow – is does Husserl’s version of empathy found the intersubjective world of conscious human beings with intentional perceptions, emotions, actions, and personal engagements? 

After nearly three hundred pages of engaging, useful, and lengthy quotations from Landgreb’s and Stein’s drafts of Ideas II, closely related texts of Husserl, and Jardine’s penetrating and incisive commentary, this reviewer was still not  sure. In addition to my own shorting-comings, there are significant other reasons and considerations. 

Jardine’s work is an innovative train-wreck, rather like Leonardo’s fresco the “Last Supper” – even at the start, da Vinci’s masterpiece was a magnificent wreck as the underlying plaster of the fresco did not “set up” properly. In this case, the underlying plaster is Husserl’s “work in progress” of Ideas II. (I acknowledge “work in progress” is my description, not Jardine’s.)

As is well known, Husserl himself withheld the manuscript of Ideas II from publication. He was not satisfied with the results, having been accused of succumbing to the problematic philosophical dead-end of solipsism, the inability to escape from the isolated self, knowing only itself. Will empathy solve the problem?

It is a further issue (not mentioned by Jardine) that everything without exception that Husserl actually published in his life about empathy after he published Ideas I (1913), makes “empathy [Einfühlung]” nonfoundational in relation to the givenness of the other individual, displacing it “upstairs.” For example, Husserl writes in the Cartesian Meditations:

“The theory of experiencing someone else, the theory of so-called ‘empathy [Einfühlung],’ belongs in the first story above our ‘transcendental aesthetics’” [Husserl 1929/31: 146 (173); see also Agosta, 2010: 121]. 

Now strictly speaking, Jardine could reply that quoting Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations is out of scope for an engagement with Ideas II, and that is accurate enough as it stands; but what is not out of scope is the challenge of solipsism with which Husserl was wrestling philosophically throughout his career. As noted, at the level of the Cartesian Meditations (which Jardine does occasionally quote when it suits his purpose (but not the above-cited quote!)), empathy belongs to the first story upstairs above his “transcendental aesthetics,” as Husserl writes, quoting a Kantian distinction.

Thus, we engage with Jardine’s implicit reconstruction of Husserl’s repeated attempts to navigate the labyrinth of phenomenological experience, joining and separating the subject/self and other individual. 

Jardine follows Husserl from the solipsistic frying pan into the fire by quoting Husserl accurately as saying the self and other are separated by an abyss:

“Husserl calls out a “series of appearances (…) are exchanged, while each subject yet remains ineluctably distinct from every other by means of an abyss, and no one can acquire identically the same appearances as those of another. Each has his stream of consciousness displaying a regularity (Regelung) that encompasses precisely all streams of consciousness, or rather, all animal subjects (die eben über alle Bewusstseinsströme bzw. Animalischen Subjekte übergreift)” (Hua IV/V 254–255/Hua IV 309, transl. modified [1913])” [Jardine: 134 (emphasis added)]. 

Husserl tries a reduction to absurdity to escape from the solipsistic world of this abyss between self and other, supposing the world really were mere semblances. One will eventually encounter a person who is a non-semblance. This other individual who transforms the mere semblance into actually appearance awakens one from the dream of solipsism If it could be shown or argued that this other individual is necessarily given/presented/encountered, then all one’s previous solipsistic experience would be like hallucinatory madness. With apologies to Hilary Putnam, this is Husserl’s “brain in a vat” moment [Jardine: 126]:

“…[A]ny intersubjective “apperceptive domain”, Husserl claims, it is conceivable that, in the solipsistic world, “I have the same manifolds of sensation and the same schematic manifolds,” and, in as much as functional relations hold between such manifolds, then it may be that “the ‘same’ real things, with the same features, appear to me and, if everything is in harmony, exhibit themselves as ‘actually being’” (Hua IV/V 295 [1915]; cf. Hua IV 80). And yet, if other human living bodies were to then “show up” and be “understood” as such, the feigned reality of our experienced ‘things’ would be called into question:

Now all of a sudden and for the first time human beings are there for me, with whom I can come to an understanding [. . . .] As I communicate to my companions my earlier lived-experiences an d they become aware of how much these conflict with their world, constituted intersubjectively and continuously exhibited by means of a harmonious exchange of experience, then I become for them an interesting pathological object, and they call my actuality, so beautifully manifest to me, the hallucination of someone who up to this point in time has been mentally ill (Hua IV/V 295–296/Hua IV 79–80, transl. modified [1915])” [Jardine: 126].

