A Historical Epistemology of Empathy

Thu., Jan. 16, 2014, 4:00pm

Eric Johnson, Department of History, "A Historical Epistemology of Empathy"
Thursday, January 16, 4:00 - 5:30 pm, Buchanan Tower 1197


Much overlooked in Darwin's theory of natural selection is his argument for the origin of social instincts that gave rise to shared common feelings between animals in a group. For Darwin, the “moral sense” had its foundations in the pleasure an animal felt from their social community and their identification with the internal state of others, or perspective-taking. From this followed the emergent instinct to “perform various services for them,” a trait that was promoted through natural selection when groups with a high level of reciprocation “would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.” This concept subsequently formed the basis for Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 work Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, first appearing as a series of articles in The Nineteenth Century beginning in 1890, and culminating in his posthumous work Ethics: Origin and Development in 1924. Both Darwin and Kropotkin emphasized that adopting the perspective of another was a natural evolutionary strategy and formed the basis for the modern conceptions of social duty and justice. However, the work on this question by early twentieth-century philosophers and psychologists was stymied by a lack of precision and an emphasis on Freudian interpretations that resisted empirical verification. It was only in the post-war era that experimental psychologists such as Robert E. Miller, Jules Masserman, and Stanley Wechkin systematically investigated perspective-taking in captive primates to provide the theoretical distinctions and empirical foundations that these humanistic disciplines lacked. In a series of papers published between 1959 and 1964, the evolutionary basis for empathy posited by Darwin and Kropotkin was given empirical support when monkeys were found to recognize the facial expression of distress in others and acted to reduce their pain, even at a cost to themselves. During the same period in which the humanities and social sciences were turning away from Darwinian interpretations of human behavior, it was those who returned to Darwin that empathy was revived as a serious academic subject.