"On the Problem of Empathy" (1916) is the title of the doctoral dissertation of Edith Stein. In it Stein attempts to describe the phenomenology of acts of empathy, and her ideas contained therein are the fruit of several years' work with the founder of phenomenology and the director of the dissertation itself, Edmund Husserl.

Stein's goal, I believe, although never directly stated by herself, is to found a physical basis for the validity of empathy and her methodology and responses to her contemporaries reflect this goal. Eventually she will describe empathetic feeling in general as 'experience of a foreign consciousness', the use of the word experience being very important.

empathy and sympathy

Despite Demeter's attempt to distinguish between empathy and sympathy in the empathy node, Stein would likely say that she has things backwards, and she would have the support of etymologists. Demeter claims that sympathy is "to feel for someone. People who are sympathetic tend to consider how they would feel if the same events happened to them, without taking into consideration what makes the other person different from them." On the other hand, she implies that empathy is a superior feeling with that other person. In fact, the root for sympathy, syn- is "A prefix meaning with, along with, together, at the same time" (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.)

Stein says, therefore, that sympathy is a sort of ultimate empathy. She also says that such a form of empathy is neither possible nor desirable. The difference is simply the difference between what can be shared, and what cannot. You can share or replicate a great deal of another person's experiences, including her insights and moods. But you cannot share either her individual personhood or the concrete physical events that are registering with her as bodily sensations. Nor would you want to do this, because 'self-forgetfulness' would reduce the moral value of acts of empathy. Instead, Stein wants to show how that the individuation of ego into egos (plural) is not always apparent. Sometimes it is suspended. In other words, egos do not always appear as discrete multiples; there are indeed egoic experiences that are not personalized, owned by me. For example, Stein investigates the feelings of vertigo that can accompany watching an acrobat.

This has immense value, ethically. It assures that the present reality of the people around us are given as fundamentally as our own egos, because one has access to the experience of others, the 'experience of foreign consciousness'.


Stein tries early on in the essay to establish the phenomenology of empathy in terms of what she called 'primordiality'. To do so she described the process in relation to other acknowledged faculties of the human mind and imagination. One of these is memory (and, equally, expectation). The content of memory, Stein said, is completely non-primordial. Neither the events we remember nor the emotions these events evoked are present to us in time or space. On the other hand, fantasy is slightly dfferent. Although the events we imagine are not in any way present in space, they are present in time, and the emotions they evoke are primordial in the sense that we feel ourselves having those emotions in direct relation to the events we imagine, and not in relation to old emotions. Empathy is most like fantasy.

In empathy, we involuntarily place ourselves in the other person's shoes, and imagine our own emotions (which are primordial in time and effect) in response to the situation which is primordial in the form of the foreign-consciousness.


an evaluation

In the end, Stein's formulation weakens the moral value of empathy in so far as it is genuine experience of the pathos of the other in her technical formulation of the process. For she must say that we take the experience of the other and make it our own. Any primordial (and thus real, in a certain context) emotions we feel result from the imaginative process of placing our own ego in place of the foreign consciousness, rather than in authentic interaction between the other and the self.

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