The (Im)Possibility of Empathy

Dr. R.D. Laing states, in The Politics of Experience that:

I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience [Politics of Experience, Penguin, p. 16]

If we accept this fact – this theorem of Laing’s – that I cannot experience your experience, then aren’t we always separated from one another by an space which cannot be crossed? Your experience, you yourself are unknowable to me. Infinitely unknowable. The other partakes of the infinite, as Levinas would say.

If the other is totally separated from me, then how can I possibly have empathy for him or her? How can I possibly know what you are experiencing? For, in order to have empathy for you, I must first understand, in some deep and profound way, what you are experiencing.

To know, in any definitive sense, what you are experiencing, is therefore plainly impossible.

However, as a human being, I am always intrigued by and drawn to one or more others, from time to time, and in approaching each other Other, I attempt to gain an understanding of his/her experience – to put myself in the other’s shoes. The other may or may not reciprocate this gesture, so it is essentially a one-way event – this gesture which Levinas refers to as the ethical gesture cannot be done on the basis of an even reciprocity. It may very well be uneven, as in the attempt of the analyst to have empathy for the patient, for example.

Laing continues, in the Politics of Experience:

… But I experience you as experiencing. I experience myself as experienced by you. And I experience you as experiencing yourself as experienced by me. And so on.

How does this occur? How do we arrive at this position where we presume to understand that the other experiences just as I do? If we forget that we are always guessing, that we’re always leaping across this chasm of inter-experience between us whenever we try to understand an other’s experience, then we re in danger of imposing our own ideas, understanding and structures upon one or more others.

On the other hand, if we do not make the attempt to understand others at all, then we deny what is essentially human in us. We are always already in relationship with others from the moment of our first awareness of the world – which essentially a world inhabited by others, all of whom, like us, have a lived experience of the world.

So we attempt to empathize with others. This is not explicitly required by law in our culture. Though there are all sorts of social mores that suggest that a certain degree of empathy is strongly recommended in certain situations.

Certainly, in the practice of psychoanalysis and in the practice of consulting to organizations, we make an attempt to understand the experience of one or more others, more or less successfully. What is the measure of this success? As Howard Book suggests, I am not successful in my attempt to empathize with an other of she tells me that I’m way off base.

Does it matter that I’m well-intentioned? That I’m very smart, perhaps? That I’m armed with a whole array of psychoanalytic theories, or other theories of the human mind? I would answer “not necessarily”, that in fact having any rigidly held pre-conceived notions of the structure of mind and of experience may get in the way of understanding.

So, we could ask what would block someone from attempting the impossible – the expression of empathy. There are those who seem to be so involved in their own world that they are incapable of reaching out to attempt to understand what others are going through – their pains, their joys, their concerns and desire. I worked ion some of the houses of the Philadelphia Association in London, where some of the residents would have been diagnosed as psychotic by conventional psychiatry. These people appeared to be so much in their own worlds that they were not reachable and could not reach out to anyone else. However, in analyzing their behavior, most of these people acted in such a way that they seemed to be cognizant on some level of the existence of others, and were sensitive enough to their experience that they didn’t cross certain lines of polite behavior.

There are also those who do not make the attempt to understand the experience of others because they choose not to do so – because they are so sure of the rightness of their understanding, so sure of the correctness of their world view – that they believe they do not need to get feedback from any other person to verify the correctness of their totalized views of the other. Some psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. can be observed to be doing this. But it’s not confined to them. Such all-encompassing world-views of the type “I understand people perfectly, and don’t need verification from them as to whether I’m right or not” can be found amongst fundamentalists of all sorts – including those in the world of religion, advertising, politics, sociology and so on. Sometimes, in the light of history we see the outcome of these projections: for example, early anthropologists arrogantly defined and “understood” so-called primitive people based on their own Judeo-Christian-western standpoint and dismissed them as savages, etc. These analyses served to justify subsequent moves to dominate such people for global socio-political hegemonic motives.

It was respectable anthropologists who helped justify the policy of forced sterilization of lower “subclases” of the population, and subsequently the eugenics movement, in this country as well as in Nazi Germany.

Psychiatrists have always acted in the “best interests” of their patients, with great compassion, by prescribing brain-damaging tractabilizers (which they refer to as “tranquilizers”) or hydrotherapy, or insulin shock treatments, or electric shocks to the brain. This was done, and is done “in the best interests” of patients, despite their protestations. Poor McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest” is kindly lobotomized to correct his misunderstandings of the world, for example.

So, to conclude: it seems to me that true empathy is an impossibility, and yet we must always try to empathize with others, with our fellow human beings, as this is the truly ethical path. And we can never measure definitively whether our attempts at empathy are successful or not – there is no all-seeing judge of that. But we need to try to empathize with a free and clear spirit. With an open mind. To choose to not empathize is to commit oneself to violence. So it’s violence and hatred to choose to not empathize. I do violence to others and myself to not always be open to others’ experience, and to hearing the other’s experience of my experience, and being aware of my experience of their experience of my experience. And so on ….

We must always at every moment attempt to do the impossible: to empathize. To choose to do so is ethical, in the Levinasian sense. To choose not to do so is violence.

© Copyright, 2006, Murray Gordon