The Nature of Empathy

In Felipe De Brigard & Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (eds.), Philosophy of Neursocience. MIT Press (forthcoming)

Authors
Shannon Spaulding
Oklahoma State University
Hannah Read
Tufts University
Abstract
Empathy is many things to many people. Depending on who you ask, it is feeling what another person feels, feeling bad for another person’s suffering, understanding what another person feels, imagining yourself in another person’s situation and figuring out what you would feel, or your brain activating as if you were experiencing the emotion another person is experiencing. These are just some of the various notions of empathy that are at play in philosophy, cognitive science, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and primatology. In this chapter, we will not stipulate a definition of empathy per se. Instead, we will review the development of empathy and purported mechanisms of empathy, which will allow us to tease apart various dimensions of empathy related concepts. Understanding the various dimensions of empathy provides context for some recent critiques of empathy as a moral compass and suggests several directions for future fruitful scientific and philosophical work on empathy.
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