This is a remarkable passage from Husserl, and we are indebted to Jardine’s scholarship for calling it to our attention. The thing that is missing or must be rationally reconstructed in Husserl is the necessity of the givenness of the other; but then, of course, the hermeneutic circle closes and the problem of solipsism is undercut, does not arise, and the character of phenomenology shifts. As is often the case, the really interesting work gets done in a footnote:

“For Husserl, this insight, that a phenomenological treatment of the constitutive relation between subject and world would have to address the (co-)constitutive role played by intersubjectivity, raises issues which cannot be addressed by a single analysis, but which rather demand a rethinking of the entire project of phenomenology” [Jardine: 127 (footnote) (reviewer’s embolding)].

There is nothing wrong with Jardine’s argument, yet, as noted, since this is not a softball review, there is something missing. The distinction “reconstruction” or “rational reconstruction” may usefully be applied to Husserl’s description and/or analysis of empathy. Jardine attempts to cross the abyss by means of interpersonal empathy. To that purpose, Jardine marshals the resources of narrative and of Alex Honneth’s distinction of “elementary recognition.” 

To his credit, Jardine holds open the possibility that Husserl’s use of “empathy” does provide the foundation, at the time of Ideas II (1915 – 1917 and intermittently in the 1920s as Stein and Landgrabe try to “fix” the manuscript). Yet Jardine pivots to Alex Honneth’s (1995) key distinction of recognition (“elementary recognition,” to be exact) to provide the missing piece that Husserl struggled to attain. I hasten to add that I think this works well enough, especially within the context of an implied rational reconstruction of empathy within Husserlian/Honnethian dynamics and Husserl’s verstickung in solipsism. 

However, this move also shows that Husserl did not quite “get it” as regards empathy being the foundation of interpersonal relations or community. As noted, Husserl is quite explicit in his published remarks that empathy gets “kicked upstairs” and is not a part of the foundation but of the first story above immediate experience, which as those in Europe know well is really the second story in the USA.

As noted, Jardine makes the case for bringing in supplementary secondary, modern thinkers to complement the “work in progress” status of Ideas II as a “messy masterpiece” (Jardine’s description, p. 4). I hasten to add that I do not consider Edith Stein a secondary thinker as her own thinking is primarily and complexly intertwined with that of Husserl. Likewise, Dan Zahavi is an important thinking in Jardine’s subtext and background, whose (Zahavi’s) contributions on empathy and Husserlian intersubjectivity (Husserliana XIV – XV) align with my own (2010) and are not an explicit part of the surface structure of the Jardine’s text.

Relying on the good work that Jardine initiatives, the reconstruction of Husserl’s relationship to empathy can be done in three phases. Husserl first attempts straightaway to connect the subject/self and the other individual person using empathy in Ideas I (1913). This results in the accusation of solipsism. The accusation “has legs,” because arguably Husserl fails to clarify that the other is an essential part of the intentional structure of empathy, even if the noematic object is inadequate or unsatisfied in a given context. Husserl then tries different methods of crossing the “abyss,” including Ideas II and the animate empathic expressions of the lived body. Husserl himself is not happy with the result as it does not quite get to what Jardine properly calls “interpersonal empathy.” At the risk of over-simplification, “interpersonal empathy” what happens we when “get understood” by another person in the context of human emotions and motivations. 

