Interpersonal Understanding and Affective Empathy

According to a recent study by YouGov, a majority of Britons are worried that they and their compatriots are increasingly incapable of understanding each other and of emotionally “putting themselves in others’ shoes.” These inabilities seem intimately tied up with the disturbing sectarianism of political culture afflicting Western democracies. But what precisely is it to understand another person and what is it that blocks the ability to do so?

The project How Does it Feel? Interpersonal Understanding and Affective Empathy aims to make a crucial contribution to a theory of interpersonal understanding by providing philosophical accounts of hitherto barely discussed dimensions of the phenomenon:
(1) grasping what it is like or how it feels for another to be in some situation: phenomenal understanding;
(2) endorsing or accepting another’s feelings, motivation or action; and
(3) achieving these as a result of emotionally or affectively empathising with the other, where affective empathy is conceived as either fulfilling a cognitive role, thus contributing to phenomenal understanding, or feeding into the evaluative or quasi-evaluative phenomenon of endorsement.

Three subprojects will tackle each of these three dimensions. In order to do so, they will bring together and develop a thus far unique combination of insights from epistemology (on the nature of understanding and its relationship to knowledge), from philosophy of mind (on how people identify and grasp subjective experiences), from metaethics (on endorsement or appreciation of another’s psychological state) and from philosophical psychology (on the types and mechanisms of successful and failed empathy).