At the conception of phenomenology, studies in psychology and natural sciences were attempting to prove that philosophy was a thing of the past

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At the conception of phenomenology, studies in psychology and natural sciences were attempting to prove that philosophy was a thing of the past. In order to maintain that philosophy was something deserving of attention and study, Edmund Husserl and others who followed his lead, had to prove their studies and methods of studies were entirely different from psychology. As time passed, undertones of anti-psychologism and anti-naturalism became more present in philosophy as a result (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008). Through the twentieth century, technology began to improve and, as expected the cognitive sciences along with it. With the inception of cognitive sciences, philosophers put forth a few proposals for a philosophy of mind that gained traction with the emerging fields. Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi describe the models and proposals as:

… Philosophers began to propose various models of the mind: at first, an orthodox computational model mainly based on computer sciences, then a connectionist model mainly based on neurosciences, and recently dynamical or even enactive and embodied models based on various research fields such as robotics or an ecological approach. (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008)

As the relationship between philosophy, more specifically phenomenology, and cognitive sciences grew stronger, phenomenological methods of inquiry shifted from a transcendental method to a more naturalized method. This gives rise to many questions namely; is it possible to separate phenomenology and psychology, or are the two fields more deeply intertwined than originally anticipated? In this paper I will argue that much of the research involved in the cognitive sciences, specifically social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience, use transcendental phenomenological theories that have been naturalized as the foundation for their research in understanding ourselves, the other, and our relation to the other. I will start by shedding light on what it means to naturalize phenomenology by discussing its difference from traditional transcendental phenomenology. I will then discuss Edmund Husserl’s theory of embodied experience and kinesthetic cues as a way of understanding intersubjectivity.1 After discussing Husserl’s theory of embodied experience as the scaffolding for how we understand ourselves in the world, I will discuss neurophenomenology and its relation to neuroscience—specifically looking at how empathy relates to neuroscientific studies. I will then use the topic of empathy which has been widely disputed in phenomenology, psychology and neuroscience to show that phenomenology serves as the jumping-off-point for questions related to consciousness and the responsibility to the other. In order better to understand the source of empathy research, I will discuss Max Scheler, Edith Stein and Maurice Merleau-Ponty specifically their theories on empathy. I will then discuss empathy research in clinical and social psychology while making references to the ideas of the main transcendental phenomenologists presented earlier to show that phenomenology does indeed have its place in the natural sciences today.

Both the cognitive sciences and also phenomenology have played a role in the advancement of the other discipline (i.e. cognitive sciences cannot gain ground scientifically without bringing phenomenological questions with them). One particular way that phenomenology has influenced or grown with cognitive sciences is the view of naturalism in phenomenology. Though many have seen Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology as a critique of naturalism, it can also be understood as one that develops alongside with naturalism. Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology does not say that naturalism is bad, but rather that they are two opposing views that develop together with different end-goals in their phenomenological method of understanding consciousness. The transcendental phenomenologist sees the essence of what we experience as the scaffolding for describing and analyzing the phenomena of what we experience. As it relates to the problem of consciousness, transcendental phenomenology uses the theory of intentionality, which essentially states that we are always conscious of something.2 Naturalizing phenomenology in the simplest terms means to attempt to tackle the meta-physical problems (i.e. consciousness) and reduce them to concrete phenomena explained and analyzed through concrete processes in the mind (Gallagher, 2012). While this may seem to contradict what Husserl says regarding the understanding of the “essence” of our experience, both naturalism and transcendentalism stem from the same thought. Instead of seeing naturalism as a method that holds back phenomenology, it can be seen as a method of understanding that brings the cognitive sciences and phenomenology closer together so they may develop and grow while simultaneously challenging the ideas of the other.

Following this trend, it becomes clearer that phenomenology has an overlap with the new philosophy of the mind based around theories of embodiment, embedded, extended and enactive character of mind.3 In a phenomenological sense, though, what is embodiment? Embodiment, according to Husserl (1925), is the scaffolding through which consciousness can be understood. He goes about discussing this using four main distinctions to make the theory of embodiment important and distinct from the natural sciences. Firstly, he must bring the concepts and previously understood assumptions about the body to light; secondly he brackets the idea of the natural body as a vehicle for our minds as something that can be dismissed for the idea of “embodied personhood;” thirdly, he describes phenomenologically how embodied personhood is structured; and finally, that our intersubjectivity must be based in a theory of kinesthetic consciousness.4

Husserl (1970) lays out the idea of kinesthetic consciousness by proposing that we move our bodies in specific ways and our intersubjective experiences with other embodied persons allows us to see the others as like us. Therefore, the way we make sense of ourselves amongst others in the world is constantly an ongoing process and is one that will never end regardless of our motility. The body becomes the median through which something or someone is experienced as such.

