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WILL THE REAL EMPATHY PLEASE STAND UP? A CASE FOR A NARROW CONCEPTUALIZATION

Authors


  • Amy Coplan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University–Fullerton. Her major research interests include philosophy of emotion, aesthetics, and ancient Greek philosophy. She has published articles in these areas and is co-editor with Peter Goldie of Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Practices (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and is editor of a collection on the film Blade Runner (forthcoming in Routledge's Philosophers on Film series).

abstract

A longstanding problem with the study of empathy is the lack of a clear and agreed upon definition. A trend in the recent literature is to respond to this problem by advancing a broad and all-encompassing view of empathy that applies to myriad processes ranging from mimicry and imitation to high-level perspective taking. I argue that this response takes us in the wrong direction and that what we need in order to better understand empathy is a narrower conceptualization, not a broader one. I propose that empathy be conceptualized as a complex, imaginative process through which an observer simulates another person's situated psychological states while maintaining clear self–other differentiation. I defend my view through an examination of three processes: emotional contagion, a process of self-oriented perspective taking that I call “pseudo-empathy,” and empathy proper. Drawing on recent findings in social neuroscience, I highlight the differences among these processes and discuss conceptual, empirical, and normative reasons for keeping them theoretically and conceptually distinct.

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