Friday, July 17, 2009

empathy, sympathy and forgiveness

I don’t think that “to understand is to forgive” on a number of grounds. To understand is to understand. Understanding may yield forgiveness or it may equally yield more intransigent condemnation, depending on what gets understood. Moreover, one might forgive without understanding as in “I don’t know why you did that, but I forgive you.” On these bases, amongst others, it seems plain to me that we can understand what we don’t like and not have that understanding constitute our empathy.

If we want to get away from circular arguments, empathy means x, therefore x is empathy, we need to experience the meaning of the word empathy and let its connotations flow through our minds. So I tend to think it’s circular for a shrink to say when she treats a patient who she understands but does not sympathize with—engaged detachment—she’s empathizing with her patient. Her unexamined premise forces a particular conclusion when the issue is: what is the meaning of the concept the premise assumes a certain meaning for.

From my own thinking about empathy, and when I let the suggestiveness of the word drift through my mind, I tend to think it’s core is sympathetic identification, which is different from, and more encompassing than, sympathy alone and is different from, and more encompassing than, understanding alone.

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