Empathy for objects

By Jason Morales,2014-05-08 21:51
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Empathy for objects


    1Empathy for objects

We think of empathy as an intimate, feeling-based understanding of another‘s

    inner life. We do not think of it as a way of understanding inanimate objects. Yet, a century ago, talk of empathy for objects would have seemed very natural; it was the theme of a group of thinkers whose writings helped to found the notion of empathy itself. They were particularly interested in empathy as a means of attending to the aesthetic properties of things. That earlier program will be my starting point, and I‘ll call the participants in it the Empathists. I will move on quickly to see what light can be shed on their idea of empathy for objects by current research in the sciences of mind. I identify a class of processes which, I claim, underlie empathy for objects as well as personal empathy; these processes are often called simulative in a special sense that I will try to explain. I then have two questions to which I seek answers of at least a preliminary sort. What sort of access to things is it that we are given by these simulative processes; is it, in particular, a perceptual form of access? Second, what role if any does awareness of these processes play in our aesthetic encounters with things?

1 Einfühlung

    The work of the Empathists has now largely disappeared from view, and the

    2contemporary research which supports some of its claims owes little to it. In

    some respects it represents a Golden Age in the philosophy of art. Aesthetics, now displaced from the centre of intellectual life in the sciences and humanities, was then a core theme for thinkers of every kind, and especially for those who walked the scarcely differentiated territories of philosophy and psychology. For forty or so years across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was a flowering of research into the arts, and the appearance of multi-volume psychological treatises on the perception of visual form was then an everyday occurrence. At the centre of this endeavor, crossing disciplines, traditions and continents, was the program I‘m concerned with here: the examination of the


    empathic basis of human aesthetic responses. It was never focused exclusively on art, and it was very variably pursued, both in methods and in doctrines. It‘s then most visible advocate, Theodor Lipps, is now merely a name in historical

    3footnotes. Perhaps Lipps deserves the seclusion he currently enjoys; his theory of empathy was obscure and unsatisfactory, as we shall see. But the movement in which he was a leading figure gave us the term ―empathy‖, and, given the

    healthy survival of that concept, it is surprising that its historical roots have so far disappeared.

The term ―empathy‖ began life as a translation of the German Einfühlung, the

    4word used by Lipps. The verb einfühlen had been used by Herder to mean ―to

    understand sympathetically‖ (literally ―feel into‖) the situation of an historical

    5agent. That agent-based conception of empathy is the one that has survived. But einfühlen was, for the Romantics, a general means of knowing. Novalis said that one who understands nature is one ―who almost without effort recognizes the nature of all things and…in an intimate and manifold relationship mixes himself with all of nature by means of his feelings…who so to speak feels himself into them‖ (1802: 105). The view survives in the more sober, academic philosophy of Lotze, for whom a capacity to ―feel ourselves into things‖--including inanimate

    objects--is the basis of our understanding of and connectedness to the world. It is thus that we enter into the ―narrow round of existence of a mussel-fish‖, and,

    through a sense of bodily contortion and effort, into the ―slender proportions‖ of a tree, or a building (1856). No form is so unyielding‖, Lotze said, ―that our

    imagination cannot project its life into it‖ (Ibid, p.584.).

    Fifty years later, these ideas were applied by Lipps and the Empathists to the aesthetics of visual form. Their views shifted over time in ways that are sometimes hard to associate with compelling arguments; understanding the complexities of this evolution of thought requires an historically nuanced paper that I am unable to provide. But my aim is to take up some of the philosophical issues arising from the Empathists‘ program, and for this a fine grained historical


    account is not helpful. Instead I identify three tendencies in Empathist thinking, the third of which points us in the direction of some contemporary research.

    Lipps held that we know another only by bringing about some sort of union, by means of projection, with that other; his concept of empathy correspondingly involved an act of personal projection wherein we feel the dynamic properties of

    6the object--an architectural column, say--as our own. While an aesthetic

    encounter with an object is a case of experiencing aesthetic qualities within ourselves, this self is an objectified self, a self which is ―ideal‖ but also ―real‖. There are naturalizing tendencies in Lipps‘ thought--he claimed that symmetry in

    the body is found to be beautiful because of its relation to the body‘s capacity

    indifferently to turn left and right. But Lipps rejected attempts to ground the empathic relationship in awareness of our own bodies (1903:105-6).

