Which empathy? Limitations in the mirrored “understanding” of emotion

Synthese 175 (2):219-239 (2010)
Abstract
The recent discovery of so-called “mirror-neurons” in monkeys and a corresponding mirroring “system” in humans has provoked wide endorsement of the claim that humans understand a variety of observed actions, somatic sensations, and emotions via a kind of direct representation of those actions, sensations, and emotions. Philosophical efforts to assess the import of such “mirrored understanding” have typically focused on how that understanding might be brought to bear on theories of mindreading, and usually in cases of action. By contrast, this paper assesses mirrored understanding in cases of emotion and its import for theories of empathy and especially empathy in ethical contexts. In particular, this paper argues that the mirrored understanding claim is ambiguous and ultimately misleading when applied to emotion, partly because mirroring proponents fail to appreciate the way in which empathy might serve a distinct normative function in our judgments of what other people feel. The paper thus concludes with a call to revise the mirrored understanding claim, whether in neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy
Keywords Empathy  Mirroring  Mirror neurons  Mindreading
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