CFP: What is empathy and what do we need it for? (Södertörn University, 16-18 Aug 2012)

The call for abstracts to the International Conference “What is empathy and what do we need it for? at one of the Balphin partner universities.

Keynote speakers:

Lou Agosta, University of Chicago
Thomas Fuchs, University of Heidelberg
Jodi Halpern, University of California Berkeley
Matthew Ratcliffe, Durham University
Jan Slaby, Freie Universität Berlin

At Södertörn University August 16-18, 2012, arranged by Centre for Studies in Practical Knowledge.

The last ten years we have witnessed an exploding interest in the phenomenon of empathy. The wave of empathy studies is psychology, philosophy, psychiatry and other disciplines is linked to a parallel theoretical interest in the phenomena of feeling, selfhood, inter-subjectivity and morality, but also to practical attempts to understand and improve meetings between workers and clients in different professions, such as health care professions, teaching professions, psychotherapy or social work. To be empathic is increasingly viewed as a must for any person working in cooperation with and/or helping other people, although, as is also pointed out, the empathy must be professional in character to not produce destructive intimacy or burn out. The question of what “professional empathy” might be and how it is possible, or, indeed, fruitful to attain such ability is an interesting one in itself.

The theoretical underpinnings of empathy studies roughly divide it into two camps: the theory-theory approaches, and the simulation-theory approaches. The ideas that to have a theory of mind or an ability to put oneself in the shoes of another are necessary for empathy can serve either as philosophical clarifications of empathy or as taken for granted starting points of the empathy studies; in both cases, however, it is becoming increasingly evident by way of empirical results as well as conceptual clarification that the two approaches are relying on ideas of inter-subjective understanding which do not get the relationships between feeling, thought and action in empathy exactly right. To be empathic does not seem to consist in being able to think that the other is like me, or imagining what it is like to be him, in feeling or acting on his behalf. It is true that most adults that show empathy are able to think and imagine that the other is like me and what it would be like to be in his predicament, but this is neither necessary nor sufficient for being empathic. Rather these two abilities can reinforce and develop an empathic attitude which in its basic form is developed as a feeling in its own right.

To talk about affective and cognitive empathy as two parts or stages of the phenomenon does not solve the issue of how the two belong together, and it, indeed, seems to leave the account of action (acting in order to help the person one feels and understands is suffering) out of empathy altogether. Most suffering persons would surely prefer a fellow being who actually does something for them in contrast to just telling them that they understand and feel sorry for them. This issue connects the discussion of what empathy is to ethics. Is empathy a corner stone of morality, perhaps a necessary constituent in the makeup of every moral subject, or is it rather a bad substitute for ethical concepts such as respect and responsibility, allowing people to think and say that they really know what it is to be in the position of the other, and perhaps, also, to feel sorry for the other rather than doing anything about his suffering?

In the conference we want to gather academics and practitioners from different disciplines who try to move beyond (not beside) the theory-theory and the simulation-theory approaches to empathy. We want to address the question of what empathy is from an empirical as well as theoretical perspective, and we want to connect the issue to what role empathy serves in the development of human beings as well as the exercise of human based professions. Abstracts for presentations addressing these issues and not exceeding 600 words should be sent to the conference secretary no later than the 15 of April. Final program will be distributed in May.

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