    The sharpest contrast to this within the Empathists‘ project is found in a view held at one time by Vernon Lee: our aesthetic sense of an object is provided by episodes of sympathetic resonance within our own bodies, which we can, with

    7effort, attend to and analyze as part of the project of aesthetic inquiry. Lee had a

    somewhat mechanical approach to this, and there are passages which have been held up to ridicule: in viewing a jar, she tells us, I feel the pressure of my feet on the ground when I see the base, a feeling of lift as I view the body, and

    8downward pressure on my head as I view the rim at the top.

Lipps‘ view leaves much unclear--the union of self with the work/other, the status

    of the self as both objective and subjective, both real and ideal. Lee, on the other hand, threatens to reduce aesthetic appreciation to callisthenic exercises. But a third tendency is evident in such writers such as Karl Groos and Herbert Langfeld,

    9who talked of ―inner mimicry‖ and of ―motor imagining‖. Langfeld, a Harvard

    psychologist speaking against the background of Jamesian sensory-motor theory, made an important point here: ―when we notice the smooth curves of a marble

    torso, we can probably, if we observe carefully, get a fleeting image of our hands


moving in imagination around the figure‖ (1920: 109). Such an image of

    movement he calls a motor memory: a pattern of nerve activation like that which

    would produce the actual movement remembered. To do their work, these images, he says, do not need to be conscious--an important point to which we shall return.

2 Empathy and bodily simulation

    Seeing empathy this way avoids the idea that it requires a Lippsian act of personal projection into the object; it also avoids Lee‘s idea of a motor response to an object which is literally body-involving. Rather, the object of attention generates a range of motor images. Langfeld described these in terms of activation of nerve systems that would otherwise produce the very movements in question. If we speak instead of neural systems we have something suggestive to a modern reader of simulative processes, the evidence for which is now very

     strong within psychology and the neurosciences.

    The term simulation is currently used in distinct ways by different groups of researchers and I need to be clear about how I am using it here. In philosophy, and in some areas of developmental psychology, the term names a theory about how it is we come to understand people‘s reasons, the idea being that we imagine ourselves in their position and then reproduce the reasoning which lead to their own decision or conclusion. This is an hypothesis at the personal level, an hypothesis about how the agent herself comes to understand another‘s

    10reasons. But here I am using ―simulation‖ to name a different theory, indeed a theory of a different kind. The theory in question is at the subpersonal level: it is a theory about ways in which certain aspects of human performance are implemented in systems that operate within the person, are not directly under personal control and the workings of which may inaccessible to consciousness, though they may at the same time give rise to conscious experiences, about which. The flagship example here--and one central to our discussion--involves the production of simulated movements. When we ask people to make


    judgments about the handedness of a visual display, they seem to answer by ―mentally rotating‖ their own hands into the orientation of the display, taking about as long to do it as they would take actually to move their hands. Their imaginative performance is, it seems, constrained by the same biomechanical factors that constrain actual bodily movement. The neural basis of this is not fully understood but on one view these imagined movements (which may or may not be conscious) are constituted by the activation of an inner model we all possess of our own bodies: a model which has evolved so as to obey the constraints that govern bodily movement, because it evolved as an aid in the planning and control of those movements (Clark and Grush 1999). There is evidence that this model shares neural resources with systems which activate real movements; people who are impaired in movement are often comparably impaired in their

    11capacity to simulate movement.

    I indicated at the beginning that we now think of empathy as a process that involves a response to another agent rather than to an inanimate object. Personal empathy also, it seems, involves simulative processes. In thinking about the biological basis of interpersonal empathy, much is currently being made of mirror neurons, which are activated both when the subject performs an action, and when she observes someone else perform an action of that type; it has been suggested that these activations underlie processes of simulation of

    12another‘s action. There are also canonical neurons, which may be of relevance for understanding empathy for objects. These neurons fire both when one makes a grasping movement towards an object and when one simply sees the object; a simulation of grasping accompanies the looking, whether or not there is an

    13intention really to grasp.