How does the theory of embodiment contribute or attempt to answer the problem of consciousness and make for the foundation of study in cognitive sciences? Why is there a shift from the transcendental view of intersubjectivity to a naturalized view of intersubjectivity? How does Husserl’s theory of embodiment allow us understand the mental state of another? Before we answer we must understand the origin of embodiment and intersubjectivity from Max Scheler who says:

For we certainly believe ourselves to be directly acquainted with another person’s joy in his laughter, with his sorry and pain in his tears, with his shame in his blushing, with his entreaty in his outstretched hands, with his love in his look of affection, with his rage in the gnashing of his teeth, with his threats in the clenching of his fist, and with the tenor of his thoughts in the sound of his words…. Thus I do not simply see another person’s eyes, for example; I also see that he is looking at me and even that ‘he is looking at me as though he wished to avoid my seeing that he is looking at me’ (Scheler 1913/1954, p. 260-61).

In the quote above, Scheler puts forth a similar idea to Husserl that we notice others as expressive phenomena, but Husserl removes the mystery of how we understand it.5

Husserl suggests that our kinesthetic experience, or “…the sensory experience of one’s own movement” (Gallagher, 2005, p. 97) serves as the framework for understanding others and puts this idea forward in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. He claims this experience of centrality of kinesthetics to be a matter of “pairing” (Husserl, 1970, p. 112). Pairing allows us to understand that we share the world with others who are “like us,” but how does it cue us into the understanding of another’s emotional or mental state? Husserl says that essentially, “… I never have anything like an experience of the other that is exactly like that I have of myself… to experience the other ‘as other’ is to have an experience of the limits of my own experience” (Simmons and Benson 2013, p. 26).

This embodied experience of a feeling phenomenologically shifts the understanding of how the world is experienced by allowing some possibilities of being-in-the-world and disallowing others. As Matthew Ratcliffe explains, “So a bodily experience is also an experience of one’s relationship with the world and a sense of being in the presence of other [experiences]…” (Ratcliffe 2013, p. 276).

Contemporary research in cognitive sciences has used phenomenological foundations related directly to Husserl’s kinesthetic cues and intersubjectivity as a form of social cognition, or other-oriented cognition. Studies in cognitive neuroscience show the specifics areas of the brain that are active when experiencing the joy or pain of others (Morelli, Sacchet, & Zaki, 2015).6 Simply studying our relation to others is not enough for naturalized phenomenology. We must also have a way of explaining and analyzing the data present from the phenomenon regarding our relation to others. This phenomenological understanding of our relation to others is best explored through neurophenomenology.

Neurophenomenology is defined as, “… a research strategy in cognitive science that has been developed in order to reciprocally elucidate neuroscientific data (hence “neuro”) and descriptive first-person reports the interpretation of which is informed by phenomenological analysis (hence “phenomenology”)” (Klaasen, Reitveld, & Topal, 2009, p. 59). This concept of neurophenomenology is similar to a dynamic systems theory, which boils down to the mathematics and conceptual framework for interpreting the data of the phenomenon. The main goal of neurophenomenology is, “… to realize an integration of phenomenological analysis of experience and empirical work in neuroscience by using dynamic systems theory” (Klaasen et al., 2009, p. 60).

Simply put, neurophenomenology attempts to add the fist-person perspective to what cognitive sciences can only understand from the third-person perspective. In this way, neurophenomenology can add and quantify the “lived experience” of being-in-the-world that cognitive sciences cannot. The goal then becomes to, “… wed the first with the third-person by the use of these standard tools [fMRI magnets, eye-trackers, computer software that records reaction times in behavioral experiments]; and this is an embodied cognitive science precisely because our bodily experience creates or forms the pre-reflective structures that shape and suffuse first-person conscious experiences” (Rupert, forthcoming, p. 22).

