Notes on: Schertz, M. (2007)  'Avoiding "passive empathy" with Philosophy for Children'.  Journal of Moral Education, 36 (2): 185-98.

Dave Harris


Empathy has long been seen as a good thing by a number of theorists [including Noddings], but it is ambiguous and the problem as in educational topic.  Boler has criticised the concept for invoking passivity.  There is a dubious notion of the self involved, something discrete, which involves empathy as some sort of imaginative projection.  It is better to think of the self as something with ambiguous boundaries, more connected to the other already, and more permeable, where humans relates when they communicate and 'interact in an intersubjective gestalt' (186).  This implies that we educate for a more active empathy, based on dialogue, aimed at engaging across the boundaries of the subject.  The PFC program offers a promising approach in developing the 'Community of Inquiry'.


Boler criticises the view that passive empathy is sufficient to induce ethical reflection and to understand the experiences of others [through reading literature].  She sees empathy, especially in the work on emotional intelligence, as really designed to control student behaviour, a prop for multiculturalism.  Goleman is criticised particularly.  Emotional intelligence can be seen as a way of creating docile bodies to deal with 'overly-crowded and underfunded educational systems' (187).  This fits a lot of moral education.  Nor is empathy a simple exercise: it [should] aims to offer a intersubjective sharing which should extend to teachers student relations and power relations: it is emancipatory.  Yet it is represented in a particularly 'vapid' way: Boler says we should examine instead power relations which intervene in the relationship between the parties.  There is also the notion of a 'discrete self who engages in cognitive decentration', and this assumes an irreducible difference between self and other.  The strategy of putting yourself in another person's shoes really requires projecting their vulnerability: '"the agent for empathy, then, is fear for one's self"'.  Empathy is in this sense selfish.  There are no other motives to connect with the other, except a 'fear of pain' (188), and this explains passivity.


There is also a risk of domination of the Same.  When I empathise with another, I imagine that they are doing what I would do.  We can only imagine ourselves as the other, without trying to really know them at all.  When reading moving literature [Maus], we can feel sorry for the characters, but not necessarily transfer them to real incidents of social injustice: the power relations of reader and text, and the [positioning] of the text can make us passive. The underlying anxiety is that the holocaust be seen as something completely removed from the postmodern world. Instead, Boler says we need '"testimonial reading"', implying "action" and "promise" just description or reporting.  Readers should then draw analogies between literary and their own world, to engage with ethical dilemmas in both [not political ones?].  There is no precise description about how to do this in classrooms, however.  There is a recognition that this will involve discomfort for students. Overall, Boler is right to think that simply presenting moving literature is 'sufficient for genuine moral education' (189).  However, a pedagogy of empathy can lead to emancipation, the sharing of emotions, consideration of social justice, but this must involve self reflection and challenge.


Empathy can be understood differently, if we see human beings as 'structurally positioned to communicate, understand and share emotional states within an intersubjective system'.  Theorists have varied: some see empathy as the absorption of another person's emotional state.  Others argue there must be some sort of 'imaginative self projective function', but this usually involves a notion of discrete subjectivity, the closed self [citing Elias], the usual western sense.  If we follow Merleau-Ponty in seeing intersubjectivity as fundamental, making relations with the others involves 'participating in an anonymous affective field—the gestalt—produced by the event of our meeting' (190).  We would be engaging in a process of [phenomenological]  ‘coupling’, based on the shared elements of selfhood, which include preverbal components as well as social experiences.  Empathy can then be seen as a process of exchanging emotional information as a result of systemic communication, an event of interaction, the transfer of qualitative experience.  As such it is 'a primary condition of human intersubjectivity'.  Selves are grounded in bodies, but immersed in a 'fluid interpersonal process of mutual subjectification'.  This provides a basis for moral development in that 'emotional bonding' can take place, and this should be a concern for educators.


Empathic abilities depend on formative communicative experiences, including parental modelling and forms of interaction with adults.  Relations in the classroom, including disciplinary practice and pedagogical style can also have an effect.  Empathy can be developed by role-taking activities, practicing taking the perspective of the other, and exposing children to '"emotionally laden stimuli"' (191, quoting Verducci).  Activity such as cooperative learning and peer tutoring can help, as can problem solving and expanded participation in decision-making. 


Peer-mediated dialogue seems particularly important.  Dialogue necessarily encounters liminal zones between isolated selves [but I think there's a tautology in here somewhere—this is 'real' dialogue, and we define that as…?].  It encourages the development of 'a relational matrix', just as infants do with their mothers.  Our bodies meet in dialogue 'kinaesthetically, vocally and orally', and this 'establishes an affective exchange' and the opportunity for 'increased cognition and metacognition' [all very shouldy -- really presupposes a capacity for empathy that it is supposed to produce].  It helps the growth of the relational subject.


The Committee of Inquiry permits this sort of dialogue, which goes beyond the taking of positions into experiencing self as other [argues a fan] it is a part of the PFC programme.  Students sit in a circle and discuss the stimulus material presented by the teacher, 'usually a narrative with philosophical themes' (192).  The teacher then facilitates, modelling skills of enquiry, such as stating a problem, asking for clarification, providing counter examples.  Students determine the subject, and address one another directly.  The behaviour can carry over into other subject areas, 'and mediate disputes among their peers' [personal testimony].  It needs to be explored as something that will help the development of empathy. 


