Below is an abstract for my talk on May 9th as part of Imagination & Empathy: What Possibilities, What Challenges, What Limits – a day-long workshop taking place at University of Vienna (and also available to attend online). This workshop is the first event organised by The Limits of Imagination: Animals, Empathy, Anthropomorphism – the research group I joined here in Vienna last December, and through which I’m doing my PhD. You can see the schedule and speakers for the day on the Eventbrite page here, where you can also register to attend online.
Knowing Me, Knowing You, Aha! – Some Problems for Empathy as a Social-Epistemic Practice
R.J. Flynn (University of Vienna/Messerli Research Institute)
As a social-epistemic practice, empathy – understood here as “emotionally-charged imaginative perspective taking” (Bailey, 2018) – might help bridge the gulf between our differing social and embodied contexts and facilitate knowledge and understanding across those divides. Yet, whatever its social value, the epistemic value of empathy is unclear. I here consider two problems for empathy as a specifically social-epistemic practice.
- What do we come to know? Rather than relying on simplistic analogy (where self-knowledge entails other-knowledge), I consider whether the epistemic role of empathy might be in facilitating understanding qua insight. A practice of affective engagement and imaginative perspective-taking might bring together prior knowledge of both the self and other, allowing the ‘Aha!’ moment of insight attained when that prior knowledge coheres. However, this possibility is complicated by the second problem.
- Is what we come to know or understand reliable? There are two reasons to doubt this. First, our social and embodied experience, and the biases and assumptions which stem from them, may drastically restrain our ability to imagine our way into another’s perspective. Rather than bringing about understanding of the other, “what one ends up knowing about is oneself – albeit in a hypothetical or imagined situation” (Avramides, 2018). Second, the ‘Aha!’ moment may be a satisfying subjective experience, but that feeling of understanding may be illusory; it can be attained and enjoyed, even where it is based on false conclusions.
I do not aim here to rule out empathy as a social-epistemic practice or deny that empathy may have a specifically epistemic value. I argue only that these problems be fully considered – that the “nature and extent of the gulf” (Ratcliffe, 2022) between social and embodied positions should be taken seriously – before any reliable epistemic position for empathy can be proposed.