March 12, 2007

Arendt Post-Game: On Empathy

Arendt Post-Game: On Empathy

Good show. Very good show…solid overall…except regarding empathy.

Nick, in a comment to Open Source, 3/9/07

Some of you felt that the Hannah Arendt show ended on a strange, prickly note, with its heated conversation on the nature of empathy and its role as a counter to the banality of evil. For the public record, here’s what that sounded like:

Chris Lydon: [Quotes Kate McShane, then says,] give us a little of Hannah Arendt on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, murgy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

CL: And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

Chris Lydon, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, and Jerome Kohn on Open Source, 3/8/07

So, what do you think? Were Chris and our guests basically making the same point, only with different terminology? Is it thinking from another person’s perspective or feeling from another person’s perspective that can act as a counter to the banality of evil? Is thinking you can feel what someone else feels arrogant, or does it mean (as Kate McShane argues) that you’re on the “upper end of psychological health”?

We’re glad we have the upcoming show with Philip Zimbardo, best known for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment, to tackle these kinds of psychological questions and any other unfinished business.

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  • Potter

    I disagreed with Kate b/c I feel ( I guess strongly) that one does not have to be at the upper end of psychological health to empathize, certainly to sympathize if it happens to be something that one is going through as well. The story that she told, for me, was an example of the opposite of the conclusion that this is rare and unusual. Empathy, sympathy, and compassion is what makes the world liveable- it greases the gears ( if you will).

    I’d like to read Arendt herself on empathy if anyone can direct me to that.

    Though EYB says she agrees with JK, it seems to me there is no connection and perhaps contradiction betweeen the two statements. JK’s seems contradicc tory within itself.

    Or maybe there are distinctions without much difference being made- I don’t understand frankly.

  • Bobo

    While I respect both of these authors greatly, and I acknowledge that they have a much more intimate knowledge of Arendt than I do, I think there’s more room for interpretation in her work than either of the guests were willing to allow. Arendt’s work is so complex, and has so many ideas, that one could almost write a hermeunutical treatise on her texts. I began my studies of Arendt with a six month class devoted entirely to The Human Condition. We were supposed to finish the book, but we only got through the first hundred pages. There were just too many original ideas to move any faster than this.

    I think that the type of empathy which the guests were referring to was based mostly on a strict interpretation of Arendt’s broad ideas. More specific readings or more general interpretations would reveal wildly different views. In any case, I am very thankful that you did this show. Arendt is one of those rare thinkers who has the power to change the way we live.

  • katemcshane

    This is really hard for me. When I wrote my first post, the one that Robin excerpted, I certainly didn’t imagine that anyone would make a big deal out of it, and I’m referring not only to EYB, but to the thread.

    I’ve always liked Arendt and earlier this year, I bought several of her books with the plan to study her writing, so I was so happy when Open Source announced they would do a show about her. I like intelligent (in her case, genius) political people. I come from a minor psychology background, mainly working on the front lines with rape victims, teenagers, families with children. When I was trained, I heard from psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, without contradiction, that the capacity for empathy was something you see in people who have a great deal of psychological health. Empathy was always discussed as something positive. I thought of it as what I experienced when I opened myself to allow myself to be filled with feelings, to be informed by those feelings, and to respond to them. I was careful not to force my understanding on whomever I was trying to help, but over time, I saw that I had an uncanny appreciation of what other people were going through. Also, over time, I understood that what I experienced was not so common. The clients told me that I got it right and that it was unusual that someone got it right. The reaction I got from psychologists who knew me was that I had a gift. These days, many years since I’ve done this work, I tend to think more about intuition than empathy. I haven’t dismissed “empathy” as a concept. I just began to think in terms of intuition and inspiration, partly because I do not value psychology as much as I value my experiences with meditation and my interest in political theory.

    Of course, Hannah Arendt did not like the idea of empathy. She was trained as a philosopher. Philosophers define everything before the discussion begins, but a lot that is done in psychology, especially in clinical work, is somewhat vague. I never heard anyone in psychology define empathy. (You have to understand, also, that I didn’t work with any of the “hard science” types.) Also, Arendt was primarily a political person who thougt about politics, talked about politics, and wrote about politics constantly. Political people don’t like soft concepts like empathy. It’s too subjective, for one thing. And Arendt’s idea of being able to pay attention to many points of view, many experiences, is wonderful. You can’t be with people and assume that what you feel is what they feel, or that what you think should be done is what should be done. It’s not so good for psychology types to do that, either. So much of what happens in psychology is really about social control. A lot of subjective judgments about people are made by psychotherapists, which aren’t accurate — or good for anyone.

