Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula


It is often said by scientists that our understanding of the neural basis of empathy is in its infancy, the suggestion being that it is only a matter of time before problems will be solved, as if the difficulties facing the research field are merely technical. But the implication of my paper is that the issues confronting empathy theorists are as much theoretical or, say, philosophical, as they are technical or scientific. Adam Smith’s name is today routinely evoked in introductory remarks on the nature of empathy. But how many people realize that for Smith empathy (or sympathy) was not a natural phenomenon or an automatic process of resonance with the feelings of another? Rather, according to him sympathy was conditioned by an inherent theatricality that, by making persons into actors and spectators who distance themselves from each other and even from themselves, forestalls the possibility (the dream) of complete sympathetic merger or identification.43 Freud expressed the same difficulty, indeed impossibility, in his own way when he made psychical ambivalence—the constitutive impossibility of separating Eros and Thanatos, love and hate, immersion and distance—central to his understanding of the sympathetic-identificatory phenomenon. According to Freud, rivalry with the other is as inherent in human nature as is love, and indeed is inseparable from love: the taming of these emotions is the necessary but endless task of civilization.44 For such thinkers, then, our knowledge of other minds cannot be explained by an appeal to a simple mechanism of mutual resonance or mutual attunement of the sort I have analyzed here. A further implication of my paper is that the problem of emotional empathy can only be rendered the more intractable if investigators persist in adopting the theoretical assumptions and experimental methods associated with the Basic Emotions View and the mirror neuron hypothesis.

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