How can neurophenomenology capture the first-person perspective in scientific practice? A possible answer comes from a case study where subjects view a computer screen with two dots, one that was not fused and one that could be fused. The participants were asked to press a button when the hidden dot that was once fused appeared and then they were asked to reflect on their mental status before and during the experiment. The results showed that the participants self-reported frames of mind, which were categorized, accounted for the difference in their reaction times to seeing the dot defuse from the other figure and that those categories statistically correlated with long and short-range firing of the EEG corresponding to specific electrodes place on the participants. Those “firings” also produced distinct EEG patterns that were evoked from the figures in the experiment (Lutz, Lachaux, Martinerie & Valera 2002). The descriptions of the participants’ feelings in the moment of experience capture the first-person perspective and thus we can concretely understand consciousness as something tangible.

More information on our understanding of the other comes from studies in neuroscience. Recent studies in neuroscience found mirror neurons in the premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somatosensory cortex and inferior parietal cortex.7 These mirror neurons are activated under two specific conditions: when someone intentionally engages in an action, and when someone watches the other person intentionally engage in that specific action (Kohler, Keysers, Umiltà, Fogassi, Gallese & Rizzolatti, 2002).8

The finding of mirror neurons confirms the phenomenological theory of embodiment as a theory of social perception or social cognition. This theory of social cognition states that we respond to others and their reactions in a situation, differently than if we were to see an object or a person. This is different than the idea of person and object perception in that it involves the response that stems from the perception of the person in a situation. For example, returning to the quote above from Scheler, “… he is looking at me as though he wished to avoid my seeing that he is looking at me” (Scheler, 1913/1954, p. 261). Perceiving that he wished he had not seen me realizing that he was looking at me is seeing the person as neither an object nor useful, but producing a specific feeling created by the interaction with the person giving themselves as expressing a phenomena in the social situation. Studies in neuroscience regarding the understanding of emotions in others show that there are specific areas of the brain that are responsible for understanding the emotions of others and emoting the same response in our own mind (Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Mazziotta, & Lenzi, 2003).9

In the phenomenological theory of mind, there are mainly two ways in which we perceive an action or an emotion of the other. The first is the “theory theory,” (TT) which states “… our understanding of others relies on taking a theoretical stance toward them, specifically by appealing to a particular theory, namely, folk psychology, for our understanding of others” (Gallagher, 2005, p. 98). In this sense, TT is best understood as simply putting ourselves in the other’s shoes and understanding their actions as specifically correlated to an emotion because of theories that have been studied by other psychologists. In contrast to TT, simulation theory (ST) states, “… our understanding of others is based on self-simulating their beliefs, desires, or emotions” (Gallagher, 2005, p. 98).

The phenomenological theory of empathy asks the questions of consciousness as it relates to our relationship with the other from the first-person perspective or “from within,” whereas the sciences of psychology and neuroscience attempt to answer the questions “from without” (Bornemark, 2013, p. 259). Unlike TT and ST, phenomenological theory allows us to feel with the other in the same way the other does.10 This phenomenological theory allows us to understand the other in a way that we come to understand ourselves by analyzing through the first and second person perspective. Why is it so important that we understand the other from a first and second perspective view? Simply put, those two perspectives allow for us to add the “lived experience” of the other so that we can then understand the other’s consciousness as something that can be examined and naturalized.

If we contrast empathy through both Husserlian phenomenology and naturalized phenomenology, we would see the main difference is, “… knowing that another person is an experiencing person, and knowing the specific content of the other person’s experiences” (Bornemark, 2013, p. 260). This differentiation is crucial in understanding empathy phenomenologically for the following reason. In knowing that someone is an experiencing person, we only have the knowledge that there is an experience of some kind in regards to that person, but if we aim to understand the specific content of the person experiencing something as experienced, we can come to a better understanding of the individual differences in an intersubjective framework. As I have mentioned before, Husserl (1913) views embodied experience as the central focal point of how we understand others and ourselves where experience is broken down to meaningful sensations (Bornemark, 2013). Why is empathy an important connection between phenomenology and cognitive sciences? In order to answer this question I will use the works of Edith Stein and her phenomenological understanding of empathy.

