Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Empathy and Imagination

I sometimes wonder if there are people who have no imagination and are completely literal-minded. I doubt it, but I’ve met some who come close. All of them have problems relating to other people; either they’re short on empathy, or they have very little understanding of people’s motivations, which can also be considered a lack of empathy.

All of them have certain traits in common: they don’t read fiction, and they’re addicted to TV. Make of that what you will.

Imagination allows you to empathize with other people. That’s one of its functions. By imaginatively identifying with them, you in a sense bring them into you, making them part of you. As the philosopher Josiah Royce wrote, right before the 20th century, “Who can realize a given aim save by repeating it in himself?”

Another philosopher, Robert Bass, said the above account is similar to the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, a “process in which we gradually expand our self-concept and recognize larger and larger parts of the whole as ‘ours,’” writes Scott Ryan.

Adam Smith, in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” said that empathy (which in his day was called sympathy) was wholly dependent on imagination. If this is true, and I believe it is, then imagination is what creates benevolence in people, since they become empathic through the use of their imaginations. This leads to some truly interesting concepts.

For one: a writer creates a novel, I read it, empathize with the characters through my imagination, and so understand what the author is trying to say. Looked at from a certain angle, it’s mind-reading – and “feeling-reading,” too. As Spinoza wrote: “From the fact we imagine a thing like ourselves…to be affected by an emotion, we are thereby affected by a similar emotion.”

The same thing can happen with music. You hear a song and listen to the lyrics, and you understand what feelings and thoughts the writer is trying to get across. As James Engell wrote in “The Creative Imagination,” “…sympathy also becomes that special power of the imagination which permits the self to escape its confines, to identify with other people, to perceive things in a new way, and to develop an aesthetic appreciation of the world that coalesces both the subjective self and the objective other.”

“To mean things in a new way” means creativity. Without imagination, there can be no creativity. As Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” He didn’t say knowledge wasn’t important (indeed it’s indispensible), but that imagination is more important. And this is from a man who imagined what it would be like to ride on a light beam.

Two: I wouldn’t be able to understand what the author was trying to say unless the concepts weren’t already within me. I’d have to be born with them, which means none of us are blank slates, tabula rasas. This means, in a way, we wouldn’t understand the answer to anything unless the answer was already in us.

Three: my “self” does not stand alone, unconnected to anything. If anything, it’s created in relationship with others, even if those others are imaginary fictional characters. “I” don’t exist, apparently at all, or else in a minimal way, unless it’s in a relationship with something or somebody.

Four: if we fully understood someone else – fully, completely understood them – then it seems we’d be that person, or else very close to it. This is similar to a comment by the philosopher Brand Blandshard that to know an object fully we’d literally have to have it within our consciousness.

Even more interesting, if we could incorporate everything into us, we’d be God. We cannot do this, but the fact we can enlarge our selves adding more and more to us through our imagination, is a kind of love.

And if someone can do the same to us, then they, in varying degrees, love us. Or, as Shakespeare wrote, love is the true meeting of minds. What this means is that love cannot exist without imagination. Or, if there are truly literal-minded people in the world, they cannot love.

There are theologians, and poets, and philosophers, who claim that each of us is a “little self” in the “infinite self” of God. If this is true, then that “infinite self” understand us completely...knows everything about us.

The word “benevolence” comes partly from the words “wish” and “will.” We direct our will, our attention, on someone, and wish them benevolence. We can’t actually wish it on them, but we can wish it on them in our imagination and feelings, and that is the first step.

This empathy and imagination, and the benevolence arising from them, and the fact our “selves” are created only in relationships, means none of us can exist without some extremely large measure of cooperation. This puts the kibosh on any kind of extreme selfishness as a successful way of life.

I’ll close with something Harry Wolfson, a commentator on Spinoza, wrote, “In order to understand another we must completely identify ourselves with that other, living through imaginatively his experience and thinking through rationally his thoughts. There must be a union of minds…”

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