Can We Empathize With Emotions That We Have Never Felt?

In Íngrid Vendrell-Ferran & Christiana Werner (eds.), Imagination and Experience: Philosophical Explorations. New York, NY: Routledge (2024)
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If, as argued in some simulationist accounts, empathy aims at grasping the phenomenal richness of the other’s experience and resonating with it, it is difficult to explain our empathy with emotions that we have never experienced ourselves. According to a long philosophical tradition, imagination is constrained by experience. We have to be acquainted with the qualitative feel of the other’s experience in order to imagine it. A critical view of simulationist accounts would claim that if we cannot imagine how the other feels because we are not acquainted with it, empathy cannot take place. Contrary to such criticism, this paper takes a moderately optimistic view of the simulationist claim. It develops a model to explain how we imagine the other’s emotions by drawing on phenomenal concepts, affective memories, and imaginative scaffoldings. I argue that this model can explain how we empathize with the other’s emotions regardless of whether these are familiar or novel to us. However, in the latter case, the imagined phenomenal quality is not identical but probably only similar to the other’s emotion. This similarity suffices for us to speak about empathy.

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Íngrid Vendrell-Ferran
University of Marburg


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