DFG-AHRC Cooperation: Joint German-UK Project Proposals in the Humanities, incl. Law and Linguistics How Does it Feel? Interpersonal Understanding and Affective Empathy

“Is it the schism of Brexit or the cranked up vitriol that flows through parts of social media? Either way, people in the UK are concerned that empathy is on the wane, with more than half of the population believing Britons’ ability to sense, understand and share the feelings of others has declined over the last year.” Thus The Guardian reported a study by YouGov on 4th October 2018. The concern expressed is that Britons are becoming increasingly incapable of under-standing each other, in particular each other’s feelings. This declining capacity is seen as correlated with a decrease in empathy or, as the article goes on to put it, “the ability of people to put themselves in other shoes.” Such worries are now legion across Europe and beyond. Although our political culture may, if these concerns are justified, be suffering from a particularly acute drop in understanding across key divides, the phenomenon of failure in interpersonal under-standing is a general feature of human cooperative life, from the political to the personal. Thus, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s Emma despairs at her failed matchmaking endeavours among friends: “How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under! – The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!”

What, then, is it to understand another person? It seems to involve knowing what others think and feel. Nevertheless, it also appears that we can have such knowledge and still not understand others. Joan knows that John feels humiliated, but doesn’t understand how humiliation feels for him; Jim knows that Jane wants to have a tattoo on her forehead, but doesn’t understand her. Understanding another seems to involve knowing what moves them, but also grasping how they feel, as well as being able to appreciate why they feel and are moved in the ways that they are. Both these latter dimensions – grasping how it feels for someone to be in some particular situation and appreciating their emotional and motivational reactions – have until now been barely discussed in the philosophical literature. The project How Does it Feel? Interpersonal Understanding and Affective Empathy aims to remedy this situation by giving accounts of both of these dimensions. It also intends to investigate their relations to empathy, in particular to the capacity to take on others’ feelings. This capacity, or its impairment, looks to be of central importance for the explanation of interpersonal understanding, or its failure. Hence there is an urgent need for an account both of its contribution to our capacity to understand each other, and of the conditions of its success and reasons for its failure.

The Subprojects:

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 have been tackling each of these three dimensions. In order to do so, they 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).