Closeness and distance in the nurse-patient relation. The relevance of Edith Stein's concept of empathy


Sylvia M. Määttä, Senior Lecturer and Head of Research, The School of Health Sciences, University College of Borås, SE-501 90 Borås, Sweden. Tel.: +46 33 435 40 00; fax: +46 33 435 40 03; e-mail:


Abstract  This paper emanates from the concept of empathy as understood by the German philosopher Edith Stein. It begins by highlighting different interpretations of empathy. According to the German philosopher Martin Buber, empathy cannot be achieved as an act of will. In contrast, the psychologist Carl Rogers believes that empathy is identical with dialogue and is the outcome of a cognitive act of active listening. The empathy concept of Edith Stein, philosopher and follower of Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, goes beyond these conflicting views and offers a more complex interpretation, with relevance for both healthcare and nursing education. When studying Stein's three-level model of empathy, a field of tension between perspectives of closeness and distance becomes apparent. The paper concludes by suggesting Stein's model of empathy as a strategy to overcome the tension and meet the demands of empathy.