Sympathy/Empathy II.

Well, that was a long tomorrow, I’ll admit. I’ve been distracted with interesting conversations elsewhere – and the near-zero feedback, and indeed readership, here doesn’t really impell me to force myself to post.

Except for the thirteen of you who decided to come and have a look two days ago. I don’t know what happened two days ago to warrant such a spike, but it’s a shame there wasn’t anything for you.

It’s no longer all that interesting, but so as to not make a liar out of myself, here’s a vague idea of what I was going to say about sympathy and empathy.


“Empathy” is not a word with much pedigree – apparently it’s a calque from German, invented around the turn of the last century, originally with aesthetic uses. Nonetheless, or perhaps even because its of lack of a long history, the word is probably more specific in connotation than “sympathy”. The first difference, I think, is that empathy is strictly related to feeling, whereas we can sometimes speak of “sympathy” in a less emotive, more cognitive sense. It is also easier to speak of empathy with dumb animals than it is to speak of sympathy with them – to sympathise with an animal seems to suggest a degree of personification. Empathy seems also to be less controllable, and in that way less an achievement, and more an event. Empathy takes place on a pre-cognitive level. Finally, it is more common to speak of empathy with pleasant emotions than to speak of sympathy with such emotions, although the latter is not impossible. This suggests a faculty that operates in a continual way, rather than one which is simply applied in certain circumstances – consequently what matters morally about empathy is that the power exists, while what we admire in sympathy is its application.

The chief image of empathy in my definition is the image of movement or transfer. An emotion is transfered from one person to another person, in the aether as it were, without a conscious effort on the part of the empath. It is an instinctive and unwilling faculty, an openness to such a transference.

What, in that case, shall we use “sympathy” for? How can we feel with somebody without having received their emotion from them? Clearly, the alternative must be that we ourselves generate the same emotion as is in them – through an act of imagination.

The reason this was interesting to me when I thought about it (and I don’t claim that its a particularly interesting thought, or an original one, although it is far from a universal one – has a rather different distinction, for instance), is its application to my own self-reflection.

I am a man of very little empathy, I realise, yet ample, and even hyperbolic, sympathy. When people in front of me are in tears, I feel bad, but I don’t feel bad in the same way they do – I recognise that distress is a bad thing and react to that, not to the actual experience of distress in front of me. When I’m drunk, when such higher emotional faculties are blunted, I can be quite callous – not because I do not care about people, but because their upset does not directly and emotively attack me, or at least not to the degree that would overcome my instinctive love of chaos. Even sober, I lack the ability to guage emotions well – and I’ve been accused of heartlessness for laughing in the face of what are for me trivial and amusing little cataclysms, not realise how much some people are effected by them.

[I find nothing more amusing than things going wrong – ideally to other people, but even to me on occassion. In particular, it takes little to divorce me from the reality of consequences – even the presence of an observer will turn something like my computer exploding, or me electrocuting myself (like last night) from something distressing to something hilarious. There is a particular hysterical freedom to being lost, or to being totally destroyed by fate, or of being soaked through to the skin. It absolves one of responsibility – beyond a certain point, you can stop trying to do what you are meant to do or what you want to do, and stop seeing things as failure, and enjoy them for what they are.]

Yet my powers of sympathy are far from weak. I do feel a powerful moral drive to eliminate suffering. In particular, when I consider my own actions, my pre-emptive sympathy for those that might be hurt by what I am to do is admirable in its quality but excessive, constrictive, in its quantity. I am polite and self-effacing beyond any possible duty.

[The fact that I find it easier to be rude on the internet than in real life might indicate the importance of empathy – for many, or most, people I think it does. In my case, however, I find that what the internet lacks is not a direct experience of the other but a direct experience of a social situation. For me, a large part of politeness is driven not by concern for others (either sympathetic or empathetic) but by concern for the situation. I am driven to do and say the right thing. This is not the popular thing, or even necessarily the conventional thing – I have no problem saying unpopular things if I can justify them to myself. One of the sweetest things ever said to my face was that I didn’t care about people’s feelings about me – it was meant in a nice way. It is simply a fear of making some mistake – even in contexts where no mistake is possible. Buying things in shops. Asking when the next train to X is. Any telephone conversation. And all that is absent on the internet, where I am for all intents and purposes talking to myself. Moreover, I have only a slow mind, and there is a certain extra anxiety caused by the fact that I can, and do, answer questions long before I have finished about how best to do so – the internet transpires at a more ammenable pace.]