    Until Jazzman wrote to me about it, it had never occurred to me that someone could know about someone’s pain and ignore it. I thought of empathy as a gift that allowed you to know how to help and tortured you if you didn’t know how to help. All my life, I’ve felt so much when I’m with people. I’m someone who is in pain from what I pick up from others. Sometimes I have felt some pretty awful stuff from someone I’d have thought was benign and it has helped me to know a lot about that person that they didn’t want anyone to know. Sometimes, I’ve felt wonderful things from a person I might have dismissed because of their occupation or appearance. So, I’ve worked hard not to let my thoughts interfere with my perceptions. Also, I had never heard that people define destructive people as “empathic”. I knew people whom I thought of as having “radar” for vulnerabilities — who used this “radar” in sadistic, even malevolent ways. When I was around such people, I sometimes felt ill. I never thought of them as being “empathic”, though.

    Kant’s idea that you ask yourself all the time whether you can live with yourself if you do or don’t do something is related to Arendt’s idea of thought — a conversation you have with yourself all the time about your life, your society. I’m pretty sure I think of it as being related to consciousness. I am having that kind of conversation with myself all day long. I think that a lot of people are unconscious. They use language they hear in mass media or from other people in an indiscriminate way. They distract themselves with television, movies, music videos, junk novels, who knows what. They’re not fully alive. They’ve been anaesthetized. To live their lives consciously would be unbearably painful, even impossible, for many reasons. I don’t know how much empathy is there. They’ve been deadened over time.

    I know people who have been political activists all their adult lives and they don’t go in for concepts like empathy, but they’re wonderful people. I think of Grace Paley, the most loving person I’ve ever known, who doesn’t use these terms and does not respect psychology as a field of study. She could never talk to someone the way EYB did the other night. EYB reminded me of why I got as far away from shrinks as possible. One of their worst insults is to describe someone as having “no boundaries” — or “mergey” (which was a new one, I have to admit) — people who do not have decent “ego boundaries”, who are, therefore, at the lower end of psychological health. And narcissistic, delusional, and arrogant — all that just for believing there is such a thing as empathy. The only evidence of empathy in that conversation was from Chris. (Unless it was the destructive use of empathy that Jazzman described.) She’s a smart person, EYB, but not long on kindness.

    I don’t want people arguing for or against what I wrote. If you don’t agree with me, FINE. I swear, I don’t care. But don’t argue as if what I believe means something. You just have a different point of view. When I came onto the thread last Tuesday, it was like walking into a room in which people had been talking about me. No matter what I tried to explain after that, it got worse. I’m not comfortable with this. I never meant to “argue” for a position. I just haven’t made the transition completely from my psychology background to a different consciousness — I repeated what I was taught and hadn’t gotten around to questioning yet.

  • When my daughter was about 2, or so, with very little vocabulary, I experienced something extraordinary with her. I think I’ve written about it here before.

    She was in the car with me when I went to pick up a friend. My friend got into the car. I asked her how she was doing. She said, “Fine.” In that way that signals, “Not fine.” My daughter started crying in a deep wail. It was a wrenching sound that I had never heard come from her before. She was convulsing in tears and I ran around to the rear passenger door, lifted her out of her car seat and carried her away from the car. As we got about 10 or 15 feet away, she started to calm. My friend stepped out of the car and asked what was wrong. My daughter pointed at her and I instinctively said, “She knows that you’re sad.” My friend broke down on the sidewalkd and told me that her mother had died. She had spoken to her mother before getting on a plane in SF. By the time she arrived in Boston, her mother had died of sudden heart failure. It had happened the week before and she was in shock. As soon as she began to cry, my daughter became completely calm and reached out to hug her.

    I would say that my daughter experienced empathy. She felt my friend’s inner, unexpressed feelings. I witnessed her doing this a lot as a baby. As she has gotten a little older, she seems to have learned to turn it off a little. But for years she was “shy”. Only she wasn’t. Most often, after a few minutes she would reveal her very expressive self. I learned that she was adjusting to all the feelings she was experiencing when she encountered people.

    No one can tell me that empathy is impossible. These people need to get beyond their heads and include their hearts as a mechanism for understanding humanity.

  • Oh, and I don’t think my daughter ‘merges’ when this happens. She is witnessing and sometimes expressing the unexpressed. But she clearly distinguishes herself from them. As young as 3, she could say, “Well, you like that, but I don’t like that.” And when she pointed at my friend, it was clear that realized the grief she was expressing was not hers. It was as though she needed to show my friend how to express it.

  • nother

    Thanks for that Katemcshane, I feel like I just read something real – every time you post.

    I’m officially confused by this conversation though – which probably isn’t saying much. I was shocked that the guests even picked this battle – what is to be won?

    ROS, you ask “Is it thinking from another person’s perspective or feeling from another person’s perspective that can act as a counter to the banality of evil?

