Posts Tagged ‘Nikolas Prassas’

Empathy, Intuition, and the Abortion or Life Decision

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

St. Edith Stein’s (1891-1942) 1916 dissertation, Zum Problem der Einfühlung, On the Problem of Empathy, written after she spent much of 1915 as a wartime Red Cross nurse, qualified her as only the second German woman to earn a doctorate in philosophy. Stein’s dissertation is said to be one among “Ten Neglected Philosophical Classics” in a forthcoming chapter by Kris McDaniel in an Oxford University Press volume edited by Eric Schliesser.

Although commonly associated with therapeutic communication, “empathy” is a recently made-up word, introduced into German as “Einfühlung,” or “in-feeling” by Johann Gottfried von Herder in aesthetics in 1774, in the late 1800s into German medicine and psychiatry by Theodor Lipps, and into English by American psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener as “empathy” just prior to WWI.

The English word “empathy” is so new that we can actually date its first recorded public use by then Cornell U. Professor Titchener to a presentation he gave at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign circa 1908-1909 (Titchener, E. B. (1909). Introspection and empathy. Lectures on the experimental psychology of the thought-processes. New York, The MacMillan Company).

In her 1916 analysis, Stein sorted through several of our common psychological conceptions of empathy that have since come down to us through the sciences and popular culture, and narrowed in on those aspects of empathy that would be philosophical useful, using the phenomenological method she learned from her teacher Edmund Husserl, to address the question of how one mind knows another. This problem was essential for understanding how human persons are “constituted,” a philosophical term roughly meaning composed to the extent that they can be known:

“‘Constitution’ is a term that Stein inherits from Husserl, who uses it systematically to mean the way things appear as one (for me, for us).” Lebech, M. (2015). “Lebech, M. (2015). The philosophy of Edith Stein : from phenomenology to metaphysics. Oxford, Peter Lang. Pg. xi”

Stein focused in her reduction to a knowledge of another that is close to intuition:

“Empathy is a kind of act of perceiving [eine Art erfahrender Akte] sui generis. . . . Empathy, as we have examined and sought to describe, is the experience of foreign consciousness in general, irrespective of the kind of the experiencing subject or of the subject whose consciouness is experienced.” Stein, E. (1989). On the problem of empathy. Washington DC, ICS Publications, Pg. 11

“Two-sidedness to the essence of empathic acts – the experience of our own announcing another one.” Ibid., Pg. 19

R.W. Meneses and M. Larkin (2012) summarized Stein’s approach to empathy to three levels, the first level of which is pertinent to this discussion:

“In short, the first level, direct perception, is about the direct, non-mediated (e.g. by expressive behaviour or aprioristic knowledge) co-givenness of another person’s present embodied, embedded, minded experience.
Here, one immediately ‘sees’ the foreign experience.” Meneses, R. W. and M. Larkin (2012). “Edith Stein and the Contemporary Psychological Study of Empathy.” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 43(2): 151-184. Pg. 175.

In an earlier page, Meneses and Larkin focused on the intuitive aspect of Stein’s early stage of empathy:

“Here, for the first time, that which was directly intuitively given about the other’s experience (during direct perception and/or experiential projection) is represented, in awareness, as a mental object. That is, the content of the intuition is mentalized, becoming, in awareness, an intellectual idea about the foreign experience. This is most transparent when Stein states that, at this level, empathy can be seen as an intuitive idea about another’s experience. Before this level, empathy is not an idea, or a representation, but intuition only (p. 20).” Meneses and Larkin (2012, pg. 173).

Intuiting the existence of another person may be the first step in the constitution of a person. The philosophical problem of the constitution of the human person thus can be directly related to the morality of the abortion decision: Is the fetus or baby a human being or human person? How do we know this?

The earliest stage of “Steinian” empathy, involving intuition, leads us to a new perspective on the abortion decision: When does the parent first intuit–prior to physically sensing or intellectually knowing–the existence of another, of a child growing in the womb? This is a different question from enumerating the stages of growth of the baby within the womb.

While the mind of a fetus or baby in the womb cannot be readily empathically experienced by another, his or her existence can be empathically intuited, a first step in the constitution of the newly-developing human being.

This initial intuition of the life of another may therefore ground the abortion decision: if one intuits the existence of another within the mother, this one who values human life will immediately take precautions to preserve this human life.

An important first question in the abortion-or-life decision thus becomes: When did I first intuit the child’s existence?

As I have written earlier, the abortion and euthanasia decisions are those in which doubt about the existence of life now lead not to caution, but to deadly force. But in almost every other human endeavor, even modern warfare, doubt about the danger to life leads to prudent caution for life-preservation instead.

Abortion ideology, in order to radically refute Freud’s dictum that “Biology is destiny,” chooses immediate deadly force instead of prudent, non-violent problem-solving and compassionate continuing commitment.

For more on St. Edith Stein’s concept of empathy and the constitution of self, please see this lecture by Oxford scholar Nikolas Prassas —

© Copyright 2016, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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The views posted at sanityandsocialjustice.net are those of Albert J. Schorsch, III, alone, and not those of any of his employers, past or present.

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