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Empathy I April 28, 2006

Posted by The Truth in WARNING: Heavy Reading Ahead.

WARNING: HEAVY READING AHEAD. May cause indigestion, migrane, heart palpitations, unhealthy philosophical reflection, mental instability, drowsiness (DO NOT DRIVE OR OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY) or tired dry eyes. But you’re a champion if you try to understand it.

Sich in unsere Wegbereitern hineinversetzen, um einen Einblick in die Vergangenheit zu gewinnen.

Basically, empathy here has nothing to do with sympathising with anyone. It's the act of placing yourself in one's shoes, so that you can fully understand the conditions one currently finds him/herself in. The question now is: is empathy possible?

How many times people ask that you try to put yourselves in his/her shoes…but thinking carefully, do you really think you CAN do it? You'd probably sympathise with him/her, but will you react exactly how that particular person in question will react under the same conditions? I doubt so. When you say, 'i feel for you,' you actually mean that you think you understand what he/she is currently going through. You don't understand fully, however, what's going on.

There are basically two ways of examining this problem: philosophically and practically. Philosophically, there's this problem of other minds, that is, given that we are not psychic and that we do not possess the ability to communicate telepathically, is it possible for us to enter the minds of people we know well and perceive things through their thoughts? Wittgenstein and other philosophers considered it impossible, but yet many historians write their histeriographies as if they were psychic and had access to a time machine, that it was possible to enter the minds of people long dead and buried. They weren't even close to us, and yet these historians seek to unveil the truth by assuming that they understand them fully.

The second philosophical attack on this viewpoint of many historians is that communication is actually equivalent to translation. Everything the past communicated to us through artefacts, runic scripts, et cetera, has gone through some transcription by some historian, who applies techniques and mindsets taught today to something which has existed for millenia. All history is contemporary history, because what we are developing is not true history. We're just developing further theories and axioms about what the past ought to have looked like, just as we are probably bending the discovery of new artefacts to fit our image.

Criticism of literary textes has also come to be treated as an obstacle to empathy. If criticism is intended to make a literary text more understandable and at the same time reflect an appreciation of the text, then there also is the risk that criticism comes between the original meaning of the text and the reader. The meaning and intentions behind it are warped. So, to criticise or not to criticise? Perhaps there is a good point: by reducing the variation of viewpoints on any one text, criticism tends to lead to homogeneity in these discursive subjects. Maybe it serves the aims of modern-day education, which is probably to roll bright students full of facts off the production line with as high a turnover rate as possible; but to produce inquisitive minds…erm, not very useful.

Anyhows, let's look at empathy from a more down-to-earth viewpoint. Let's go to schools, where subjects like history are taught using a specific textbook as a model text. Let's assume that this textbook has to do with European history between the World Wars. This textbook probably draws its materials from other sources, like those thick archaic texts you find in university archives or in forgotten bookstores.

Either way, the content is filtered by the author of this textbook according to the examination requirements, which mean that the content is already reduced to whatever the syllabus demands, perhaps that the Germans were able to believe Hitler wholeheartedly because he was a strong, confident and charismatic leader when the Fatherland was at her knees. Anyway, the school textbook only provides one perspective, which all are expected to study religiously. In other words, when a student in Singapore is asked 'How did the Treaty of Versailles contribute to the outbreak of the Second World War?' he/she is not being asked for his/her own opinion, even if there's a true stroke of genius behind it. The context is not that of Europe in the 1920s, but that of the classroom.

To be continued…



1. oskar - February 9, 2007

It is possible.

Well, I don’t know how people think of course, though from the little survey I did at NUS, most people thought in words.

I think in pictures—yes, probably you’ve read this comment somewhere else before—and I did have an emo breakdown when I was reading some eyewitness account of the Rwandan genocide, which, I don’t think I ever recovered from.

Anyway, Margaret Atwood is good as well. As is Italo Calvino.

But I think you probably knew all that, already.

(oskar is the same as bogan (apprentice) as is kwokheng.)

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