The engagement with the critical edition of the second and third volumes of Ideas, provides extensive evidence that for Husserl, the world of experience is dense with empathy. But at the level of Ideas II (and HuaIV/V), there is an ambivalence in Husserl whether he wants to make empathy a part of the superstructure or infrastructure of the shared, common intersubjective world (especially non-animate things in that world). This can be tricky because, as Jardine makes clear, animate empathy is enough to give us intersubjective access to a world of physical objects and things. However, that is still not intersubjectivity in the full sense of relating to other selves who are spontaneous separate centers of conscious emotional and intentional acts.

I have suggested, separately (Agosta 2010, 2014) that Husserl steps back in his published works from embracing the intentional structure of empathy (in all its aspects) as full out foundation of intersubjectivity. However, in the Nachlass, especially Hua XIV and XV, empathy is migrating – evolving – moving – from the periphery to the foundation of intersubjectivity in the full sense of a community of intentional subjects.

Meanwhile, Husserl attempts to constitute intersubjectivity along with empathy (the latter as not foundational) by reduction to a “sphere of ownness” in the Cartesian Meditations (1928/32). The debate continues and Husserl later elaborates the distinction lifeworld (Lebenswelt), arguably under the influence of Heidegger, Scheler, and others, which lifeworld, however, is applied to nature not social human community. Husserl’s Nachlass, especially volumes Hua XIV and Hua XV demonstrate in detail that Husserl was moving in a hermeneutic circle and empathy was evolving from the periphery to the foundation of intersubjectivity (Zahavi 2006; Agosta 2010, 2014).

In lengthy quotations for the Cartesian Meditations and Phenomenological Psychology, Jardine validates that Husserl engages with personal character in the sense of personality.  Jardine is on thin ice here, for though Husserl calls out “autobiography” and “biography” – and what are these except “self writing” and “life writing,” yet that is a lot to justify that Husserl goes more than two words in the direction of narrative. 

Of course, one can build a case for a rational reconstruction of Husserl’s subtext as a hermeneutic phenomenology of narrative or the other as oneself and vice versa. And it results in the work of – Paul Ricoeur! That Husserl is not Paul Ricoeur – or Levinas or Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty or Sartre or Hannah Arendt, or, for that matter, Donald Davidson – takes nothing away from the innovations contributed by Husserl. It is rather a function of Jardine’s noodling with the interesting connections between all these. Nothing wrong with that as such – yet there is something missing – Husserl!

Therefore, the guidance to the Jardine is to let Husserl be Husserl. The author really seems to be unable to do that. There is nothing wrong with what Jardine is doing – from sentence to sentence, the argument proceeds well enough. But the reader finds himself in a discussion of “narrative” in the same sentence as Husserl and Ideas II. I hasten to add that I appreciate narrative as a research agenda, and have seven courses by Paul Ricoeur on my college and graduate school transcripts.  And yet, once again, there is something missing – one can read Husserl against himself and maybe Jardine thinks that is what he is doing – but it is rather like what The Salon said about the paintings of Cezanne – he paints with a pistol – paint is splattered all over the place – the approach is innovative – but we were expecting impressionism and get – Jackson Pollack!  We were expecting phenomenology and got – Donald Davidson or P.F. Strawson or Honneth – all penetrating thinkers, everyone, without exception.

In reading Jardine, I imagined that the transition from animate to interpersonal empathy could be facilitated – without leaving the context of Husserl’s thinking – by the many passages in which Husserl describes the subject’s body as being the zero point and the other’s as being another zero point. 

