The topic of this study is a notion of empathy that is common in philosophy and in the behavioral sciences. It is here referred to as ‘the notion of empathy as emotional sharing’, and it is characterized in terms of three ideas. If a person, S, has empathy with respect to an emotion of another person, O, then (i) S experiences an emotion that is similar to an emotion that O is currently having, (ii) S’s emotion is caused, in a particular way, by the state of O or by S’s entertaining an idea of the state or situation of O, and (iii) S experiences this emotion in a way that does not entail that S is in the corresponding emotional state. The aim of the study is to clarify this notion of empathy by clarifying these three ideas and by tracing the history of their development in philosophy.
The study consists of two parts. Part one contains a short and selective account of the history in Western philosophy of the notion of empathy as emotional sharing. In chapter 2 Spinoza’s theory of imitation of affects and Hume’s theory of sympathy are presented. It is argued that these theories only exemplify the second idea characteristic of the notion of empathy as emotional sharing. Chapter 3 contains presentations of Adam Smith’s theory of sympathy, and Schopenhauer’s theory of compassion. These theories are shown to exemplify the second and the third idea. In chapter 4 there are presentations of Edith Stein’s description of Einfühlung, and Max Scheler’s account of empathy and fellow-feeling. It is shown that these accounts contain explicit specifications of the third idea, and it is argued that they also exemplify the second idea.
In part two, the three ideas are further clarified and the notion of empathy as emotional sharing is defined. Chapter 5 contains a discussion of the main contemporary philosophical analyses of empathy. Three different views are distinguished: one that construes empathetic emotions as emotional states, one that construes them as imagined emotions, and one that construes them as off-line emotions. The first two views are criticized and rejected. The third is accepted and further developed in chapter 6, which contains a general analysis of the emotions. A distinction is made between two ways of experiencing an emotion, and it is argued that it is possible to have the affective experience characteristic of a particular kind of emotional state without being in that kind of state. In chapter 7, a definition of ‘empathy’ is proposed. This definition contains specifications of the three ideas characteristic of the notion of empathy as emotional sharing, and it shows both how the empathizer’s emotion resembles the emotion of the empathee, and how this emotion is caused and experienced.