mind, matter, meaning and information

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empathy

The concepts of subject and object, consciousness and matter, are due to the interaction between simple sensory experience, empathy, and intellect. We begin with sheer physical experience, but then find ourselves reacting in a special sort of way to certain things, for instance crying and smiling with them (and them with us), which leads to the belief that they are like us “internally” and we are like them “externally”; in particular that they are experiencers, or subjects, or conscious; and with the development of that abstract category, we need another to match it: the object of which experiencers are primarily aware: matter. [A more detailed explanation is given in a section not yet online.]

Empathy is perhaps more mysterious than either the senses or the intellect. It has been defined in many ways, but can be considered responsible for the flocking, schooling and herding behaviour which in some species is so impressive: for instance where a large group of birds or fish seems to turn as one. [Plu90]

Theodor Lipps, a philosopher writing on aesthetic appreciation, believed that it is through empathy that we come to know others. [Wis90, page 19]

The psychologist G.W. Allport disagreed. [All37] He argued that knowledge about others must be something more than empathy.

A “proud” gesture, a “joyous” laugh, describe those qualities in another sentient being. So first there must be a realisation of the consciousness of the other. There can be no proud or joyous stones. [Wis90, page 19]

Allport is simply wrong here. It is a logical requirement that belief in the consciousness of another must precede any belief regarding the content of that consciousness, but we are not primarily logical creatures. In psychological terms, there is no reason why sharing of emotion should not come first, and intellectualisation regarding the metaphysical status of the empathic stimulus, later. Allport has it back-to-front: he thinks that he must know that the other is conscious before he can empathise with them, but in fact he only wishes to attribute consciousness because he tends to empathise. The primary distinction between people and stones is not intellectual but emotional, not objective but subjective. Or rather, intersubjective.

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Copyright © 1998—2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:35:23 by Robin Faichney .