    Empathic understanding of emotion in other agents is also driven by a comparable sort of simulation. While disgust evolved, presumably, as an encouragement to us to avoid the noxious, its mechanisms are implicated in the recognition of disgust in others; sight of someone with a disgusted facial


    expression activates brain areas used in the generation of our own feelings of disgust (Wicker et. al. (2003). And people who have damage to one of these areas--the insula--and which prevents them from feeling disgust, are impaired in their recognition of disgust in others (Adolphs et. al. 2003; Calder et. al. 2003). It seems that we detect the emotions of others by having them trigger comparable responses in us. This triggering in us need not count as our having the emotion itself--we need not be made angry by the sight of someone who is experiencing anger. But there is, in us, a simulation of the emotion, and this contributes to our

    14recognizing the emotion which they feel. Some simulative processes are

    recruited to both personal empathy and empathy for objects. The secondary somatosensory cortex, once thought only to respond to physical touch, is strongly activated by the sight of other people being touched. Seeing objects

    15collide generates the same activity (Keysers et. al. 2004).

    All these simulative processes are ones which may be activated by art works, and by other kinds of objects, in ways that conform to, and sometimes extend, the claims of the Empathists. There is the sense of having your body disposed in a way which resembles (perhaps minimally) the geometry of the object viewed, and the dynamical relations to other things its position suggests, as one imagines standing upright supporting a heavy load, in response to the sight of a load bearing column, or imaginings swaying in the wind like a tree. You might have a sense of engaging with the object, perhaps through reaching and grasping, or passing your hands over the surface—recall Langfeld‘s observations about the


    It is also plausible that motor imagery is involved in our sense of art works as artifacts (Langfeld 1920: 121-2). There might be an empathic reproduction of the actions which produced the object or shaped its properties; this is often reported for paintings by Jackson Pollock (Freedberg and Gallese 2007). But we do not always respond in ways which correspond closely or at all to the ways in which the object really was made, or even could be made. We may imagine squeezing


    the stone of a Henry Moore sculpture into its finished shape, an activity which does not correspond at all to how the object was made but which might,

    17nonetheless, constitute the basis of an appropriate aesthetic response. The

    same applies to the simulation of pressure induced by the sight of a load-bearing column: the column feels no pressure, but my simulation of pressure contributes to an appropriate aesthetic response to the structure, and informs my appreciation of the way the column joins the entablature.

    It will be clear from the examples above that the Empathists‘ concern was with what looks now a rather gerrymandered class of operations, only some of which we would count as empathic: there is the (by our lights) recognizably empathic process of imagining one‘s self in the position of the maker of the object, doing various things to shape or construct it. But note two things. First, this is empathy with the maker, and not with the object; secondly, as indicated above, some of this might consist in a wildly unrealistic yet aesthetically productive enterprise

    imagining squeezing a piece of metal or stone into its current shape. Does this kind of fantasy activity count as empathy at all? We should avoid making heavy weather of the labeling issue, but there does seem to be a natural grouping of activities here: the class of motor simulations which have as their target a person‘s activity, whether that activity is correctly or incorrectly understood, or even conceived within an imaginative project which makes no claim to

    18verisimilitudeempathy in a broad sense, we might call it. Then a further

    broadening that also uses the idea of empathy-as-imaginative-exploration allows us to count as empathic the response we have, or might have, to a load bearing

     column, with this time a simulation of pressure or constriction rather than action.This is the best sense one can make, I think, of the idea of empathy for objects

    themselves. When it comes to the simulation of movement around the torso as in Langfeld‘s example, we seem to slipped the boundaries of what we would now call empathy altogether, since one is not here empathizing with the object in any sense, though the simulation may count as imagining doing something with or to the object; nor is it in any obvious sense a case of empathizing with the maker, or


with anyone else. The same applies with a whole range of ―Gibsonian‖

    simulations: simulated sitting on a chair, or grasping a handle, or any other simulation which depends upon awareness of an affordance. To all this we should add those cases of empathygenuine, but within the scope of an

    imaginative projectprovoked by representational art, as when we response to artistically represented rather than to real people. We may, as we see the bodily dispositions of the various persons depicted in Rubens‘ Descent from the Cross,

    undergo bodily simulations which mirror aspects of those dispositions. And if we need to simulate emotions ourselves in order to detect emotions in others, the same will apply to recognizing the emotions of people whose faces and/or bodies are depicted in painting and sculpture.