    Neither for me, it’s not about getting in someone else’s head it’s about getting out of mine. Of course I don’t know what they are truly thinking and I can’t control that – but what I can control is, dealing with my own self-absorption. To the extent I get out of my own head is to the extent I am less prone to judge.

    And that’s what I believe Arendt was ultimately wary of, people using “empathy” as another tool to judge.

    The word is obviously subjective which means the debate needs to be more nuanced and your guests should have realized that. What irony it was to hear EYB essentially judge people who use the word “empathy” by calling it touch-feely – I take offence to that! I may be a little touchy-feely but I don’t need someone calling me that. 🙂

    I do not believe empathy is innate, I believe it is hard work.

    As an example I would point to the skill of listening. I have witnessed people become better listeners, and as they progress the fruits of listening become more apparent to them – and empathy happens.

  • nother

    Wow, that’s powerful Allison.

  • nother

    Wait just a minute, I was wrong! After researching all night, I now believe empathy can be innate.

    E.O. Wilson believes in “empathy!”

    Would Elisabeth Young-Bruehl accuse the empiricist E.O. Wilson of subscribing to slurpy, murgy, and touchy-feely notions?

    “Now suppose that human propensities to cooperate or defect are heritable: some people are innately more cooperative, others less so. In this respect moral aptitude would simply be like almost all other mental traits studied to date. Among traits with documented heritability, those closest to moral aptitude are empathy with the distress of others and certain processes of attachment between infants and their caregivers. To the heritability of moral aptitude add the abundant evidence of history that cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring. Following that reasoning, in the course of evolutionary history genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole.

    Such a process repeated through thousands of generations inevitably gave rise to moral sentiments. With the exception of psychopaths (if any truly exist), every person vividly experiences these instincts variously as conscience, self-respect, remorse, empathy, shame, humility, and moral outrage. They bias cultural evolution toward the conventions that express the universal moral codes of honor, patriotism, altruism, justice, compassion, mercy, and redemption.”

  • nother

    That excerpt was from the section “The Origin of Moral Instincts” which is from the article “THE BIOLOGICAL BASIS OF MORALITY”

    My research started out by reading the short article in “Philosophy Now” about “empathy.” It’s funny because the guy actually mentions the term “touch-feely” in the article. He writes that at least two philosophers based their whole philosophy on the idea of empathy. David Hume and Schopenhauer.

    So then I broke out my Hume and read Sect. 7. “Of Compassion”

    from his “A Treatise of Human Nature.” (I would say it was an interesting read, except that I didn’t understand any of it). 🙂

    So then I broke out E.O. Wilson’s more accessible read, “On Human Nature.” I read his chapter on Altruism and felt I was getting closer. In it he talks about how “compassion” is mostly self-serving but how it helps the tribe in the long run.

    Then I hit pay dirt with his specific writings on empathy above.

  • Potter

    Thank you Nother for E.O. Wilson. Before your discovery you said that you believed empathy is hard work: I do not believe empathy is innate, I believe it is hard work.

    Empathy, surely compassion or sympathy, is for some hard. But it’s also a self-saving thing- to let go- letting go of enough of oneself to feel another or at least put yourself in their shoes (for one’s own survival and well being).

    Katemcshane, as always, or, more often than not, your posts are amazing. I also think this is all to the good- this discussion which came out of the larger discussion and Chris ( who is so empathetic!) picked up on it.

    I feel maybe too strongly ( and there are few things that I can say that about) after all these years on the planet that I want to actually read Arendt on this and I am ready to say ” well- she went through hell; she lived through an extraodinary time”. And I would have to say that also about anyone surrounded by or bent by an “unhealthy” situation such that they carry it with them, can’t let go of it for a moment and so maybe they do have to work hard to let go, but, love them, they do, they need to. Open,closed, open again. So it goes.

    Allison, I had a similar experience when my son was 2 ( as I wrote on the other thread) and he continued on to be the empathetic person in adult life he is now ( the secret of his success I think). There are empathetic types– people who just have it in spades.

    I think this relates somehow to last night’s show on war and what it does to us.

    As well I want to bring up group therapy. Isn’t that based on empathy, creating a situation allowing people to empathize, and then perhaps feel sympathy or compassion ( as well as receive it)? to bring it all out, unblock, let go?

