maandag 27 augustus 2012

Levinas and Empathy

Idealistic do-gooders have big expectations about empathy, ie the ability of people to identify with others and their situation. If only we would deploy more of that ability the world would possibly look a lot nicer.

Already in the eighteenth century the Enlightenment thinkers formulated the idea that we through empathy - according to them a constant factor in human nature - are capable of altruistic behavior, even when it goes against our immediate self-interest.

In our time, a variation on this idea is propagated by the philosophers Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum. They encourage us to read many books, especially novels. Because that broadens the range of feelings and thoughts we get familiar with and it helps us to understand other people better. The world can only benefit from that.

Into this line of reasoning fits the often heard remark that Jews, given their history, surely ought to know better as to what violence does to people. They should, because of that experience, be able to show more restraint in what they do to others than other people (can) show.

Quite often also my favorite philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is related to the importance of empathy. His emphasis on the phenomenon that we suddenly can feel guilty and obliged towards another human being would require that we be empathic. In order to achieve that altruistic effect we should actively identify with the other.

Actually I am very much in favour of doing so, but I think it is not what Levinas speaks about. It might even be the opposite. Because the characteristic of the experience of the other as Levinas describes it, is precisely that you did not identify with the other. Indeed, you are completely surprised by what the other brings up, because he falls silent where you are excited, because she proves not to be enthousiastic for what you believe in.

The shock that comes with that creates a sense of obligation, says Levinas. For such a reaction that you yourself could not have invented, according to Levinas, the other is indispendable. Because that’s the essence of his otherness. No empathy could equal that effect.

A prerequisite for being touched this way by another may be this: that you are able to face your own limitations. Because if you are, you may sooner notice somebody else’s vulnerability and the injuries caused by your lack of empathy.

Also see Levinas and Egoism