Empathy and the self: constitutive or phenomenal?

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The problem of empathy has been typically founded on subjectivist theories of human being. Empathy was adopted into philosophy by the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who interpreted it as the solution to the problem of the foreign ego. Among phenomenologists, whose discipline is foundational to the concept of empathy, there is contention about the notion of empathy as an account of human being with one another. The 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger was particularly critical of the basis of the problem of empathy, because of its foundations on a supposed misrepresentation of human selfhood. The very problem of empathy is a central motif in phenomenology because it seeks to address the peculiar immediacy of the knowledge of other minds, as distinct but alike entities; yet, empathy is met with challenges particular to a subject-oriented framework, where there is posited to be the private, inner psychical life of the Self that is distinct from the Other. This chapter suggests that the notion of empathy is better based on approaches to human selfhood that by-pass the traditional subject-object binary. Specifically, I argue that Heidegger’s attempt to overcome ego theories of the self provides an ideal framework for positing empathy as a phenomenon of interpersonal understanding. This is juxtaposed against Husserl’s notion of empathy as constitutive of the relation of egos. I argue that Heidegger’s notion of the Self as arising out of everyday human ‘Being-with’ (Mitsein) renders obsolete the problem of empathy as it has been typically posed, so that Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (‘Being-there’) allows thinking about the formation of selfhood as a reciprocal and communal process and thus overcomes the solipsistic challenges to interpersonal understanding.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPromises, pedagogy and pitfalls
Subtitle of host publicationempathy's potential for healing and harm
EditorsQuanta Gauld, Pam Morrison, Veronica Wain
Place of PublicationBoston
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781848884281
ISBN (Print)9789004374744
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Community
  • Dasein
  • Ego
  • Empathy
  • Heidegger
  • Husserl
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Personal identity
  • Phenomenology
  • Self
  • Selfhood
  • Solipsism
  • Subjectivism
  • The other


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