Allowing for an intentional act of reversing position with the other, does this not provide an ascent routine to the folk definition of [interpersonal] empathy of “taking a walk in the other’s person’s shoes” [or, what is the same thing, the other person’s zero point]? Unless I have overlooked something, I do not find this argument in Jardine, though it might have been made the basis of a rational reconstruction of interpersonal empathy sui generis in Husserl without appeal to other thinkers. Thus, Jardine describes the “here/there” dynamic in Husserl:

“Accordingly, we can say that for a subject to empathetically grasp another’s living body she must comprehend it as a foreign bodily “here” related to a foreign sphere of sense-things (to which foreign “theres” correspond), where these are recognised as transcending – but also, at least in the case of “normality,” as harmonious with – my own bodily “here” and the sense-things surrounding it [. . . . ] Husserl suggests that, when the materiality of the other’s body ‘over there’ coincides, in its “general type,” with my own lived body ‘here’ in its familiar self-presence, “then it is “seen” as a lived body, and the potential appearances, which I would have if I were transposed to the ‘there,’ are attributed to as currently actual; that is, an ego is acknowledged in empathy (einverstanden wird) as the subject of the living body, along with those appearances and the rest of the things that pertain to the ego, its lived experiences, acts, etc.” That is, alongside the perceptible similarity of my lived body and the other’s [. . . ], this empathetic apprehension of a foreign sphere of sense-things also rests upon a further structural feature of perceived space; namely, that each ‘there’ is necessarily recognised as a possible ‘here,’ a possibility whose actualisation would rest solely upon my freely executing the relevant course of movement’” [Jardine: 131].

Jardine performs engaging inferential and speculative gyrations to save Husserl from so much as a hint of the accusation of inconsistency instead of emphasizing that Husserl’s use and appreciation of empathy develops, evolves, is elaborated. Husserl gets more intellectual distance from and closeness to empathy as he learns of Max Scheler’s work on the forms of sympathy and Heidegger’s work on Mitsein (which, I hasten to add, are in Jardine’s extensive and excellent footnotes and references). 

Another approach to crossing the abyss between self and other is a transcendental argument. This goes beyond anything Jardine writes, but if offered in the Husserlian spirit and if it helps to put his project in the broader context, then it warrants consideration. 

The argument informally: The distinction between self and other is not a breakdown of empathy; the distinction is the transcendental requirement, the presupposition, for empathy. If I lose the distinction between self and other, then I get emotional contagion, conformity, projection (Lipps), or communications that get lost in translation. Only if the distinction between self and other stand firm, is it possible, invoking aspects of acts of empathic intentionality, to communicate feelings (sensation, emotion) across the boundary between self and other; relate to the other individual as the possibility of reciprocal humanity; take a walk in the other’s shoes with aspects of their personality; and respond empathically to the other with performative linguistic acts of recognition. We do not merely express recognition; we perform it, thereby, instituting mutual dignity.

Husserl’s blind spot in this area and – do I dare say it? – perhaps Jardine’s as well is a function of remaining at the level of a single subject phenomenology, at least until the elaboration of the distinction, life-world (Lebenswelt). Until we explicitly get to the lifeworld, what would a multisubject phenomenology look like? The short answer is Heidegger’s Mitsein, Levinas on the fact and face of The Other, Ricoeur on oneself as other, or Sartre on the gaze of the other bestowing individuality and identity on the one.

Along these lines, Jardine usefully identifies the text where Husserl credits the other with constituting the social self of the self. The other gives me my humanity and without the other’s constitutive activity, one does not get to be a human being. Here Husserl comes closest to acknowledging that the one individual gets her/his humanity from the other individual. This is Jardine directly quoting Husserl:

“I arrive at the construal of myself as a human being (in the sense of mind) by way of a comprehension of others, i.e., insofar as I comprehend them as centres not only for the rest of their surrounding world but also for my lived body, which is for them an object of their surrounding world. It is precisely thereby that I comprehend them as construing me similar to the way I construe them, thus as construing me as social human being, as comprehensive unity of living body and mind. Therein is rooted an identification between the ego that I encounter in direct inspection – as ego which has its lived body over and against it – and the ego of the other’s presentation of me, the ego that the other can understand and posit, at one with my living body as, for the other, present “externally,” in acts which I for my part attribute to the other. The comprehensive presentation others have, or can have, of me is of service to me as regards the construal of myself as social “human being,” hence the construal of myself totally different from the way I apprehend myself in direct inspection. By means of this construal, with its complicated structure, I fit myself into the human family (Menschheitsverband), or, rather, I create the constitutive possibility for the sense of this “family.” I can now say “we,” and then for the first time do I become “I” and the other precisely another” (Hua IV/V 218–219 [1913]; cf. Hua IV 325, 242)” [Jardine: 227].

