Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007 Reflections After the Biting of a Guy's Nipple by an Alligator on Cable TV

A topic which fascinates me is the sympathy/empathy complex. There are numerous conflicting accounts of the distinction between the two in the psychological literature and in people's minds. In my mind I have two ideas, two different modes of how emotion can be transferred. If you disagree that the two ideas I'm elaborating are "sympathy" and "empathy", that's okay, they are still two different ideas. We attach words to things after we think of their concepts in order to try to characterize them, and when words fail, that doesn't mean we don't possess the concepts.

My definitions are these. Sympathy ("feeling with") is actual participation in a feeling that originates in someone else. Empathy ("feeling into") is a feeling that originates in oneself, when one creates a copy in oneself of the feeling, and feels that copy. One way to look at this is to reflect that one can have empathy into a fictional character, but not sympathy.

An interesting insight into the matter occurred to me as I was watching the movie Jackass (just comes to show how philosophy is everywhere). I saw a man having his nipple bitten by a baby alligator. Ouch. I was cringing for the entire duration. Emotion was transferred. I distinguished three levels of participation in the feeling. First, there was the guy having his nipple bitten. He was in physical pain. Now the idea of any physical pain is problematic, since insofar as a thing is physical, by standard definitions, it does not have feelings at all. He was also screaming, and laughing (curious) and after the humor had registered, he had the incredible urge to act so as to get rid of the fucking alligator. Then there were the people who were with him at the time. They had the "cringe" reaction as well, I'm sure, more profoundly than I did. But where they differed the most with me on the couch, and agreed with the victim was in the urge to act to remove the pain. (They eventually pried to gator's mouth open with a knife). That was a sympathetic reaction. His feeling was motivating their actions. As for me, that was merely empathy. This is perhaps another mark of sympathy distinguishing it from empathy.

1 comment:

kisarita said...

cool i never much thought about the difference between sympathy and empathy except that sympathy seemed a more lukewarm experience. but the way you describe it it seems more altruistic in a way.