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'Virtuous Empathy' symposium unites scholars from across the disciplines

Empathy was the central topic when more than 60 scholars and researchers gathered at Indiana University Bloomington for a recent symposium on "Empathy: Self, Society, Culture," sponsored by the Poynter Center and IU's Institute for Advanced Study.

And empathy of a sort was also very much in evidence in discussions that took place around three plenary addresses and 19 presentations, not to mention meals and informal gatherings. Ethicists, neuroscientists, historians, behavioral scientists, literary scholars and others -- all were eager to share perspectives on the topic, even to the extent of looking through the lens of other academic specialties.

Ethics Keynote

Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University presents research findings Nov. 11 in Woodburn Hall as part of the "Empathy: Self, Society, Culture" symposium, hosted by IU's Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions and the IU Institute for Advanced Study.

Print-Quality Photo

The Nov. 11-12 symposium, titled "Empathy: Self, Society, Culture," brought together experts from universities across the U.S. and from the Netherlands, London and Jerusalem. About half the participants were faculty members and graduate students from a number of Indiana University departments.

"Throughout the symposium, we found people referring to each other's presentations very frequently. And the presentations themselves were structured in a way that drew on a number of disciplines; they were models of interdisciplinary work," said Richard B. Miller, director of the Poynter Center. "The symposium attracted people who are themselves exemplars of a kind of new scholarship that aggressively tries to learn from and become fluent in other disciplinary methodologies and languages."

The symposium was a capstone event for "Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Perspectives," a two-year project sponsored by the Poynter Center and funded by the John Templeton Foundation as part of its "New Science of the Virtues" initiative at the University of Chicago. Nine faculty members, a postdoctoral fellow and a dissertation fellow from Indiana University are involved.

A yearlong IU interdisciplinary faculty seminar on empathy laid the groundwork for the research project, following conversations between Miller and Institute for Advanced Study Director John Bodnar about how the two research centers could collaborate.

The three plenary speakers exemplified the range of disciplines represented at the symposium:

  • Nancy Eisenberg, Regents Professor of psychology at Arizona State University, described longitudinal studies that trace the relationship between empathy-related responding in children to the development of positive moral and social behaviors. She showed that the correlation between feeling sympathy or emotional distress at the suffering of others and developing pro-social behaviors in later years is not as clear-cut as one might expect.
  • Carolyn Dean, a cultural historian and the John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University, spoke on "The Longing for Human Dignity and Its Relations to 'Virtuous' Empathy." Dean's research concerns such topics as the role of empathy in relation to the Holocaust.
  • Nancy Sherman, professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers, talked about the "moral wounds" that afflict soldiers from U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers and commanders often experience "empathic distress" in the form of guilt and shame over accidents, unavoidable collateral damage or simply having survived, Sherman said. She points to empathy as a way that damaged soldiers can recover their lost sense of goodness.

Panels and breakout sessions addressed topics such as cross-racial empathy in American fiction, the dark side of empathy, pain and awareness of shared humanity, American responses to the Rosenberg spy case, and empathy between jurors and victims' families in death-penalty trials. As far-ranging as the discussions were, Miller said, they suggested more areas for future examination -- such as the role of empathy in human-nonhuman relationships, the place of empathy in different cultures, and the relationship of empathy and beneficent behavior.

"And we've still just scratched the surface about empathy and politics," he said. "One of the best talks at the conference was about how Barack Obama has mobilized the concept of empathy in political rhetoric. And what's fascinating is how empathy is really a nonpartisan term -- nobody seems to want to discount it or trivialize it."

Miller said communication at the symposium was not only interdisciplinary but also strikingly intergenerational. Participants ranged from seasoned scholars to young assistant professors and doctoral students, "and all of them were talking to each other in a way that was entirely heedless of those differences," he said.

The success of the symposium, Miller added, confirms that empathy is a powerful topic for engaging careful study from a variety of perspectives, and it also suggests that the "Virtuous Empathy" project could serve as a model for interdisciplinary research on other subjects.

"We wanted to create a forum in which there was a very focused exchange of ideas across disciplinary boundaries, and where people were primed to learn from each other," Miller said. "And I think that happened in spades."

The symposium is expected to produce scholarly papers, possibly articles for popular media, and new areas for individual and shared research. And the larger empathy project will continue through the spring of 2012. Suzanne Keen, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University and the author of the book Empathy and the Novel, will lecture at IU Bloomington in February as part of the project's series of outside speakers.