Towards a new definition of Empathy

Manuel Portela
3 min readNov 5, 2018


This is my third post about my research on geographies of empathy during my PhD. You can find how I problematized empathy, and how we can adopt a perspective of care and concern in previous posts.

In this occasion, I want to reflect how does empathy have many forms and why is it necessary to acknowledge them. I believe, that, among the varieties of empathy addressed by Aaltola (2018) as a disciplinary standpoint, the forms in which bodies relate to each other are also forms of empathy, in more or less affective ways, but always from a more-than-representational approach.

Thus, to avoid any misunderstanding, we should think empathy in the in-between, as a relational phenomena. It goes on the contrary to what was been thought for decades. In clinical psychology, it is said that empathy is something that can be hold, as a skill, to empathize with others (Marshall and Hooker, 2016). This mode of thinking reproduce subject-object dichotomies. This idea was translated to fields related to technology and new media, with serious consequences (Bloom, 2017). Instead, I invite to think of Empathy in the plane of immanence.

I took from Pedwell (2014) empathy as an affective translation. That is to say, that bodies affect and affected. By diminishing or enhancing their capacities, bodies are in constant affective relation with others. Bodies transit in a flow within intensities that attune them to specific structures of feelings and affective atmospheres — as collective forms of affects (Anderson, 2014).

Following Anderson and Pedwell, I address empathy as a conjugation of multiple ontologies to address the issue of what holds us together in the world, or how do bodies are in a constant, procedural state of ‘becoming together’. I inscribed empathy as a research process to unveil, in the form of speculation, different approaches that permitted us to put under question certain forms of relations and their ontologies.

The forms of empathy that I identified are the following:

  1. An aesthetic experience: It is embodied as a visceral relation with other bodies.
  2. A form of attentiveness: In a way to be permeable by the other bodies’ capacities of affect.
  3. A mutual attunement: As a corporeal and sensory relation with other bodies and the environment.
  4. An emotional bonding: Shared experiences as intensities of feelings.
  5. A form of affect in circulation: As the effect caused by the affects in movement and transition.
  6. A becoming together: Following Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, we become part of it with other bodies and in relation with the others.
  7. An event in-between places: As a matter of conviviality in space and time.
  8. A mediation between structures of feeling and feelings of structure: Following Anderson and Pedwell, how reality is manifested as emotionally structured.
  9. An ordering force: As a matter of ordering the spaces and interactions.
  10. As affective translation: Following Pedwell’s definition of empathy.
  11. A Co-Performance: Following Gillian Rose, producing practices and habits together.

With the analysis of empathic relations and the forms of empathy, I invited readers of my thesis to think the future of cities in these terms. We know how to map what is tangible, what already existed, but we lack the capacities to map what is in front of ‘what is coming’. An ethic and political approach to smart cities should have empathies as drivers. The forms of empathy are not exhausted but can work as a map of how conviviality of bodies, discourses and structures are immanently reconfigured in a post-human era.


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

Anderson, Ben. 2014. Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Bloom, Paul. 2017. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Random House.

Marshall, George Robert Ellison, and Claire Hooker. 2016. “Empathy and Affect: What Can Empathied Bodies Do?” Medical Humanities42 (2): 128–34. doi:10.1136/medhum-2015–010818.

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



Manuel Portela

HCI, STS, Urban Studies or something in between. @geoC_EU PhD Candidate at @geotecUJI. Sarcastic, Skeptic, almost an idiot. From Buenos Aires, living abroad.