Stein was one of the first to understand empathy through a phenomenological lens. First she defines empathy as “an intentional state in which both other persons and the mental states of other persons are given to us” (McDaniel, 2014, p. 3). Stein uses empathy as a way of understanding others even though we may have distinct emotional or mental states from the other. She also uses empathy as the grounds for knowing the how and why we are individuals within a group dynamic.11

Phenomenologically speaking, empathy has two main aspects; the first is that empathy is a distinctive intentional state, “an experience of one’s own that presents another experience as someone else’s” (Ratcliffe, 2013, p. 270). The second aspect of empathy it that is perceptual, meaning it is an act of perceiving another and his or her emotional state as wholly other and not stemming from the self. This is where the overlap with Husserl, Stein, Scheler and Merleau-Ponty is most visible. For Husserl, our embodied experience and kinesthetic cues allow us to understand the other as feeling a specific way, but it does not tell us what allows us to understand why they are feeling that way based on their actions. Stein on the other hand, makes very clear that the reason we understand that others are present and the others are presenting a mental state is because of empathy (Stein, 1989, p. 11). For Scheler, the feeling of empathy is the feeling of oneness with the other and experiencing their emotions as entirely other, and in that sense we lose the individuality to become part of the greater whole. For Merleau-Ponty, empathy is the way the self’s relation to the world and is innate based on our syncretic sociability from which we emerge.12

This idea of syncretistic sociability plays a large role in Gestalt psychology, which is a school of psychological therapy based entirely around forming wholes that are not the sum of its parts. In this school of psychology, there are perception-based studies generally formed around images that could be one of two things. For example, there is a well-known picture that could either be a lamp or two people about to kiss. There is no way to see both at the same time and therefore the whole picture cannot be the sum of its parts. In this way we can see the similarities to Merleau-Ponty in that the whole cannot be the sum of its parts, but that individual parts come from a better understanding of itself as different from the whole.

Additionally, clinical psychology has seen this use of understanding the other as an effective form of understanding what the other is experiencing as they experience it. Clinical psychology uses the foundation of the phenomenological understanding of empathy as the starting point for understanding what the other is experiencing as they experience it. “… a kind of dynamic, quasi-perceptual exploration of another person’s experience that involves relating to [him or her] in a distinctive kind of way” (Ratcliffe, 2013, p. 275). Ratcliffe goes on to describe this relating to the other as understood through conversation with the other as a way to get to know them better. “… we acquire through conversation a growing appreciation of the other person’s narrative, which can further constrain interpretation an refine an understanding of the second-person experience” (Gallagher as paraphrased in Ratcliffe, 2013, p. 276). This can also be better understood as “phenomenology and not just pharmacology” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 305). To better understand the other and intersubjectivity we must experience with the other as opposed to simulating their experience. As Merleau-Ponty stated, “We must abandon the fundamental prejudice according to which the psyche is accessible only to myself and cannot be seen from the outside” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 116). Studies concerning empathy in social psychology also show influence from Husserl, Stein, Scheler and Merleau-Ponty.

The definition of empathy in social psychology is very similar to that of empathy in naturalized phenomenology today. Social psychology and other schools that study empathy understand empathy in a phenomenologically oriented way to be “a distinctive kind of other-oriented attitude” (Ratcliffe, 2013, p. 271). Social psychology defines empathy as an effective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and which is identical or very similar to what the other person is feeling or would expect to feel (Andreychik et al., 2015). Additionally, social psychology has found a differentiation in positive and negative empathy, where one either empathizes with the positive emotions the other feels or the negative emotion the other feels and the subsequent actions that stem from those empathetic feelings. More specifically a study by Davis, Hull, Young and Warren (1987) showed that males who experience positive empathy are more likely to lead to role-taking tasks and those who experience negative empathy practice more empathic concern.13

It is undeniable that phenomenology has its roots in cognitive sciences and that those roots can be traced back to multiple transcendental phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. By naturalizing the theories of those phenomenologists, it is clear to see that neurosciences, clinical psychology and social psychology all stem from the same desire to understand our own consciousness. There are many other schools of thought that focus on the phenomena of empathy, but by conducting experiments first to determine what it is and second to determine how we can practice empathy, we have naturalized the theories of Husserl, Scheler, Stein and Merleau-Ponty. Not only have we naturalized their theories, but also we have proven that there is an undeniable connection between their original philosophies as they relate to empathy and to the foundations of studies conducted today on empathy and our relationship to the others with whom we share the world. Now that we can phenomenologically naturalize phenomena similar to empathy to concrete data, the future for phenomenology sees no real limits.


Andreychik, M & Migliaccio, N (2015) Empathizing with others’ pain versus empathizing with others’ joy: examining the separability of positive and negative empathy and their relation to different types of social behaviors and social emotions, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 37:5, 274-291, DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2015.1071256

Bornemark, Jonna. "The Genesis of Empathy in Human Development: A Phenomenological Reconstruction." Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy Med Health Care and Philos 17.2 (2013): 259-68. Web.

