Empathy and Human Experience

Evan Thompson

in Science, Religion, and the Human Experience

Published in print May 2005 | ISBN: 9780195175325
Published online February 2006 | e-ISBN: 9780199784707 | DOI:
 							Empathy and Human Experience

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This essay considers empathy as a central feature of the human experience in which to ground science and religion. Thompson draws upon cognitive science, contemplative psychology, and phenomenological philosophy in considering empathy as the dynamic coupling of self and other, as a basic intersubjective dimension, one which precludes distinction of “inner” and “outer” realities. Phenomenological inquiry suggests four aspects to empathy: involuntary coupling of self and other, imaginary transposition of oneself to the place of the other, interpretation of oneself as Other to the other and vice versa, and moral perception of other as person. These capacities exist wholly or in part in specific instances; all of these elements are found in human developmental psychology, and come together in the lived bodily experience and via language. Thompson turns to Buddhist contemplative psychology as a means of discussing implications for nonduality of self and other. He analyzes the 8th century Way of the Bodhisattva, which argues that notions of “self” and “other” have no independent existence, but are conceptually based. Thus, Buddhism as a “middle way” negotiates between the conventional truth that we have bounded selves, and the ultimate truth that self has no bounds. Thompson finally turns to consider implications for cognitive science, arguing that it tends to rely on third-person theories and models. For Thompson, the very fact of experience suggests the importance of adding first-person models to develop scientific accounts of consciousness. These first-person methods not only provide authentic experience, but afford the kind of reflective distancing necessary to process the complex set of interactions that intersubjective experience affords.

Keywords: Buddhism; cognitive science; consciousness; empathy; experience; phenomenology; religion; science

Chapter.  11092 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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