This is one of the most innovative things Husserl ever wrote – too bad it is such a bad fit with a one-person phenomenology. As Husserl famously puts the point in the Cartesian Meditations, the verifiable accessibility of others, and with this their existential character for me, consists exactly in their original inaccessibility (Hua I: 144) [Jardine: 81]. Two steps forward; one backwards?

However, even within a one-person phenomenology, one can rationally reconstruct an extension of Husserl’s thinking, going beyond Husserl and Jardine here, that dialectically mediates original and nonoriginal experience as allowing a third term – vicarious experience. 

Phenomenologically what is missing is the distinction “vicarious feeling” or “vicarious experience.” Max Scheler elaborated such a distinction as Nachfühlen or Nachleben, and Jardine notes Scheler in the footnotes without, however, making the phenomenological connection to an intermediate form of experience between originally owned and nonoriginal. A vicarious experience is my original experience of another person’s original experience. So is it original? My experience is by definition original, but the other’s original experience is nonoriginal to and for me. So, the distinction between original and nonoriginal breaks down and is mediated by vicarious experience, an experience of the other that is mine own without my being the other. Hidden in plain view? (For further details on Scheler see Agosta 2014a.)

Another path to intersubjectivity that Husserl calls out but that both Husserl and Jardine leave undeveloped is that of joint intentionality. Key term: joint intentionality. There is very little new under the sun, but Michael Tomasello (2008) and R. Peter Hobson (2005) have separately and innovatively elaborated this distinction, “joint intentionality.” 

Consider an example. The placement of the parenthesis is key: “I see the cathedral.” “You see the cathedral.” “I see you (you see(ing) the cathedral).” Once my intentionality includes yours, we have a non-solipsitic relationship. Solipsism is undercut and cannot become a serious issue. My intentionality in relating to another can be inadequate or unsatisfied, but an inadequate or unsatisfied relatedness to an other is still relatedness. 

We can misunderstand one another, which means we can clarify the misunderstanding and reach an understanding. This would give us what Jardine calls interpersonal empathy. Thus, Jardine identifies “joint intentionality” in Husserl (without, however, identifying it as such):

“As Husserl notes, if I am looking at a cathedral and I notice another standing by me, ‘his gaze directed at this cathedral, then I understand this without any further ado. His seeing, which I experience through empathy, is equally an immediate having-over-against: the object is immediately given’ (Hua IV/V 510–511/Hua IV 373, transl. modified [1917]). While we normally only take human others to see a cathedral as a cathedral—in that this sense is one generated and sustained by human experience and social praxis—Husserl’s claim that we would empathetically take the other to immediately see the ‘colossal black thing’ (which is a cathedral for us) surely holds with regard to some non-human animate others too” [Jardine: 140]. 

Once again, a powerful approach, if not a complete answer, is “hidden in plain view.” In a sense, it is a scandal that we still lack a thorough intentional analysis of empathy. So here it is: The other and the other’s intention are a fundamental part of the structure of empathy. Empathy aims at and includes the other. Without the other, empathy is not empathy. It is emotional contagion or conformity or projection or misunderstanding.  

Another consideration. Is the distinction between animate and interpersonal empathy exhaustive? Is “sustained empathy” different than “interpersonal empathy”? This would be analogous to the difference between a snapshot – a single instance – and a video – a series of instances across time (for more on “sustained empathy” see Goldberg, 2015: 89 – 98). Like a video as opposed to a snapshot, sustained empathy opens up possibilities, emergent properties, and a depth of engagement, that is at a qualitatively different level than an isolated encounter. One has to listen to another person and respond to them empathically over a period of time and get to know them in order to appreciate not just that (for example) the person is angry and what triggered the anger, but the motivational, development, historical, emotional, and even the future context in depth. When interpersonal empathy is sustained across time and numerous encounters with the other person, then a network of empathic relatedness, empathic responsiveness, and authentic human relations based in empathy opens up. 

