‘The Empathy Symbol’

Two memorable presentations from Anastasia Scrutton (compassion, empathy and the intellect) and Simon James (narrative, memory and Dickens) provided a splendid opportunity to see how two apparently loosely-connected enquiries can converge fruitfully in a free-wheeling discussion. (Corinne Saunders, chairing, was absolutely right to insist that we hear both presentations first and engage them both simultaneously in subsequent discussion – a ‘good call’ if ever I heard one, and a model for future ‘twinned’ presentations.)

Others will be able to explore connections in terms of the general relations between thinking and feeling (although I firmly applaud Anastasia’s cognitivist account, supported I think by Simon’s, of emotion when applied to art – where it seems to me to be the only possible way of making sense of aesthetic ‘emotion’). The specific point that interested me in this discussion was a parallel between empathy and memory – or, several parallels:

  • empathy connects us in our imagination to the experience of others; memory connects us in our imagination to antecedents in our own experiences;
  • both empathy and memory are ways of defying the radical isolation and contingency of who we are as individuals – defying the gulf between ourselves and others, and between ourselves and our pasts;
  • empathy requires a little exertion, at least to start with; memory too often requires exertion;
  • both empathy and memory involve an ‘authorial’ element; they don’t access any pristine, completely-formed definitive realities, but consist at least in part of what our imaginations construct;
  • the exercise of both becomes less obvious with fluency – born of practice and habit, well-described by Aristotelians;
  • neither memory nor empathy has any essential morally positive tone. This might seem more obviously surprising in the case of empathy (which always sounds as if it’s a praiseworthy and desirable faculty, something that Anastasia convincingly debunked) than in the case of memory. Even here, though, it’s worth reflecting on how memory can make misleading, selective, or perhaps even destructive connections with our (and others’) past states, experiences and actions;
  • in both memory and empathy we will tend to take our present state as a kind of hallmark against which our own past, and others’ presents, are judged.

Notwithstanding concerns about a lurking metaphysical self in the notion of a gulf between individuals – concerns that do deserve to be addressed in a thoughtful way – it does seem to me that these parallels might produce interesting further enquiry.


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