  • enhabit

    it was precisely because eichman..and people like eichman..was suseptable to group-think, and within that mechanism..was seemingly more interested in power and accomplishment on the group’s terms than anything else. a deferrence to the group’s sense of morality however perverse was predisposed by his banality.

    unable to think in complete terms for himself, the banal individual surrounds himself with the rewards valued by the group…iron crosses, visits to the fuhrer…plasma screen televisions (too far?) his very sense of self-esteem is dependent upon these trappings.

    democracy is dependent upon the bourgeoisie to function effectively…but the bougeoisie often votes with its wallet in mind. too much bread and circus can make us all complacent..too willing to overlook what is actually happening to what we are actually becoming. education must challenge us all to think in mathematics and SHOW YOUR WORK…there must be more to it than “getting a trade” or our society degenerates and is subject to dangerous manipulation.

    best line from the grateful dead..”i can tell your future..just look what’s in your hand”

  • enhabit

    this consideration of empathy is important not only to ROS but to Hannah Arendt as well. taken literally it can suggest that one can either be influenced mentally by forces that are outside of one’s control or that one can somehow account for everything that makes an individual what they are and think like them.

    the effect that such phenomena would have on a group has been discussed very well by this blog…and for my part..i would not be the one to discredit psychic empathic pheneomena..there is too much (much of it anecdotal) evidence in either camp. our own internal synapsis seem capable of communicating across the brain though quite a bit of mental noise after all.

    what is important for me is that the individual can not be let of the hook here. “the group made me do it” doesn’t wash here any more than “they weren’t people to me”.

    it would seem to me that Ms. Arendt was challenging us to re-evaluate what we are……because, under the right circunstances, we are, all of us, more capable of the unthinkable than any of us would care to admit.

    i look forward to what will have to be a lively dialogue around the Stanford Prison Experiment show..a perfect dovetail.

  • enhabit

    of=off (the hook)

    circunstances=circumstances (, we are)

    what a banal typist and editor.

    thanx for the forum ROS! lots to think about as i go through my routines of the day.

  • katemcshane

    Allison, your stories about your daughter explained things to me that I have not understood all my life, things about my own experience. (Unfortunately, in my family it was tantamount to being the demon seed.) I think your insight will help me to understand many things — it will reverberate in me for a while. A huge shift. Thank you so much.

  • enhabit

    our brains invest heavily in subconscious processing. many of us tend to discount this, but evolution didn’t and highly creative people don’t either. children are so wonderfuly creative by nature. they are open to the poetry around us.

  • Lumière

    Nick started the Arendt thread with empathy.

    Nick Says:

    February 6th, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    This, from Amos Elon above, is nice…

    “Evil comes from a failure to think.”

    …but incomplete, perhaps.

    Seems to me that ‘evil’ stems at least as much from the failure of empathy as it does from failure to think

    We can go on and on about it because words are not definite,

    they are nuanced, contextualized, interpreted.

    Arendt is making a distinction between thoughts and feelings. She was concerned with thinking or specifically non-thinking.

    One example – Bill Clinton said: “I feel your pain.”

    You can stop right there: vote for Bill

    You can debate whether he did, or was it innate or learned, the meaning etc., etc.

    Ultimately, you don’t know what he is feeling and Arendt is suggesting his empathy is irrelevant.

    I think she is suggesting that you think: look at his motivation for his ‘feeling your pain’.

    Ps. Regarding thinking:

    The Enlightenment ended badly.

  • Lumière

    Sentience refers to possession of sensory organs, the ability to feel or perceive, not necessarily including the faculty of self-awareness.

    ref: The Secret Life of Plants written by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.

  • herbert browne

    Here’s something that came to light today, in looking up info that may explain the recent “disappearances” of honeybees (and maybe it will end up in the “honeybee” thread as well)- and may also offer a clue to communications between/ among individuals (along with body language, pheromones, and other media with which even the most conscious & sentient among us may not be able to follow):

    “Honeybees have been shown to be sensitive to magnetic flux differences

    of 1 nanotesla (10 microGauss) [4](about 1/100 the field produced by a

    cell phone at 10 metres). Theoretically, humans could also be sensitive

    down to less than this level (pineal thermal noise c. 0.24 nanotesla –

    Smith, 1985). Various sea creatures can detect voltage gradients of a

    few 10’s of microvolts/metre..”

    Alongside apprehending (via emotion &/or reason) that, based upon DNA structures, all Life has a great deal in common, the physical world (& our understanding of our place in it) still “works in mysterious ways”… Empathy may simply be a mental state that comes about as a result of the awareness of our common condition with people other than our parents, &/or living things beyond our household pets- kind of a response to expanding the Circle of Morality/ Community outward. In this case, the better one “Knows oneself”, the more likely that one will “know” one’s community- whatever form that may take… and it could simply be the ultimate result of “brain chemistry” (a fairly mysterious & shadowy realm, that). ^..^

  • Potter

    Reading back 9 years ago just a bit of thee three discussions prompted by these shows on Hannah Arendt, how wonderful that we were all bought to working our gray matter in this way. I just finished an article by Cory Robin written last May in The Nation that is amazing. You must read it. And it pertains to today’s issues in the Middle East.

    The Trials of Hannah Arendt