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Monday, March 12, 2018

Three Kinds of Empathy

Three Kinds of Empathy

Although unintended, in My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey (2018) I highlight the struggle between two antithetical personae: (1) the female refugee scholar, a figure with a WW II past and the consequent vulnerabilities, biases, individualism, changing perceptions, moments of despair but also what locals call her courage and energy, and (2) the thorough researcher, objective, empirical, and disciplined. It is this struggle that sharpened my sensitivities both to the people I researched and to my inner life. It also made me rethink the meaning of empathy.

Here I want to review Lipps’ three kinds of empathy. We have all experienced them. What is interesting is that one can experience each kind of empathy positively or negatively.

(1) Empirical empathy occurs when sounds of natural objects remind us of, for example, “howling” or “groaning.” They can result in such metaphorical descriptions as “howling storm,” “groaning trees,” which call forth similar feelings in the experiencing self and other. Note the involvement of memory in matters of empathy.17 One person, however, may experience “groaning trees” positively, the other negatively. The reminder becomes more powerful, that is metonymic, when it is experienced as, for example, the “groaning of all creation” or “the groaning” of the spirit, as charismatic Christians in Africa and elsewhere might say.

(2) Mood empathy occurs, for example, when color, music, art, conversation, and so on, call forth similar feelings or moods in the researcher and researched. Thus, I experienced Herero tunes as haunting, melancholy, and overall sad, which is what the Herero showed and said they felt (Poewe 1985). It increased my understanding of their culture, centered as it was on defeat and death, although it also distanced me personally from them.

(3) Empathy for the sensible (in the sense of perceptible) appearance of living beings occurs when we take other people’s gestures, tones of voice, and other characteristics as symptomatic of their inner life (Malinowski 1967). We can talk about “appearance empathy” when we recognize, as in a flash, by a gesture, or something external, the other’s inner life; when we know that it could be, but need not be, part of our inner life. For example, this kind of empathy led to a real breakthrough in my understanding of the Herero. It struck me that their dress made a statement simultaneously about their superiority, sense of failure, and self-protection. This was confirmed by subsequent research and discussions with Herero women.

Note, while my apprenticeship book is specifically about my first research in Zambia, in the conclusion especially, I refer to subsequent research of Charismatic Christians and the Herero of Namibia.