Empathy, Sensibility, and the Novelist's Imagination

In Patrik Engisch & Julia Langkau (eds.), The Philosophy of Fiction: Imagination and Cognition. Routledge. pp. 218-239 (2022)
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Abstract

This chapter weighs a challenge to the attractive notion that by enabling empathy, fiction affords wide-ranging knowledge of what others’ experiences are like. It is commonly held that ‘seeing the world through others’ eyes’ often requires the empathizer to undergo an imaginative shift in sensibility, and we might naturally think that fiction helps us to effect that shift. However, some recent work on empathy and imagination encourages the conclusion that we are actually rigidly restricted to our own sensibilities even in the wildest flights of imagination great literature can inspire. Drawing on the work of the novelist Zadie Smith, the chapter argues that while our imaginative capacities are not entirely unconstrained by our sensibilities, fiction can still help us to learn about a wide range of human experiences, including the experiences of people whose sensibilities substantially diverge from our own. Notably, fiction can work on our patterns of attention in such a way that we become temporarily ‘not ourselves.’

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Olivia Bailey
University of California, Berkeley

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