Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Sympathy and Empathy

Phil has asked me in one of the comments on a Gnosticism post to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy. This distinction is very important for scholars of religious studies, and helps curb not only apologetic tendencies, but also claims that anything outside our sympathies is our opposite or opponent.

As a historian of religion, I maintain the position that it is essential to be empathetic toward that which we study, but not sympathetic. Sympathy is defined as "fellow feeling," it is the sharing of emotion, interest, and desire. sun is Greek for "together with" while pathos is Greek for "feeling."

Empathy is defined as "intellectual" understanding, it is an appreciation of the Other without being the Other. en is Greek for "in" while pathos is Greek for "feeling."

Sympathy means that one shares his/her identity with those being studied. The researcher is emotionally connected to his/her subject, and therefore unable to maintain enough of a distance from the subject to be able to critically study it. Sympathy also causes trouble for the researcher when s/he wishes to study the Other, because the Other looks very different. When this happens, the Other often is characterized by the researcher as bad, evil, silly, scary, even crazy. Why? Because his/her sympathy for the one thing makes it difficult to understand the Other without doing so in terms of the heretic, the lunatic, or the devil.

Too often this is how the study of Gnosticism is approached by those in the Academy. I can not tell you the number of times scholars have come up to me and said, "Oh you study those crazy texts." "Why do you bother? They were loonies anyway." Or how often Gnosticism is characterized in writing as totally foreign, heretical, that they thought the body is totally negative and that this world is a nasty place. First this is a caricature of the Gnostics; it is not what they actually say. Second the same caricature can be made of the early apostolic or mainstream Christians who for the most part hated the body and sex, and tried to escape the fate of the world and its demons through baptism. Hence the strong traditions of martyrdom and erasure of the body (have you ever really read Ignatius' letter to the Romans?) and monasticism (the deprived and starved body was the exalted heavenly body!). I could go on at length, but won't given the need for brevity in blogs.

Empathy, however, allows the researcher to appreciate his/her subject, in an attempt to understand the subject for the subject's sake. There is an attempt to try to figure out how the subject works from the outside in. The goal is to understand the subject fairly, without personally becoming the subject. This means for the Gnostics that they are treated with respect, their positions are mapped as accurately as they can be, so that their voices can become part of the conversation that was early Christianity. Once this is done, we will learn a lot more than we now know. The inclusion of their voices will benefit the whole. But this can only be accomplished with empathy.


David said...

I wonder if an equivalent theme from anthropology might be relevant here? In anthropology, a distinction is made beween etic and emic viewpoints, that is, between the viewpoint of a researcher from outside a tradition imposing a perspective on a different mode of experience versus experiencing something (shamanism for example) from a participatory, inside perspective. Viewpoints imposed from outside run the risk of being irrelevant and misleading, while adopting the viewpoint from within a tradition can result in a kind of blind narcicism about the tradition.

Researchers in shamanism concluded that they had to experience the world of the shaman first-hand as a participant, adopting that worldview as a working reality, while bringing back information that they could make sense of using tools of analysis. Otherwise they were just imposing their own prejudices and cognitive structures.

It's almost the opposite problem of what you are discussing with empathy and sympathy. A problem in religious studies, and particularly in biblical studies, is that many (used to be most) "scholars" are really apologists who are devoted to the inside view and deny the validity of any external analytical process. In shamanic studies, researchers had to join the shamanic community to get good perspective, but in biblical studies I believe we need more of the opposite, the ability to appreciate the inside (sympathetic) view while developing and utilizing tools for analyzing from an empathetic perspective.

Which is what is see in Dr. DeConick's work.

Chris Weimer said...

Weird, I've always heard it the other way around - that empathy was feeling what others were feelings, more or less "in their shoes" sort of feelings, while sympathy was just a general "I'm sympathetic to your plight" but not really being as moved.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Chris, unfortunately the words "empathy" and "sympathy" are used often loosely and quasi-synonymously and may therefore be a cause for confusion. However, the conceptual distinction that April makes, regardless of the exact terminology, is vital and I'm glad she posted on this.

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

The OE defintion of empathy is:the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.Thus try indentifying yourself with the Jewish prophet of the NT and his movement if you wish to understand the earliest Christianity. Then Pauline Christianity cannot be the earliest.


Phil Snider said...

Right now, my energy and time are limited (I'm recovering from a very bad cold along with the rest of my family), so I will content myself with a couple comments.

First, I do take the point of avoiding an overly sympathetic view of one's sources. I also agree that the anti-Apocrypha books alluded to in the last week on this blog are apologetics, not particularly history. Clearly, the historians has to set his or her own likes or dislikes aside when reading a source and try to take it seriously on its own terms. In that sense, 'empathy' (while still a confusing term) is a useful concept.

However, what I continue to challenge is the implied assumption that there is only one way to write history and the one that insists on checking one's theology at the door is the only one that works. What this comes down is to integrity in working with our sources and, frankly, it is just as possible for a secular, religious studies trained scholar to use dodgy practices as it is for someone writing from within a faith tradition. For myself, while I am sympathetic to Eusebius, for instance, I also have to concede that his apologetic aims for his history have made large chunks of his information suspect. That is simply responsible scholarship. What I wonder is whether April really is arguing that someone writing consciously in one's tradition cannot be a responsible scholar. That has been my point all along, of course, so I suspect I'm flogging a defunct equine.