When I was young, I had many teddy bears. Eventually it became a little traumatic, because I would be wracked by guilt (well, wracked gently. Or racked, even) about their feelings. I knew that they had no feelings, but that was irrelevent to the guilt. Likewise, if I tore a leaf off a tree I would feel bad about it, though I ascribed no moral value to the integrity of trees. Even now, I have a little statuete of an animal in my room, and sometimes it looks at me very sadly, and if I’ve neglected it I feel bad, and sometimes I feel I have to pat it on the head or whatever. I’ve always wondered why I’ve felt that when I seem so cold to respond to actual people.

I think the difference is the difference between sympathy and empathy. It is not that my empathy is so refined that it can even pick up on the imaginary emotions of leaves and statuettes (in which case it should certainly be strong enough to pick up on that of crying people), but that my sympathy is applied where it should not be applied.

This applies only to my own actions, I’ve realised. When someone else plucks a leaf, or swears at the wooden animal, I feel nothing at all – why would I? It is only my own actions that face this scrutiny. I would hypothesise that empathy is not only instinctive, it is also, in a way, “given” to a person as a parameter. Sympathy, as an action (or a faculty for action) is actually shaped by our use of it.

Why have I shaped my sympathy in such a way? The fact that it relates most strongly (and often only) to my own actions suggests that I have used it for moral guidance. Yet surely everybody does? What is the difference in my case – or is it simply chance?

I think that I have this form of sympathetic faculty precisely because I lack adequate empathy. I think that this connection operates at two levels. Firstly, empathy is a large part of morality for many, and maybe most, people. This lack is perhaps something I attempted to fill with sympathy, given the ability of sympathy to mimic natural empathy. The second, and more subtle, connection is that to a considerable extent our empathy shapes our concept of personhood. Persons are those things we empathise with. This can be seen in the willingness of people to personify nice fluffy animals with faces that can mimic human emotions. We feel more morally connected to “cute” animals because some part of our biology responds empathically to their actions, and so we instinctively think of them as persons. Later, as we get older, this view of personhood is supplemented by more social views, based on our interaction with them. As children, our interaction is fairly basic with everything, and it is easier to consider our pets on the same level as us.

Those children who lack empathy,  or at any rate are less empathic than average (I am not claiming to be clinically without empathy, merely less affected by it than the people around me seem to be, and say they are, and expect me to be) might be expected to have an impaired ability to recognise personhood. One consequence may be that our sympathy is, at least at first, not confined purely to persons.

This would go along with the fact that this habit of hyperbolic sympathy is one that I am growing out of. On the other hand, I’m growing out of all sorts of traits and habits.

I had a conversation like this on the internet once, and several people seemed to agree with my experience, and to see a correlation with Aspergers. I do not have Aspergers (to my knowledge), but I think I, as it were, tend toward that tendency more than is normal, if less than is clinically important. Looking back at my childhood, when I was a lot less psychologically normal and well-balanced than I am now, those elements stand out even more. Likewise a certain schizoid tendency. [I do not use these terms in a clinical or medical or official sense – I would not dare to – but simply as shorthands for certain tendencies in mental behaviour, without any judgement as to cause or extent]. As such people do indeed lack empathy, it would make sense, on the above analysis, if some of them had the experience of sympathising with non-persons. [As a feature of their lives – I imagine everyone has had the experience at least once, if they have any imagination at all, but not necessarily as a persistent and uncontrollable reflex]. Others of them, of course, may lack any sympathy at all, if they have been so devoid of empathic connection to others that they have not tried to make up for their own lack of empathy.

[Question: can anything significant be said about children who are drawn toward “uncute” pets? We have a natural empathic instinct toward bunnies and kittens, but what about snakes? Perhaps one reason children like snakes is not that they are drawn to them at all, except in the general way that they are drawn toward interesting things in the world, but that they do not have such a strong attraction toward cute animals? Perhaps the normal child would be interested in a snake (if not taught to fear them), but would be much more interested in a kitten – maybe some of the people with snakes didn’t get distracted by the offer of a kitten instead. In which case, are snake-owners more likely to have hyperbolic sympathy, or a lack of empathy? Will they be more schizoid, or more autistic? Are snake owners more sociopathic on average? I’ve never trusted a man who can feed small cute fluffy struggling mammals into the emotionless cold hard mask of a reptile.

Of course, there are many other reasons to want a pet snake. “It’s cool” is probably the main reason, particularly among boys. But it’s an interesting thought, at least to me.]

So far I’ve been rambling as though “sympathy” were well-defined. It isn’t. There are at least two possible forms of sympathy, which we may call “behaviour sympathy” and “situation sympathy”. The first reasons on the basis of behaviour: “X is behaving in such-and-such a manner. What do you feel when you behave in such-and-such a manner?”. The second reasons on the basis of perspective: “X believes Y/X has undergone Z, what do you feel when you are in that situation?”. The answer to either question is the agent feeling the emotion themselves.

