Virtuous Empathy Study
The Virtuous Empathy group hosted two visitors this semester. Dr. Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD, who teaches in the Joint Medical Program, University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco, visited in February. She met with the Virtuous Empathy participants and presented a public lecture, "Rethinking Clinical Empathy."
Halpern, a philosopher and psychotherapist, revisited her previous research on empathy and therapy in her talk, "Rethinking Clinical Empathy." Focusing on the relationship between psychotherapists and patients, Halpern distinguished between "detached concern," in which therapists seek to classify a patient's condition, and a deeper account of empathy in which the therapist is emotionally engaged with and potentially transformed by his or her patients in a clinical setting. Understanding empathy as an emotionally driven form of cognition, Halpern devoted special attention to the role of engaged curiosity as crucial in overcoming the distance between therapists and patients. Among other things, well-cultivated curiosity in therapists evokes curiosity in patients themselves, thereby enabling them to examine their condition more reflectively and recover a stronger sense of agency and self-understanding. Such curiosity requires therapists to avoid stereotyping patients and their conditions, to place themselves in their patient's situations, and to make clear that they are listening attentively to their patients' stories.
In April the Virtuous Empathy group hosted Eva-Maria Engelen, a philosopher from the University of Konstanz, Germany, who met with the group, visited a class, and gave a public lecture, "Empathy and Imagination." Engelen's talk on April 19 was co-sponsored by the departments of Philosophy and Germanic Studies.
Central to Engelen's argument is the idea that the imagination, an integral component of empathy insofar as it enables us to simulate the cognitive and emotive states of others, is itself charged with affective content. According to Engelen, imagination is best understood as an intentional activity directed at conceiving possibilities. This ability, in turn, is informed by emotions that Engelen classified in two groups: basic emotions, which are innate and universal, and emotions that are acquired in a contingent way, as learned cultural traits. Both sets of emotions take on meanings when they are semanticized in the process of language acquisition. Empathy, Engelen noted, requires a repertoire of affective and cognitive processes, and such processes determine what we can imagine. In this way, empathy and imagination are intimately connected. But empathy and the imagination also have limits, limits that are a function of individual biological and other differences. "If you are a very empathetic person," she observed, "you have a very difficult life."