Hoffman argues that it will, through the production of 'polyphonic discourse, enquiry - based inductions, and the sharing of affective states', and ethical inquiry can be added.  He sees empathy as involving a number of processes, beginning with preverbal 'mimicry, classical conditioning and direct association' (193), going on to 'language mediated association and role taking' which require more cognitive and linguistic ability.  With Community of Inquiry, both of these can be present. Mimicry of emotions is automatic and unconscious, and can be seen as a primary form of communication.  The feeling-states are shared through 'bodily movements and emotional displays'.  In Inquiry, circular positioning and optimal facial contact permits such transfer, including the transfer of 'philosophical dispositions and behaviour': in one example, visible concern by one student was mirrored by others and this helped them engage.  Mimicry is best used where there is 'a thoughtful, reasonable subject' (194) and this provides for greater autonomy.  Classical conditioning is a communal experience of collective feelings, 'a bonding experience', offering 'an emotional field within which we can collectively participate' [whether we want to or not].  This can work with Inquiry, if the topic itself is emotionally powerful, and there can also be 'joy' from sharing jokes.  Direct association arises if an emotional display reminds us of past experiences: we have to 'pick up situational cues' and use them to recall events in the past and react to them.  This is not just personal, though, 'because of our common experiences as human beings': Inquiry involves sharing these memories, 'to facilitate a congruent affective response' [which seems to depend on the old fashioned empathy after all?  How else could people understand emotional events in the personal past?  Freudian talking cures?].


In language mediated association, emotions are not 'directly observed', but are related through language, for example as an anecdote.  'Emotionally rich' experiences or 'powerfully written' passages, can act as a stimulus.  However it ‘ensures that people can react to words not emotional displays'.  We have to be 'interpersonally receptive', by 'identifying with a personal anecdote or the emotionally laden experiences of the character in a novel' [which we had criticised before!].  This is more common with Inquiry.  Discussion can help students remember events and emotionally relive them, or to prompt other memories, sometimes producing 'a watershed moment' [a personal  example is 'the collected proclamation that best friends must keep secrets' (195), an 'archetypal event' displaying 'emotional vivacity'.


Role taking is 'our most advanced empathic ability'.  It needs effort and practice.  It can be focused on the self where we imagine ourselves by analogy in another situation, or it can be more 'other - focused' where we really try to understand what the other is experiencing.  However, this still risks discrete subjectivity if it is excessively cognitive, and managed by 'an inherently separate self'.  Mead can be cited here [but he advocated an inherently divide self – I and me!] as suggesting that there is no necessary analogy with the discrete self, and that we can take the role of the other through suitable perception of 'corporeal conduct' [and symbols above all for Mead!].  An important part is played by the generalised other, the community or social group, which again suggests a prior function for interpersonal interaction [based on functionalism though!] .


Inquiry offers all these dimensions [a personal example follows of a very considered and moderate response to a difference of opinion].  Students are not 'forced to accept adult - derived preconceptions of moral truth'(196) [of course they are –nice tolerant relativism!].  There is no [easily identifiable] adult authority.  Negotiation takes place and this necessarily involves people 'learning to tolerate and value other subjectivities and practicing how to engage with other subjects who may hold radically different opinions' [by applying the cool formal bourgeois aesthetic towards them].  This pedagogy encourages students, and makes them more willing to explore multiple subjectivities and ethical matters, enhances role taking.  Sometimes, students are prompted to self reflect, which Hoffman calls 'induction' [adults ask how people would feel if they were other].  Focusing on other subjectivities is ethical inquiry.  Pedagogues can problematize opinions or positions, deconstruct rigid subjectivities, encourage reflection.  Other students can also initiate inductions by mirroring pedagogues [who are described as using 'the Socratic method' , 197 — a very didactic form of dialogue riddled with symbolic violence as we know].  Inductions can also be used to confront potentially harmful behaviour, by inviting consideration of the victim.  The potential harmful consequences of [any?] behaviour to [any?] others can emerge as a generalisation [only disinterested polite bourgeois conversation is left].


This might look like 'a liberal position' involving discrete subjectivity after all, but there is always an intersubjective process involved, social constructions emerging from intersubjective meetings, not moral abstractions.  The purpose is 'creating and sustaining an empathic generalised other' (198) [generalising the abstract, tolerant, secure bourgeois individual as in classic ideology].


Overall, Community of Inquiry can be seen as actualising models like Hoffman's.  It will avoid passive empathy because it 'allows for cognitively rich, idea-shaping discourse that actively challenges "assumptions and world views"'.  It offers a chance to explore various subjectivities [assuming they do vary in any one classroom]. The very practice of enquiry 'is itself an empathic venture', involving continuous reconstruction of the self,  'engagements, irrespective of whether the complimentary [sic] subject is human, text or world'.  The process itself is empathy, and displays 'genuine dialogue' as in Buber.  It just is 'a paradigmatic instance of an empathic field that facilitates the deconstruction and reconstruction of subjectivity' (198).  It is play, a matter of collective transition, and 'ultimately, a nurturing environment for interwoven body - consciousness'

back to Zembylas page