    There are, it would seem, a range of (bodily) simulation-based activities which are directed towards works of art or aesthetic objects more generally and which may contribute to aesthetic engagement with those objects, and these activities do not constitute a natural class of relationships to objects or works except in so far as they are simulation-based, and in so far as all of them may, on occasions,

    19contribute to an artistic engagement with the object or work. Some of these

    relations are empathic in a sense we would recognize, while others are perhaps legitimate extensions of that notion; yet others really fall outside the scope of that concept altogether, and are simply cases of imagining doing various things. But my interest in them concerns the ways in which these simulative relations may be said to put us in contact with works of art and other sorts of objects; this was also a concern of the Empathists. So we may turn directly to that question, without worrying more about what we should or should not call ―empathy‖.

3 Experience of the work

    This brings me to an important problem, which will force us to clarify the relationship between the simulative processes to which I have appealed, and the aesthetic properties of works. Take the case of visual art--painting and drawing. These are works in visual media because seeing them is required if we are to


    make the right sort of contact with them. Vision focuses us on the work--the right object. But simulation of bodily movement or exertion of pressure focuses our attention on ourselves, distracting us from the work.

    Lipps was aware of this problem, and this is one reason he avoided a specification of bodily processes in giving his account of empathy. Langfeld, also worried by the difficulty, insisted that we only attend aesthetically to the object when we are unaware of these bodily processes; to become aware of them is to

    20be distracted from the work. But we should not follow Langfeld here; an

    aesthetically legitimate exploration of the work often involves awareness of our own conscious states. Tragedies give rise to pity and terror (or, if not precisely to these things, then to phenomenological states of some sort), while ghost stories cause fear, sometimes of a very salient kind. And we don‘t think of these as

    merely incidental effects of the tragedy or the ghost story. Works which did not

    21move us in these ways would not be good works of their kinds.

    But this is not the end of the argument. Not every qualitative state caused by a work counts as a way of making aesthetic contact with the work. Pity and fear (of some kinds) count as respectable responses, because they help us achieve the right kind of relation to the work; they focus us on its pitiable and fearful aspects. If Hamlet gave you tooth-ache, this would not enrich your understanding of the

    22play. A worry we might have about the relation between works of art and our own states of motor simulation is that this relation is not sufficiently intentional; that there is no real sense in which the motor simulations are directed towards the work.

    One response to this claims that the simulation of movement itself constitutes a form of perception of certain properties in the picture; thus the motor simulations provoked by a viewing of Descent from the Cross would be ways of perceiving

    such things as the sense of effort and muscular tension felt by the mourners as

    23they lower the body of Christ. Generalizing, we could say that mechanisms


which simulate state or process S, and which are activated by another person‘s

    being in S, or being depicted as being in S, constitute states of perceiving the other‘s state of being in S. I reject this view. Simulation mechanisms are too precariously related to the state of the other to count as ways of perceiving the other‘s state. Take the case of emotion-perception. According to the story

    already outlined, recognizing your expression as one of disgust involves the activation of my own disgust response. But is it true that the activation, in these circumstances, of my disgust response itself constitutes a perception of your disgust? We all agree, I take it, that on many, perhaps most, occasions, the activation of my disgust response does not constitute perception of anyone‘s disgust; rather it is simply what happens when I am disgusted by something. At best, activation of my disgust response counts as perception of your disgust in special circumstances and only in conjunction with uncontroversially perceptual access to you by other means (I need to see your facial expression). So the

    operation of the purported ―organ of emotion perception‖, namely our suite of emotion-responses, is only very irregularly correlated with the presence of emotions in others, and depends for its effective operation on other senses. Neither of these things are true of sight, hearing, etc, which are very highly correlated with the things in the external world they are apt to detect, and do not operate via the operation of other senses. Further, it ought to be possible, for any mode of perception, to make a distinction between the veridical and the nonveridical case: between, say, seeing things as they are and merely being presented with certain visual appearances. Take the visual perception of faces, and grant that we normally see a person‘s disgust rather than merely seeing

    signs of disgust from which we infer the mental state. Still, an actor may fool us, in which case what we see are mere signs of disgust. But how are we to retain this distinction for the case of emotion-simulation as (purported) perception of another‘s emotion? In the case where our emotion-simulation is triggered by the

    sight of the actor, what mere appearances does the simulation expose us to? There do not seem to be any ready candidates for these appearances, other than the visual appearances. But the availability of the visual appearances makes out

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