Heidegger on empathy

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Martin Heidegger was highly influenced by Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler's writings on empathy and phenomenology. This paper seeks to make it clear as to what he wrote in 1927 and why it is relevant to existential and other therapists today.

Text of Heidegger on empathy


Ian R. Owen

This paper takes some introductory steps in the direction of sketching the major theme of empathy in Husserl's and Heidegger's phenomenologies. A great deal could be written about these subjects. The paper briefly recaps Husserl's position and uses it as an entre for a presentation of Heidegger's answer in Being and Time. The title of the paper is taken from Heidegger's call for a "special hermeneutic" of empathy which will offset the conscious illusions of separation between human minds and "will have to show how the various possibilities of being of Da-sein themselves mislead and obstruct being-with-one-another and its selfknowledge, so that a genuine "understanding" is suppressed and Da-sein takes refuge in surrogates" (Heidegger, 1996: 117). What this means is a grounding of the empirical practise and theory of psychotherapy, and the human sciences, in an understanding of empathy that is close to the phenomena as they appear after a reduction of previous ontological beliefs and conceptualisations. Other relevant writers are omitted to make a focus specifically on Heidegger's phenomenology and to ascertain what such an approach to empathy might be.

If we believe that our relation to the client is the most important practical aspect of our work then it should follow that our theorising should reflect this central attention. Setting aside ethics as one place where this attention is defined in global guidelines for practitioners and turning to the theories which define practice then, it is claimed that there is not a sufficient attention concerning how to behave and think towards the people with whom psychotherapists meet. A couple of theories mention empathy in passing but do not have any account of it which functions cohesively as a basis for their actions with respect to others. The phenomenological philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger supply an empathic basis for making such a sufficient attention in psychotherapy, psychological research and the human sciences. From the establishment of a theory concerning how we understand others, have experiences of them and toward them, it is possible to connect with an understanding of ethics and progress to other aspects of the complex 1

ways of making decisions about how we intervene and meet with them. In order to organise the flow of argument in the paper four sections have been devised in order to take the reader through the steps that lead Heidegger to formulate his answer to the problem of empathy, also called the problem of other minds. The problem concerns how we constitute feelings about other people. For in everyday life we do have feelings about others. We find that, generally, other people are understandable. More often than not, we find that we can fairly accurately understand when another is sad or happy. But simultaneously with such experiences, on the one hand we never have access to the minds of others. If we do not believe in telepathy then there must be some other means of being able to recognise how others feel and for ourselves to have potentially accurate experiences about them. One the other hand, we never feel the other's pain nor have any experience of the colour blue as the other actually experiences the colour that we both call "blue". Therefore, in having theories or beliefs about ourselves in connection with others, philosophical, ethical and practical problems arise concerning the extent of selfhood and otherness and how empathy and intersubjectivity may be understood. If we do not know with an agreed justification about how to act in the psychotherapy situation, then it could be argued that we should not be acting in it at all. The value of finding a solution to these problem of empathy might be part of beginning to create an agreed basic context for analyses in the human sciences and the allied professions. Psychotherapy is particularly an area where a grounded or agreed application of psychological knowledge could help.

1 Empathy and the problem of other minds

The role of phenomenology is to ground conceptualisation and justification in philosophy and the sciences. It is a pre-science or a pre-philosophy. Phenomenology concerns itself with fundamentals in the crossover from lived experience to knowledge claims in speech and language (Bernet, Kern & Marbach, 1993, Heidegger, 1996: 146-150, 327-333). The practical point of discussing empathy in existential psychotherapy is that for this perspective, the initial view of any client, therapist or researcher, is closely related to the initial view, practice or research findings (Husserl, 1981: 192, Heidegger, 1996: 327-8). Kant, Husserl 2

and Heidegger would agree that initial understanding occurs in all perceptions and empathies of others. If there is to be a conceptual consensus that brings part of the field of psychotherapy practitioners together, there should be some discussions of justifications concerning how we understand other people and how we address ourselves to their understanding of their personal world. Empathy or the German word Einfhlung are derived from the Greek empathiea and mean to feel into the consciousness of another person, animal or understand a work of art 1 . At the natural ontic level, empathy is assumed to be an emotional or intellectual knowledge of the other. Along with this assumption is another assumption that knowing the minds of others is an easy capability or a fact of the sort that can be explored and measured by the natural science approach. This is not the case for the phenomenological approach. The problem with many psychotherapies is that they implicitly or explicitly assume telepathy or confuse perception with empathy. The mystery is that we never have direct experience of the mind, thoughts, feelings or motivations of others. Yet we often feel that we do. So how does the empathic sense of the other become accessible to ourselves? 2 Husserl's early statement of the problematic The primary research question that Husserl's phenomenology focuses on is the theorising of empathy which is considered as being constitutive of a shared human world of culture and meaning. Husserl's early work on the problem of empathy, as evidenced by his writings of 1912, is that he had been able to decide that there are major differences for the three standpoints of the (1) natural attitude, (2) the reduced reflective, or seeing, attitude of phenomenology, and (3), the pre-reflective 2 attitude on which both the natural attitude and reflective attitude are based. For natural psychological science and the non-phenomenological approaches, our feelings about other people are there as facts and are nothing to be concerned about. After a reduction, reflection on the way in which consciousness must constitute our senses of other people begins. In 1912 Husserl believed that the other's living body is empathised as the carrier of sensations and acts. It is their animated body that carries the meaning of the other for oneself as a person in a surrounding world. The other "pure Ego has its surrounding world, has its Here and Now in relation to which its physicalness is oriented... its animate organism, in a way similar to that in which my Here and Now is related to my animate organism" (Husserl, 1980: 94). 3

However, what is most important to bear in mind is that the "Objectivity of one's own psyche presupposes mutual understanding" (Ibid: 98). This phrase means that even before reflection or awareness of any kind begins, there is an immediate mutual and pre-reflective understanding of the other for, or within, oneself. This presence occurs always already before becoming aware of any specific experience about the other and one's relation to the other. Shared meanings are "intersubjectively graspable... through the only possible medium of mutual understanding, through animate organicity" born of the lived body of oneself and the other (Ibid: 101). The meaning of the other in self-presence before any specific attention is turned to any aspect of another, actual person is relevant to Heidegger's solution to the problem of other minds. Husserl's position is that "psychic reality is founded in the organismal matter," the living bodily material (Ibid: 104). Seventeen years later, Husserl still held that we never have direct access to the consciousness of others, but the way we constitute this sense arises within infancy (1977a, The Fifth Cartesian Meditation). Husserl argues that a first constitution of the sense of another occurs when the infant adds their unified sense of themselves to another human being for the first time (Ibid: 111). Like all meanings there is a "primal institution" of the sense of any object. This includes the first ever achievement of the sense of another person as a human being with an immanent life-stream of consciousness "like me". In all later life, variegated senses of specific others occur by still being able to experience the primal institution of the infant's sense of the first other. Therefore, in adult life we empathise other persons to be human beings like ourselves as part of social learning within a context of the social learning of all meanings. This fundamental sense of otherness is claimed to arise involuntarily within each person's consciousness and is stated as enabling all cultural and intellectual life to occur on this basis. Husserl claims in the Fifth Meditation to demonstrate how we constitute the everyday sense we have of others by deriving it from within our own consciousness. He analyses the way in which involuntary processes of consciousness constitute the sense that specific others are alive human beings. The Husserlian method, taken literally, denies that straight-forward argument is sufficient for a fundamental grounding of concepts. Husserl claims a method that requires philosophers and scientists to return to consciou