Never underestimate Husserl. Never underestimate empathy. Never. Jardine quotes Husserl as describing sustained empathy (the term is not used). It remains unnamed, but, I submit, it is not reducible to animate and/or interpersonal empathy. This begins a new thread and perhaps a new book. It is best to let Husserl have the next to last word [Jardine: 266]: 

“ …[W]e can now see why Husserl regards fully understanding another person as an infinite task, and maintains that reaching its ideal form would require me to relive the other’s personal live in extenso, and to comprehend the developmental contours of her personal character by situating them within an infinitely detailed narrative (Hua IV/V 458 [1916/1917]). A deep understanding of another person’s actions, emotions, and beliefs can always be informed by familiarising oneself with their personal character and the history of its coming-to-be, and on the other hand, such an understanding is exactly a way of acquiring and developing such a familiarity (Hua IV/V 579 [1916/17]; see also Hua IV/V 312 (HuaIV 104) [1915]). Consequently, our ability to envisage and understand the motivational context of another’s actions is best seen as embedded within ongoing personal relationships, in which our acquaintance with the other person’s character has gradually developed through repeated empathetic contact, as well as through communicative engagement and, more generally, through participating with the other in a common human world.” 

Having urged “let Husserl be Husserl,” I have a final thought about what is missing from the entire discussion of empathy in Husserl, Jardine, and the philosophical handbooks of empathy, and this is so even if one includes “sustained empathy” as having been implicitly engaged (even though I would maintain that is not the case). When a person receives empathy, when a person “gets a good listening,” when a person is responded to empathically, when a person experiences authentic relatedness to another – regardless of the form – then the person often experiences an opening in what is possible in the person’s life, choice, and situation. The person is empowered by the empathy to inquire into what is available and accessible for him- or herself that goes beyond mere psychology into a fundamental inquiry that transforms possibilities of knowing and acting. Something in the person’s way of being and relating changes, shifts, transforms. The person shifts out of stuckness and into action that makes a profound and positive difference. How does that come about? Now that is something worthy of further inquiry.


Review: Empathy, Embodiment, and the Person: Husserlian Investigations of Social Experience and the Self by James Jardine. Chaum, Switzerland: Springer Nature. ISSN 0079-1350 ISSN 2215-0331 (electronic). ISBN 978-3-030-84462-2 ISBN 978-3-030-84463-9 (eBook). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84463-9

Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press.

Michael Tomasello. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Arnold Goldberg. (2015). The Brain, the Mind and the Self. New York: 2015.

V. Gallese, 2006, “Mirror Neurons and Intentional Attunement,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

R. Peter Hobson. (2005). What puts the jointness into joint attention. In Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds, eds. Naomi Eilan et al Oxford, UK: Oxford (the Clarenon press): 185 – 204). 

Edmund Husserl. (1929/31). Cartesian Meditations, tr. D. Cairns. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970.

_________________. (1929/35). Husserliana XV. Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Texte aus dem Nachlass. Dritter Teil: 1929-1935. Ed. I. Kern. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973

_________________ .(1921/28). Husserliana XIV. Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Texte aus dem Nachlass. Zweiter Teil: 1921-1928. Ed. I. Kern. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973

_________________. (Forthcoming). Husserliana IV/V. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen PhilosophieZweites Buch: Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur

Konstitution und Wissenscahftstheorie. Ed. D. Fonfara. Cham: Springer. 

Alex Honneth. (1995a). The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, tr. J. Anderson. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Lou Agosta. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Macmillan (Palgrave). 

_________. (2014a). Rewriting empathy in Max Scheler. In A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 83 – 96. DOI:10.1057/978113746534.0009.

_________. (2014). Husserl’s rewriting of empathy in Husserl. In A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 97 – 118. DOI:10.1057/978113746534.00010.

(c) 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. 


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