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Empathy as Verstehen

June 2, 2008

I have been giving empathy some thought. I came across these interesting definitions on “The Sociology Shop” website:

Many SAY they try to understand and/or tolerate others and their ways/ideas…a kind of “live and let live” approach. While this might be admirable, its often or usually a facade to cover an already decided judgment about these matters. In other words, this isn’t an empathetic approach although it may appear to be on the surface.

NOT equal to sympathy/pity (i.e. feeling sorry for someone)

RATHER: UNDERSTANDING something/someone on its/their own terms
—–within its own context
—–in conditions in which it makes sense

PRIOR TO…condoning (agreeing) OR condemning (disagreeing)
—–NOT through the “filter” of one’s own values…which skews “understanding” every time

Empathy (not to be confused with sympathy) involves trying to understand something or someone on their own terms…prior to judging. “On their own terms” refers mainly to the context/conditions in which something has developed and in which it has meaning. Any attempt to understand (no matter how well intended) following a judgment or decision will necessarily be skewed everytime…effectively negating this “understanding.” (and is, in effect…the opposite of empathy).

To understand doesn’t automatically imply agreement…although some kinds of logic maintain this. Empathy isn’t wishy-washy, nor is it the tolerance of an “anything goes” perspective. Rather, it is a hard-nosed approach which is far more difficult to maintain than its reverse…ethnocentrism. Empathetic thinkers usually find that judgments are beside the point.

The writer’s definition of empathy is basically the same as the usual understanding of appreciating contextuality or, in other words, Max Weber’s and Georg Simmel’s concepts of Verstehen (literally, to understand), which is similar, if not identical, to most views of cultural relativism.

Contrary to the common psychological view of empathy as a kind of innate, hard-wired neurological trait, the typical sociological construct of empathy frames it as an aspect of one’s research methodology. In Verstehen, one brackets one’s own biases and life experiences and attempts to understand the life experiences of others, in their own contexts, through empirical study.

In my opinion, it is an important distinction. Although some autistics may not “have” empathy, as that term is defined commonly by psychologists and psychiatrists, there is certainly no reason why anyone cannot appreciate contextuality or practice cultural relativism. In sociology, empathy is praxis. I would add that I feel as though I have developed empathy (in a psychological sense) just by doing sociology – by focusing on context.

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