I think I primarily use the second. It has two clear advantages – firstly, it does not require similarity of behaviour, or awareness of how one’s own behaviour appears from the outside, and secondly it is applicable in advance – how WILL the person feel when you have done Z to them? I’m not sure what uses the first form might have. Perhaps the process can eventually be fully internalised as empathy? Perhaps that’s how empathy starts? It’s clearly not a good teaching mechanism with anyone at all autistic, however, given the degree of external awareness required. Perhaps the second would be better. Certainly it’s better for my own processes.

Situation sympathy itself, however, can be conducted in two ways. Do you, as we are often enjoined, ‘put yourself in their position’? Or do you try to be them in their position? I’m not sure which is more useful. Clearly the latter will closer mirror their own emotions – but is it really possible to adopt all their perspective? Probably not – but what is the value of putting your own perspective in their situation? Is there ever a value to saying “I know they want it, but I wouldn’t in their position and I’m not going to give it to them” – it certainly seems a little dictatorial. Yet how much of a sacrifice are we called on to make – in the one case we give up our interests for theirs, but in the other we give up our entire perspective for theirs. Are there times where that sacrifice is more than we are called on to give – and if so is that only for pragmatic reasons of time-constraint. Imagine a truly wretched and pathetic man, odious and unadmirable in every way. If we are to feel a full sympathy for him, from his own perspective, we must for a time inhabit his perspective – yet in the process our experience of life is sullied and degraded. Is that a sacrifice forced on us by the original inequality – or is it damaging to both of us? And for all those (yes, all three of you who might read this, I imagine) who instinctively reject the idea of acting on our own perspective when determining his interests, is that not exactly what we do with addicts? Clearly if we had their perspective, we would want drugs. For all the theorising we might do, is there not some deep part of our reaction to addicts the thought that in their place we would not want drugs – that there must be some part of them, however hard to find, that does indeed share our perspective? Or that their perspective is so addled and unfree that we are freed from heeding it and are free to impose our own?

Some might say that there is another form of sympathy, which I have forgotten about – the reasoning whereby I feel bad because something bad has happened to them. This is valuable, I think, but not sympathy. For me, the issue of perspective is central to sympathy, and this emotion requires no change of perspective – it simply requires that I recognise that something bad happening to them is something bad happening to me. It is, in fact, not one faculty but two – I can feel bad because all “bad things” are something bad happening to me, or because I consider the other person’s weal and woe part of my own. The first is a simple deontological-emotional reaction to morality – there are certain independently “bad” events, and when they occur it is to be lamented. In a way, this embraces the whole of the universe as part of the agent, in order for the bad event to have an impact on the agent. I think people who hold this stance should think more about the perspectival implications.

The second form is Schopenhauer’s “compassion” – a word identical in etymological meaning to “sympathy”, but which I have chosen to limit. Compassion is not an alternative to empathy or sympathy – it is, as it were, a supplement to them. Empathy is of limited range. Sympathy can only operate within our own experience and limited imagination. We can, perhaps, operate it in a hypthetical form, but the answers we get are just words, descriptions, not an actual emotion dredged up. Compassion can go further, taking any information about emotions and internalising it. This, ultimately, comes as Schopenhauer says through a redefinition of our own personhood – others are brought in to our notion of personhood, or at least one notion of personhood. It is wrong, I think, to think of a “person” as a unitary concept. We think of persons in many senses – in terms of responsibility, in terms of debts and duties, in terms of interests, in terms of rights, in practical terms of who knows what, who can do what. Compassion brings other people into one of our concepts of our own personhood. This, to some extent, requires negating their own personhood – and so perhaps in the end “empathy” acts contrary to “compassion”, not in the same direction. Or is that a stretch too far – empathy identifies that a person HAS personhood, but not necessarily WHICH personhood. It could well be ours.

Finally, a puzzle – what do you feel when you read about a fictional character? When they are happy and you are happy, is that “empathy”, transfered through the description of their behaviour and thoughts, or is it “sympathy”, deduced from how you would feel in their situation? And does this undermine the rest of this post? Does the rest of this post even need undermining?


Well, there’s some whiny angsty ill-formed off-the-cuff drivel for you. Same time next week. /month. /day, /hour, /year, I’ve no idea when. Sometime, probably.


2 thoughts on “Sympathy/Empathy II.

  1. Like this post lots of information.
    my son has Aspergers and he has problems with his felling in many ways.

  2. Nisan says:

    I like your definitions. I do empathize with fictional characters; the emotions of a character in a book can color my emotions for hours after I stop reading. This happens when the character’s perspective is somewhat compatible with my own and when the writing is good.

    I realize that I have been relying on compassion when I am unable or disinclined to employ empathy or situation sympathy in relating to a particular person.

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