Sympathy/Empathy I: justification and some images

I thought I’ld actually share a thought here for once.

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? What is compassion? I don’t pretend to attempt a rigorous analysis, but I was thinking the question over to myself last night, and thought I would share my conclusion, and some implications I considered.

The first answer has to be that there is no difference. We can use these words interchangeably. Often we do. Perhaps some people always do. The question should instead be, then, what difference will we decree that there is?

I have used different meanings of the two words (leaving compassion to one side for now) for some time when thinking about myself, and so that is what I take as the definition – the definition is a way of saying something I find interesting about myself, and about other people as they are distinct from me. This we might call an act of creative definition – an act that brings forth a distinction that was not previously there, or that was not previously salient. In times past, this would be seen, perhaps, as discovering something true about the words, delving toward their real meaning. I see it as creating meaning, and it is a virtue in itself. Each word in our language opens a choice to us, enables us to see things from a new perspective. The distinction we choose to employ in our reasoning are reflections of our worldview – by carving out vocabulary we are, to mix a metaphor, clearing the ground for future diversions from the road that we are following. The presence or absence or words may not prohibit or permit the expression of concepts, but it certainly makes it easier or more difficult. With an impoverished vocabulary, we must hack each step we take off the road – once we have cleared the trees we may do so carelessly, playfully, whenever we so choose.

And yet we cannot simply conjure up meanings to ascribe to words – they must be based on real, communicable distinctions or they serve no intelligible or wise purpose, however expressive they may be. Without firm roots, meanings drift and blur like fog on the road, and our use of them will resemble Turner or Monet – a fine rhetoric, but poor as a technical diagram. That all words are surrounded with a certain concomitant haze is well known – and beneficial to us – but at the core of that haze of connotation there must, if we are to use words analytically, be some solid denotation. This, of course, need not be so rigid and precise as a dictionary definition – it is no offence for a word to be definable only in context, and for the contexts of its facets to be multifarious and difficult to sum up into one phrase. At heart, the distinction between denoting and connoting is not, after all, one of precision as opposed to vagueness, but one of focus – the focus of denoting is on the world, while the focus on connoting is on the speaker. If an object we intend to construct is composed of clouds and light, a Turner may well serve as a technical diagram.

When we make a choice of words according to their connotation, we say something about ourselves, about our attitude, our emotion, our standpoint; when we make a choice according to denotation, we say something about the world. It is impossible to say one thing without our audience being able to hear the other – one serves, as it were, as a harmonic to the note the other strikes – but that does not mean that there is no difference between the two decisions – particularly when we are talking to ourselves, as we are in analysis.

What we say about the world may, of course, be false – we may even know it to be false ourselves when we say it, but say it for some other reason. Some things we say about the world may not even be capable of being false or true. But in talking about the world, we open up our perspective for scrutiny – by others and by ourselves. The rest of us, what we show through our choice of connotations, may be important – it may be the most important thing of all in terms of value, in terms of judgement, in terms of existence in the world – but it is our perspective that is the engine of our lives. The distinction may be likened to the difference between our exterior bodies – the body of skin and hair and eyes and mouth and all the features we associate with ourselves, the features, above all, that we associate with those we know – and our interior bodies, red, wet and writhing, the raw biology of our matter. Behind the skin, there are muscles – yet we tend to take a face at face value. So too in the realm of ideas (itself a face upon the flesh), we may take the misty world of connotation to be the person, or think of certain opinions as mere outgrowths, mere facts lampreyed onto soul. And in a way this is true, just as it is true in a way that the meat does not matter. But to a doctor, it is the meat that matters; and so too when we attend our own health it pays us to know how our inner body works (how our outer body works we know from the first, in most ways). I would not dream of setting myself up as a doctor, but I do believe that we should attend to our own health in small matters, in our minds as well as in our bodies; and when we do that, we must look past our outer mind, past even the more obvious spars and lintels that extend out of the foundations of our inner mind – the beliefs we believe we believe, the opinions we opine when we are asked, the steel frame around which we have poured ourselves like concrete, one storey at a time, from childhood into dotage – and into the deeper inner mind, the world of our perspectives, our assumptions, our formative idioms, our interpretation of metaphors. I do not mean to imply that these things are somehow hidden from us, or inaccessible to us. If they are hidden, it is by their dullness, their inherent, clammy, uninvolved boredom, and by the dazzlement of life; if they are inaccessible, it is only the inaccessibility of a long ladder down into the cold.

I spoke above about alternative perspectives – what is the point of them, if our perspectives are so central to us? Well, in the first place, the centre of a little thing is hardly all that far from its surface. But in any case, the image here should be an image of a man repairing a skyscraper – it is difficult to do it from inside. If we are to see the problem (and to see if there even is a problem), and to have a place to stand while we are fixing it (if anything needs to be fixed), we must erect another structure – more temporary, perhaps, less capable of withstanding gales, and perhaps less comfortable, but above all different. It need not be different in all ways – we may built up from a ledge, or abseil down from a height – but at the critical point it must allow us to stand back from the tower, away from the tower, and perceive it from the outside. And perhaps it is true that for some of us, once or more in our lives, we may find the temporary structure we have made more sturdy and more suitable than the tower we set out to fix, and we may built again from a new base, to the extent that we are able. But most of the time, repairs will last a little while, and after that the platform we have stood on can be cast aside, and left to rot, of no use to us any more. Yet the practice of constructing such platforms will remain an invaluable one – the surest builder will do well to give inspection now and then. Even a builder who can know no error may wish to clean the windows from the outside.

A perspective is a frame we can stand on – sometimes nothing more than a plank and some string we can throw out a window, sometimes an edifice of grandeur in own right. It depends what we want to use it to look at, and how long we wish to be standing on it. And a perspective is built out of concepts – and words, and distinctions between words, cold and dull denotations of words, are the maps we have of where we left our concepts last time we were using them. We can find them by ourselves – but it becomes an undertaking.

The above is probably more important than any distinction I could choose to make between sympathy and empathy. I’ll do so nonetheless, but perhaps I’ll leave that for tomorrow.

The above is, I know, a ramble – it’s just what I happened to write when I wrote – so apologies if it’s unclear at any point. Feel free to ask questions, or to share your comments. Hope somebody found it interesting. If not, I did, so there.


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