Hannah Berry - Empathy: the border between narratives

Season four of the BSP Podcast continues with a paper from Hannah Berry, University of Liverpool. The recording is taken from our 2019 Annual Conference, ‘The Theory and Practice of Phenomenology’.


ABSTRACT: When considering and reflecting on language, do we empathise with the interlocutor by simulating thoughts, feelings and actions? Do we project ourselves into the narrator’s shoes via simulation? Does this, then, create a boundary between the listener’s understanding, the person’s actual experience and their communication of the experience? 

This paper will steer away from traditional literary-linguistic themes of stylistic analysis and will approach interdisciplinary narratives from phenomenological descriptions of experience and empathy. Lay understanding of the term ‘empathy’ suggests that you “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” when considering another person’s experience. However, no-one else’s “shoes” fit in the same way and this creates a border between narratives. The traditional approach to empathy in narrative is an analytic simulation theory. An alternative to this approach, meanwhile, is Gallagher’s ‘empathy informed by narrative practice’ (2012). I argue that this theory is also problematic, and propose another alternative.

I reject the concept of empathy as a fundamental part of human experience. Rather, understanding someone else’s experience involves an understanding that another person experiences in the same way that I do, that a ‘self’ has consciousness of an object. This description arises from the phenomenological reduction, but we need to be aware that anything other than this description is context, and so cannot be experienced by anyone else. Consequently, narratives are simultaneously borderless (as everyone fundamentally experiences in the same way), and with borders (that experience is isolating and cannot be shared in its entirety with anyone else through communication, regardless of context). To understand a narrative is to negotiate this dichotomy. I will apply a phenomenological understanding of interpersonal experience onto a narrative from a recent court case in order to argue the instability of the lay understanding of empathy as well as the debatable application in a judicial context.


BIO: Hannah has recently submitted her Ph.D. thesis ‘The shoe never fits: a phenomenological rejection of the lay concept of empathy’ and is currently working on interdisciplinary applications of phenomenological methodology and lectures in the English department at the University of Liverpool.


The ‘British Society for Phenomenology Annual Conference 2019 – the Theory and Practice of Phenomenology’ was held at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, UK, 5 – 7 September, 2019: https://www.britishphenomenology.org.uk/conference/


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The British Society for Phenomenology is a not-for-profit organisation set up with the intention of promoting research and awareness in the field of Phenomenology and other cognate arms of philosophical thought. Currently, the society accomplishes these aims through its journal, events, and podcast. Why not find out more, join the society, and subscribe to our journal the JBSP? https://www.britishphenomenology.org.uk/

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