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Empathy can, thus, be re-defined as a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as "objects" to which communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is wrong to limit empathy to communication of emotion. It is intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with empathee's emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).
This leads to important (and perhaps intractable) psychophysical question.
Intersubjectivity relates to external objects but subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding way THEY have been affected by objects.
Empathy relates to external objects (the Others) but subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding way THEY would have felt had they BEEN object.
This is no minor difference, if it, indeed, exists. But does it really exist?
What is it that we feel in empathy? Is it OUR emotions/sensations merely provoked by an external trigger (classic intersubjectivity) or is it a TRANSFER of object's feelings/sensations to us?
Such a transfer being physically impossible (as far as we know) - we are forced to adopt former model. Empathy is set of reactions - emotional and cognitive - to triggering by an external object (the other). It is equivalent of resonance in physical sciences. But we have NO WAY to ascertain "wavelength" of such resonance is identical in both subjects. In other words, we have no way to verify that feelings or sensation invoked in two (or more) subjects are one and same. What I call "sadness" may not be what you call "sadness". Colours have unique, uniform, independently measurable properties (like energy). Still, no one can prove that what I see as "red" is what another calls "red" (as is case with Daltonists). If this is true where "objective", measurable, phenomena are concerned - it is infinitely true in case of emotions or feelings.
We are, therefore, forced to refine our definition:
Empathy is a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as "objects" to which communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with empathee's emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).
The meaning attributed to words used by parties to intersubjective agreement known as empathy is totally dependent upon each party. The same words are used, same denotates - but it cannot be proven that same connotates, same experiences, emotions and sensations are being discussed or communicated.
Language (and, by extension, art and culture) serve to introduce us to other points of view ("what is it like to be someone else" to paraphrase Thomas Nagle). By providing a bridge between subjective (inner experience) and objective (words, images, sounds) -language facilitates social exchange and interaction. It is a dictionary which translates one's subjective private language to coin of public medium. Knowledge and language are, thus, ultimate social glue, though both are based on approximations and guesses (see George Steiner's "After Babel").
But, whereas intersubjective agreement regarding measurements and observations concerning external objects IS verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools (e.g., lab experiments) - intersubjective agreement which concerns itself with emotions, sensations and experiences of subjects as communicated by them IS NOT verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools. The interpretation of this second kind of agreement is dependent upon introspection and an assumption that identical words used by different subjects still possess identical meaning. This assumption is not falsifiable (or verifiable). It is neither true nor false. It is a probabilistic statement with no probabilities attached. It is, in short, a meaningless statement. As a result, empathy itself is meaningless.
In human-speak, if you say that you are said and I empathize with you it means that we have an agreement. I regard you as my object. You communicate to me a property of yours ("sadness"). This triggers in me a recollection of "what is sadness" or "what is to be sad". I say that I know what you mean, I have been sad before, I know what it is like to be sad. I empathize with you. We agree about being sad. We have an intersubjective agreement.
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101 .
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com