Empathy, A Definition: Five Authors, Five Takes

LIsted in order from newest (a book just out) to older (but not old), five different titles by five different authors on empathy:

I. I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy  by Cris Beam, 2018.

Beam’s favorite definitions, per an interview with Brendan Dowling, Public Libraries:

Interruption of power:

I learned that definition when I was in South Africa. I was there when Eugene De Kock, who was the head of Vlakplaas, the South African prison, was released from prison. He’s known as Prime Evil there…If we have empathy for his process and have empathy for the fact that he’s expressed remorse, then it’s deflating some of his power. It says the rest of us are actually culpable as well, rather than saying that he’s the one bad guy. I thought that was a really interesting expression of what empathy can do.

Mutual vulnerability:

[Nell Noddings] defines empathy as receptivity rather than doing this constant projection, ‘How would you feel? How would I feel if I were in your shoes?’ That’s a really interesting idea that actually what empathy is is a kind of listening, rather than projecting…It takes away that need to thrust an identity or a subjectivity into another person.

II. Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom, 2016.

According to Jesse Singal, The Cut, Bloom states the following: “Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” [emphasis his]. His critique of empathy centers most notably on two of its features: empathy has a ‘spotlight effect’ and entails a certain ‘innumeracy’.”

Spotlight effect: “…the act of feeling someone else’s pain causes us to zoom in on that pain and want to do something about it, often at the expense of other, more important causes.”

Innumeracy: “…Bloom points out that it’s really hard to truly empathize with more than one or two people at the same time.”

III. Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric, 2014.

Krznaric: “…the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.”

IV. The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison, 2014.

Jamison: “…derives from the Greek em, meaning into,and pathos, meaning feeling – amounting to ‘a penetration, a kind of travel.’ Her book’s epigraph, from Terence’s Latin motto, ‘I am human: nothing human is alien to me,’ announces that she considers nothing too strange for her consideration” (Heller McAlpin, NPR).

V. The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to LIfe’s Most Essential Skill by Karla McLaren, 2013.

McLaren’s basic definition: “a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support.”

Described further are six aspects: Emotion Contagion, Empathic Accuracy, Emotion Regulation, Perspective Taking, Concern for Others, and Perceptive Engagement.

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