Problematizing Empathy

Now that my PhD is coming to an end it is a good opportunity to briefly define some concepts and publish parts of my thesis. I will start with empathy to share with you some thoughts for which I based my work. Maybe you wonder why I took empathy as a main concept and what it means to me. Here are some paragraphs from my thesis:

Aaltola (2018)’s work on the varieties of empathy summarizes the different origins and assumptions around the same notion but from different disciplinary approaches. The discussion is fruitful and addresses different positions (the discussion is rooted in Hume/Kant discussion about morality and its roots on the emotional and rationality approaches). The varieties that she addressed are divided between those that pertain to the ‘theory of mind’ (the first four) and another that is approached from phenomenological accounts:
Projective empathy: Rooted in a self-directed inquiry by asking how ourselves would feel in the place of the other.
Simulative empathy: A form of simulation where it can be imagined how the other would feel.
Cognitive empathy: An inferential process of perception (rooted in Humean sympathy), an attempt to read the others’ emotions.
Affective empathy: In a form of resonation, in an unconscious process of letting others’ impressions to attune ourselves.
Embodied empathy: Is rooted in embodied interactions as the experiential capacity to align ourselves with others in a continuous process of co-constitution.
According to Aaltola, all these varieties of empathy, present different biases and conflicts that were criticized by different authors. For example, some can influence negatively people’s social behaviour in terms of manipulation, subjugation or coercion. It is also known that empathy is misunderstood as an all-positive feeling or, as a motivation for individual gratification. On the contrary, empathy is contradictory and doesn’t offer always positive feelings.

Although, critics were also raised on behalf of the perspective taken by fields such as biology, ethology, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary theories, in what Pedwell (2014) called ‘the sciences of empathy’, producing a direct translation to a discourse of the existence of a universal empathy, that can bridge social and cultural differences. The consequences of this universalism is the accentuation of post-darwinist ideas, coupled with racialism and sexism.
Thus, Pedwell’s vision of empathy is based on a ‘social and political relation involving the imbrication of cognitive, perceptual and affective processes’ (Pedwell, 2014, p. xi), implying that the intentions are part of such relations. As such, she argued that Empathy does not emerge or become intelligible outside the presence of other affects. In other words, Empathy is just another affective relation that ‘may correspond to a host of feelings, sensations and affective intensities, including a feeling of nothing at all’ (Pedwell, 2014, p. 20) (feelings and emotions will be discussed below).
Angeles and Pratt (2017) have recovered the notion of empathy that Pedwell analysed, and argued that empathy, ‘moves between people and things and places they inhabit. Rather than serving as a resource, tool or asset contained within individuals, it emerges in circulation.’ (Angeles & Pratt, 2017, p. 271) In this vein, it is unfair to treat Empathy as something that is possible to possess (G. R. E. Marshall & Hooker, 2016), but as events that occurs in form of encounters. And these events are precisely the way in which bodies can develop their capacities to affect and being affected and, to become together.

We should think how we think on empathy to thinking about the relations that are posible to made. An speculative activity would bring some ethical considerations regarding what is to belong, or what is to interact (while everything is action). What others considerations brings these varieties of empathy? Which other consecuences brought the idea of empathy until now? Who are we empathizing with? What does it means to feel empathy in terms of entanglement with other bodies? Which forces are enabled in empathic relations? And, which structures of feelings and domination are empathic relations enabling?

By reproblematizing empathy, we move our thought to what Puig de la Bellacasa (2017) calls Matters of Care. In the next delivery, I will try to describe this notion and relate it with the forms of empathy.


Aaltola, E., 2018. Varieties of empathy: moral psychology and animal ethics, London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Angeles, L.C. & Pratt, G., 2017. Empathy and Entangled Engagements: Critical-Creative Methodologies in Transnational Spaces. GeoHumanities, 3(2), pp.269–278.

Marshall, G.R.E. & Hooker, C., 2016. Empathy and affect: What can empathied bodies do? Medical Humanities, 42(2), pp.128–134.

Pedwell, C., 2014. Affective Relations: the Transnational Politics of Empathy, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M., 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.