If so, can someone writing from a faith tradition manage that?

I have my own answers to those to questions

Phil Snider said...

Sorry, please disregard the last bits after my signiture. I'm still a little muddled from my recent cold and didn't remember I had an early draft to the early part of my post at the bottom of this one.


bulbul said...

Funny how some subjects tend to come up regularly. Just the other day I was thinking about my experience with Person Centered Therapy/Approach which has empathy as one of its core principles and voila, here it is again.
The core principles of PCA are empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, the most important being empathy. However, as my facilitators would remind me, empathy on its own will often turn into sympathy and identification. That's where congruence comes in: being congruent means being fully aware of everything that is going on outside and everything that is going on inside. Some define it as being aware of one's boundaries ("This is your emotion, not mine"), some would agree with your definition, Professor, describing congruence as maintaining distance. Most of my teachers insisted there can be no empathy without congruence.
As for it being difficult to understand the Other without doing so in terms of the heretic, the lunatic, or the devil, that almost sounds like a call for the third principle - unconditional positive regard. Refraining from making judgments would be the best definition of this principle.
Hm, who would have thought one could apply PCA to the study of early Christianity :o)

April DeConick said...


Thank you for this language. It is the orientation that a historian of religion must have to be successful in my opinion.

Positive Regard

Jonathan said...

Re: discussion of sympathy and empathy.

I would less entertain the English definitions and connotations and focus more on the only significant distinction between the two words: their prefixes. As already noted, "sun" or "sum" suggests "experiencing with" and "em" or "en," an "experiencing in." The distinction seems to be one of degree--the difference in degree of experiencing the experience of another. The empathic experience of another's, say, joy or sorrow, suggests a virtual dissolution of boundary between my experience and that of the other; sympathic experience suggests a less intimate sharing, but a sharing nonetheless. Perhaps the difference is analogous to actually standing in the middle of a stream instead of standing alongside it and feeling some spray.

As is well known, Abraham Heschel used the former category as a means of understanding the prophetic experience of the divine; he suggests that the prophet's speaking as YHWH implies a virtual interpenetration of divine and human consciousness. Of course, such a notion is perhaps heuristic theologically in approaching such doctrines as "incarnation" and "fully God and fully human" and may serve to help experientially to resolve the supposed "mystery" of such doctrines.

With respect to "historical Jesus" concerns, I think this category goes a long way to understandidng what, e.g., Tom Kazen argues was Jesus' "indifference" to purity concerns in trafficking with the leprous, the discharging and the dead. Isn't a central effect of empathy the ignoring of distinctions at which, in its absence, one might stop short? This is not to say that the latter precede empathy as some sort of requiste; rather, empathy is probably the immediate experience which simply overwhelms reticence instigated by noxious characteristics, however these may be defined, of the given person. For instance, immediate empathy with a reeking homeless person may well lead to touching, conversation, and solicitous response where, in the absence of such, revulsion would be the "natural" response. I like Kazen's term in his recent study on 2nd Temple purity Halakah because it also intersects with Q sayings about God that seem to be part of the earliest memory of Jesus--such as that about God (indifferently) sending rain and sunshine on the evil and good, just and unjust. This does not, I think, suggest a moral indifference, but, rather, an indiscriminate beneficence that ignores the "character" of the recipients.

I would note, also, as a philosopher, that empathy/einfuhlung has been employed as a means of resolving the so-called "problem of other minds" or, even, "solipsism," generated in the modern era by Descartes. Underlying the latter is, I think, as he indeed says at the beginning of the Meditations, an intent to found the sciences, specifically the methodological assumptions of Galileo. This involved the assumption that "nature" was an unknown resembling mathematical formulae and impinging on the sense organs of experiencers. Thus, the play thrown up by the senses was "subjective" and the unknown quasi-mathematical nature was "objective." Since others, and indeed myself, appear to me as (subjective) corporeal presences, they may be radically other than they appear. And, by implication, their psyche's are barred to us as well. The other leg of the dilemna is, I think, the entrepreneurial, acquisitive or "possessive" self of Locke (keeping in mind that Locke's scientific epistemology and theory are entirely Cartesian). This self, as defined in the 2nd Treatise, can relate to others only out of self interest; even classical reason cannot save Locke, by his own admission, from this dilemma.

Empathy, then, say among the early phenomenologists, certainly for Husserl and Stein, becomes a means of overcoming the distance between selves. Part of the contribution is the insistence, particularly by Stein, and before her, Richter, that say, sorrow, is present in the face of the other; we do not infer to sorrow from facial expression.

So this sort of exploration begins to lay the groundwork for a way of overcoming what I consider to be the false social ontology of Cartesian epistemology and Lockean economic philosophy. To cut to the chase, we cannot account for our being in any respect, biological, linguistic, and moral, apart from others, apart from our implication in a matrix of nurturance (which, of course, is not a necessity). These immediate relations of caring and solicitude are the very stuff of incipient empathy-development.

So my view is that, in a broader sense, empathy may function both as a reality itself and a metaphor for other dimensions of reality. It is a heuristic notion and reality that enables us to understand not only the prophets, Jesus, and doctrine regarding Jesus, but bridges to similar notions and concerns in other world religions, thus suggesting, again, a level of reality about which all of them speak, pehaps, at base, in not so different ways after all.