Origins of empathy

Discussions regarding the nature of social experience are typically motivated by the question of access: given that we can directly perceive the other’s body, how can we grasp the other’s mind? Despite the overt Cartesian tone, many of the current proposals consider this to be the central question to be addressed within the debate. Thus, many consider a successful account of social cognition to be capable of explaining how we bridge the gap between the perceived body and the mind of the other. I will challenge this seemingly obvious approach and argue that it arises from the basis of certain fundamental ambiguities in our interpretation of embodiment. 

My project investigates the role of embodiment in empathy from three perspectives. On the one hand, I will combine available resources in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis with the phenomenological account, in order to discuss the central questions relating to self-other differentiation. On the other hand, I will scrutinize the experiential status and role of the other’s body in empathy by focusing upon bodily expressivity and challenging the predominant metaphor of “mindreading”. Thirdly, I will analyze the structural limitations of our experience of others by investigating the role of one’s own body in empathy. 

In adopting this strategy, I will tackle one of the main problems of the phenomenological account: the problem of reconciling the other’s direct perceivability with the other’s subjectivity. This dilemma may be illustrated as follows: increasingly equating the psychological life of the other with their directly perceivable body, the closer one stands in relation to behaviorism, conversely, attempts to avoid behaviorism through emphasizing the subjectivity of consciousness, the farther one seems to drift from the claim of direct access. In response to this dilemma, the driving hypothesis of my project is that the direct perceivability of the other’s mind and the subjectivity of the other’s mind can be reconciled by a detailed inquiry into the concept of embodiment. 


For further information please contact:

Joona Taipale
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
Center for Subjectivity Research, Copenhagen University
Njalsgade 140-142, Building 25, 5th floor
2300 København S
Phone: +45 353-28682