June 21st, 2008

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; talking empathy; part two...

I had suggested in a response to idiotgrrl that perhaps I'd made a mistake in opening this discussion -- and Meg Umans answered with this comment:

"Yes, the topic has infinite potential for causing hurt feelings, and no, that's not a reason not to bring it up. I think most of the problem came from there not being a definition of empathy that everyone with whom you wanted to discuss the article saw, and agreed to use, whether or not it was their personal definition. Now, many of us read the article through our own filters of what empathy is, and then some of us tossed our definitions at you and at each other. Want to give us a definition to use, and a question or two to discuss?"

You would think that by this time I would have learned when to define my terms. [For that matter, you'd think I would have learned it while I was at the University of Chicago, where it was a commandment, and was drummed into us constantly.] It's not as though "empathy" is a word in constant daily use, so that it would have been reasonable for me to think it didn't need defining.

It would also have helped if I'd been more careful writing my post. For example, "empathy" is one topic; "how to express empathy" is another; "how to express empathy appropriately" is yet another. I didn't mention that. For another example, it's important to distinguish between empathy and sympathy, and to distinguish between the expression of empathy and the expression of sympathy. I didn't mention any of that either.

I guess I can start by stating my own definitions:

For me, empathy is the ability to share someone else's perceptions, if only temporarily. And for me, sympathy is the willingness to express concern for someone else's distress, even when you aren't able to share that person's perceptions.

I don't think I'm far enough along yet to pose any questions.