The Empathic Imagination

The critic and novelist Cynthia Ozick tells us, "Metaphor relies on what has been experienced before and therefore transforms the strange into the familiar. Without metaphor we cannot imagine what it is to be someone else, we cannot imagine the life of the Other" (1991).

The extent to which the self can enter into the other can be seen as an expression of the freedom of the imagination. In imagining the other person, the self is constrained by its own vital needs, and the degree to which it is constrained will in turn limit the complexity that characterizes the image of the other. I can illustrate this by referring to the empathic imagination and contrasting empathy to a phenomenon psychoanalysts have called projective identification. (In the discussion that follows I will restrict the term empathic imagination to refer only to people, and not to literature or inanimate works of art.) We usually think of empathy as a form of voluntary imagination in which there is a sense of the self as agent. The empathic imagination is usually experienced as a kind of pleasurable bonding with the other. It relies on metaphor, for within an empathic connection with the other there is a play of similarity and difference based on metaphor. Empathy requires this play of similarity and difference: one recognizes a sense of identity with the other while at the same time retaining one's sense of self. If this play of similarity and difference is absent, one may experience a sense of total identification with the other, which in some instances may create anxiety. This absence of meta-phoric play of similarity and difference can again be linked to trauma. In individuals and families that have been severely traumatized, metaphor becomes degraded: instead of feeling an empathic connection to a parent, a traumatized individual may feel as if he is his parent. This is especially evident in children of Holocaust survivors (Bergmann and Jucovy 1982, Grubrich-Simitis 1984).

The term empathy is a late-nineteenth-century word, a translation of the German term Einf├╝hlung, introduced by the German psychologist Theodor Lipps to denote the projection of the self into the object of perception. For Lipps, the original objects of empathy were works of art. Yet the idea of the self entering into the object of perception did not originate with Lipps, as it can be traced back to Vico. In Isaiah Berlin's account (1969), Vico believed that we can understand the past because others' experience is sufficiently woven into one's own experience and can be revived by means of imagination. Vico was the first to discover that meaning is constructed through imaginatively entering into the minds of others.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had read and admired Vico and was probably influenced by him, described imagination as a coalescence of the subject and the object: "Into the simplest seeming 'datum' a constructing, forming activity from the mind has entered. And the perceiving and the forming are the same. The subject (the self) has gone into what it perceives, and what it perceives is, in this sense, itself. So that the object becomes the subject and the subject the object" (Richards 1969, p. 57). Coleridge is saying, in effect, that we should not take the object as something given to us but as something formed through our imagination.

Coleridge's description of imagination as the self entering into what it perceives comes close to our contemporary understanding of empathy. This transitory loss of distinction between self and other also suggests that the roots of empathy may be found in the mirroring of feeling that occurs between mother and child, which may be accompanied by a temporary sense of merging.

Psychoanalysts also understand empathy as a partial or transitory identification, a process in which the self enters into the other. However, there is an important addition: psychoanalysts have observed that the empathic process can also be involuntary and unconscious. In 1926 Helene Deutsch noted that the analyst's unconscious perception of the patient's feelings became transmuted into an inner experience of the analyst.3 Empathy leads to a pleasurable sense of affective bonding with the other. If, however, the other person unconsciously manipulates our imagination and we do not sense an identification, this is experienced as unplea-surable, and accordingly we do not label such a feeling as empathic.

It appears that we do not have a word that denotes this total, conscious and unconscious, affective impact that one mind has upon another. As I noted, the term empathy usually denotes the pleasurable aspect of entering into the mind of another. However, we are all well aware of the fact that the other's unconscious intentionality may evoke in us a variety of negative feelings, such as anxiety, guilt, or rage. Empathy should include the recognition within oneself of negative feelings toward the other. Empathy may result in a modification of the self as the consequence of knowledge of the other. One's sense of self is impacted and altered in the process of assimilating the feelings of the other. Affective knowledge of the other alters the self, and accordingly the self accommodates itself to what is perceived, very much as in Piaget's (1954) description of the child's construction of external reality.

This view is consistent with biological intentionality. Future intent is communicated to another person by means of emotional signals. Emotions are present whether or not the individual providing the signal is conscious of what they are feeling. From the standpoint of the recipient of the feeling, the individual has unconsciously directed the recipient's imagination. But unlike in the examples provided by Scarry and Zeki, where the imagination is expanded and intensified, when the imagination is directed by the process of projective identification, the result will be a constriction or foreclosure of the imagination, as I shall now describe.

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