“I Have No Idea How You Feel”

Former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams lectures on the paradoxes of empathy.

Rowan Williams

“I feel your pain,” then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton famously declared in 1992, and empathy—coined from the German “Einfühlung,” meaning “feeling into”—is a popular concept. Empathy entails compassion and understanding, the taking of another’s problems as one’s own. Evil itself, argued autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, is a matter of “empathy erosion,” the unwillingness or inability to understand the plight of others. “Empathy is like a universal solvent,” he wrote in The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. “Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.”

Despite that optimism, “The Paradoxes of Empathy” was the title of the 2014 Tanner Lectures on Human Values delivered at Harvard last week by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. Fellow feeling alone, he argued, cannot serve as a solution to the world’s problems. “An ethical discourse which gives central place to empathy as emotional identification draws our attention away from questions of culture and power,” he told a packed audience in Paine Hall. “Ethics isn’t just about single acts of evil or virtue. Evil is not overcome merely by identifying and correcting the dysfunction of individual brains. It’s inseparably bound in to what is made possible or impossible by structures of habit, belief, and advantage.”

To define empathy, he turned instead to the work of philosopher Edith Stein (1891-1942; canonized by the Catholic Church as Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross), a student of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. The self is a “zero point of orientation” from which one perceives the world, Stein had argued, and empathy lies in the recognition that every other person is another such zero point—“the awareness of other bodies as alive in the way that my body is alive.” Such awareness entails a self-conscious realization that any single perspective, including one’s own, is necessarily incomplete: “One of the things about bodies,” Williams noted, “is that you can’t see your back, not to mention your eyes.”

Empathy, therefore, is grounded in humility. Quoting Stein, he said, “The empathic position is one in which we know that we are not the other.” “If we were here to speak of an erosion of empathy, it would be more than a failure to appreciate the intensity of another’s experience,” said Williams. “It could just as easily be the overeager appropriation of another’s experience and the denial of its difference and its contingency.” He cautioned against a colonizing mindset that too readily collapses the distance between one’s self and another; empathy, in Stein’s definition, is “corrigible, always something to be learned.” “The ethically significant expression of this sort of empathy would be in saying not, ‘I know how you feel,’” he said, “but, ‘I have no idea how you feel.’” 

Williams ended by arguing for empathy as skill or habit rather than a neurological capacity, a process of learning to grasp “the fluidity and ambiguity of another’s communication, and thus something of the nature of their interiority.” “It is at one level true that empathic awareness is the basic condition necessary for resolving human conflict, but not in the sense that emotional identification with the other provides solutions,” he said in conclusion. “It is as and when we understand ourselves as dependent, as already seen and engaged with in our bodily limitedness, that we at least begin to look critically at the unexamined agenda of self-regard, individual or collective, and the myths of self-sufficient identity that we treasure. That is the beginning, not the end, of the labor we need to find how to speak with each other, and shape a fresh cultural environment in which justice is more likely to be done.”

Videos of the 2014 Tanner Lectures and the accompanying faculty responses are available through the Mahindra Humanities Center. The Tanner Lectures are a collection of educational and scientific discussions relating to human values. Conducted by leaders in their fields, the lectures are presented at a number of educational facilities around the world.

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