Lecture 21

Lecture 21

Empathy is usually connoted as a positive human quality, say, of "self-involvement-with-others" or, more fundamentally, "as a primal mode of dwelling or attunement with the social world, as a capacity for ekstatic being in/there/with others with respect to existential weal and woe" (Lawrence Hatab Ethics and Finitude: Heideggerian Contributions to Moral Philosophy Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham 2000 p. 148). In an even more fundamental ontological-existential sense, empathy (which is originally a translation of German Einfühlung) signifies no more and no less than the shared mooded openness of human being to the world and thus a characteristic of human being which is quite neutral and which encompasses also all deficient modes of empathy such as indifference and insensitivity.

The word 'empathy' itself is not a happy choice of terminology. In the first place, as a translation of German Einfühlung, it connotes a feeling-into of one subject into another as if both subjects were each enclosed in themselves and each could feel over into the other. Such an ontological conception oversees the ekstatic structure of human being which is always already a standing-out into the world. This ex-posure to the world is always already moodful and these moods not only can be shared — it is ineluctable for human being to share the world with others without also sharing in some way or other their mooded openness to the world.

In the second place, 'empathy' is derived from Gk. e)mpa/qhj which signifies 'strongly moved by emotion' and thus describes a state in which one is in (e)m-) a strong emotion (pa/qoj). This strong state of emotion may not have anything to do with anyone else's mood. Etymologically, a better choice of term would be 'sympathy' which means literally a 'feeling-with', a shared emotion in being moved by an encounter with the world. But 'sympathy' usually means a 'suffering-with' (from pa/sxein to suffer) of one being with the other (not necessarily human beings). In other languages such as German and Italian, 'sympathy' signifies a liking. In suffering along with someone else, one is like the other and also likes the other. Being-like and liking are related, which is also an ancient Greek conception of liking and friendship: 'like to like'. So let us say that sympathy (or, as second choice, empathy), in the most fundamental sense, signifies an ontological-existential predicament of human being in sharing mooded openness to the world.

In this fundamental ontological sense, sympathy or empathy could not be a virtue or capability in the Aristotelean sense, but signifies rather the predicament of human being as having been always already cast into the world in the mode of moodedness, not only in being exposed individually to moods in encounters with the world, but also in being ineluctably exposed to sharing moods as modes of human openness to the world. Furthermore, in the strict sense, sympathy or empathy does not signify an understanding of another's predicament in the world, even though all sympathy is accompanied more or less by an understanding of the other's predicament, even to the negative extreme of total incomprehension of the other's predicament.

What does the phenomenon of sympathy have to do with the phenomenon of friendship? It will have become apparent that the scope of the phenomenon has now widened from the Aristotelean conception of friendship between good men who have come to a standing in life through exercising and practising their capabilities and who appreciate each other's accomplished capabilities. The Greek word for friendship, fili/a, also encompasses a breadth of meaning: 'liking', 'fondness', 'love' (not erotic love), from filei=n 'to love, regard with affection, like, cherish, strive for'. The moodful accompaniment to love, liking and friendship can hardly be overlooked. It is now the existentially inescapable moodful sharing of world which comes into focus for investigation.


Liking can be characterized as sympathy in the sense of being attuned to another's attunement to the world in the other's momentary situation. Such attunement to the other in the other's mooded world-openness is a kind of receptivity for the other's world situation. Such receptivity means that I am moved by the mode of the other's mooded openness to the world and thus moodedly share that mood and am thus also moodfully like the other. Such co-moodedness of shared being-in-the-world is prior to any shared understanding of the world. It is not as if I understood the other's momentary world-predicament, but rather, in the first place, that I am attuned to, receptive for and thus moved by the other's world-situation prior to any understanding or articulation of that understanding in speech. Liking someone thus signifies an inclination towards that other and, within this inclination, a readiness to go along with the other in the movement of the other's moods. I am at-tuned to the other's moods, the prefix 'at-' signifying a turning toward and adaptation to the other in their mooded situation.

Now, as Aristotle points out, friendship is characterized by reciprocity. A one-sided, unreciprocated benevolence toward the other could not constitute a friendship (Eth. Nic. VIII ii 1155b34). Liking in the context of friendship must therefore also be mutual. There must be a reciprocal attunement to each other's world-attunement and thus a shared movement of emotive movement with the world-situation. Such mutual liking is an inclination toward each other and a willingness to mutually allow oneself to be moved by the other's situation. As such an inclination, the liking in friendship reveals a readiness to renounce one's own individual self-stand as it comes to stand out of one's own individual mooded world-situation in favour of a co-movement in a shared emotiveness. I am up when my friend's encounter with the world is uplifting and down when it is downcasting.

There is a further aspect to this co-moodedness or co-attunement to the world which arises from the circumstance that all moodedness is somatically anchored. Moods are feelings which are felt bodily. This means that the bodily presence of the other has weight in enabling me to share the other's mood. The voice of the other on the telephone is more somatically present in my world than a letter from the other, whereas when we meet in fully bodily presence, the sharing of mood is most enhanced. Friends like each other and signal this by hugging or kissing each other.

To be continued...

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