Carr, L., M. Iacoboni, M.-C. Dubeau, J. C. Mazziotta, and G. L. Lenzi. "Neural Mechanisms of Empathy in Humans: A Relay from Neural Systems for Imitation to Limbic Areas."Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100.9 (2003): 5497-502. Web.

Davis, Mark H., Jay G. Hull, Richard D. Young, and Gregory G. Warren. "Emotional Reactions to Dramatic Film Stimuli: The Influence of Cognitive and Emotional Empathy." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52.1 (1987): 126-33. Web.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1980. Print.

Husserl, Edmund. Logical Investigations. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1970. Print.

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Kohler, E., C. Keysers, M. Umiltà, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, and G. Rizzolatti. "Hearing Sounds, Understanding Actions: Action Representation in Mirror Neurons." Science 297.5582 (2002): 846-48. Web.

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1Husserl presents steps before intersubjectivity, namely: intentionality, horizonality, the epoché, and phenomenological reduction. For more information on the four preceding sections see: Simmons & Benson, 2013, p. 12-24.

2 For more see: Simmons & Benson, 2013, p. 12-24; McintyreMcIntyre & Smith, 1989, pp. 147-79.

3 In order to narrow the focus of this paper I will only be examining the role of embodiment as its phenomenological relation to cognitive sciences as the scaffolding for today’s research and questions regarding consciousness and theories of the mind.

4 For the sake of space, I will focus more on the fourth for its contributions to research on perception and action in all situations. For more information on parts 1, 2, and 3 see Husserl Ideas 1 and 3 (1970, 1980).

5 I use Scheler to show the similarity to Husserl that both theories understand phenomenologically that we perceive others, but differ on the actual object of intentionality. For Scheler the intentionality lies strictly on the other and we understand their expressions but may not be entirely sure how we understand their feelings. On the other hand, “Husserl proposes that the perception of others includes not only visual sensations, but also the activation of the kinesthetic modality and this activation keys us into what the other is experiencing” (Gallagher, 2005, p. 95).

6 For more information about which areas of the brain are active when viewing the pain or happiness of others see: Morelli, Sacchet, & Zaki, 2015.

7 For more see:  “Is the mirror neuron system involved in imitation? A short review and meta-alaylsis, (Molengerghs et al., 2009) Molenberghs P, Cunnington R, Mattingley J (July 2009).

8 For example, if I am watching a basketball game and I see that one of the players is about to jump up to make a block, I will most likely feel myself getting ready to jump to block that shot regardless of whether the player makes the block or not. Likewise seeing the villain in a horror movie strike the victim I may feel myself getting ready to absorb a blow just as the victim does even if I am simply just watching the movie. The idea is that the mirror neurons allow us to simulate what the other person whom we are watching will most likely go through in the following seconds. Thus we subconsciously predict, or simulate, the actions of the person we are watching or what we would likely do in that situation. These mirror neurons play more than a the role of just predicting behavior, but are more of the medium that allows us to perceive the situation and then activate the motor neurons to react to the situation in a more specific action. For more see: Hearing Sounds, Understanding Actions: Action Representation in Mirror Neurons, (Kohler et al., 2002)

9 For more see: Neural Mechanisms of Empathy in Humans: A Relay from Neural Systems for Imitation to Limbic Areas, (Carr et al., 2003)s

10 To address any arguments against, I have to mention that phenomenologically speaking, we can only feel with the other if and only if we have had the same experience that elicited the same emotions, but “… the fact that my experiential access to the minds of others differs from my own experiential access to my own mind is not an imperfection or shortcoming. On the contrary it is a difference that is constitutional. It is precisely because of this difference, precisely because of this asymmetry, that we can claim that the minds we experience are other minds… in order to get at interpersonal understanding, we have to reject both claims: that everything about the other is invisible and that everything is visible” (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2013, p. 204). By making the claim that everything about the other is both visible and invisible it allows room for the experience of the subjectivity of the other.

11 For the purpose of space, I chose not to include a full deconstruction of Stein’s phenomenological understanding of empathy. For more see: Stein, 1989, On the Problem of Empathy, p. 1-60.

12 For more information on syncretistic sociability see: Meleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics, (1964).cs.

13 For more see: Davis et al., 1987, "Emotional Reactions to Dramatic Film Stimuli: The Influence of Cognitive and Emotional Empathy." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52.1 (1987): 126-33. Web.

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