Sunday, December 12, 2010

Empathy And Language: Particularization, Generalization, And Restructuring Default Thought

Table of Contents:

1.Introduction: Empathy And Language

Part I: Defining The Problem: Tension Between The Inclinations Of Language And Empathy

2. The Issue: Language As Dulling Empathy

3. Language And Generalization

4. Empathy And Particularization

5. The Solution: Putting Language Towards The Expansion Of Empathy

Part II: Defining The Solution

6. The Problem Of Autopilot: The Intuitive Nature Of Social Life

7. Intuitive Behavior As Structured By A Priori Assumptions And Mental Models

8. Intuitive Empathy As Requiring The Restructuring Of Mental Models

Part III: Enacting The Solution

9. Exploring Our Mental Models: Personal Archeology

10. Modifying Our Mental Models: Intellectually Buttressing Empathy

10a. Empathy And Experience

10b. The Humanities And Acquiring Synthetic Experience As Expanding The Empathic Palette

11. Re-Internalizing Our Mental Models: Mindfulness As A Mental Model

12. Conclusion: The Paradox Of Empathy And Language

1. Introduction: Empathy And Language

In this essay I’m going to be breaking down the relationship between language and and empathy. I think that language interacts with empathy in both negative and positive ways. First I want to summarily deal with the negative component: I want to analyze how language reduces our ability to empathize with other people. I’ll then start moving towards a more detailed analysis of this issue and my proposed solution. I’ll discuss language and its tendency to generalize, and how this inclination towards generalization can dull our sense of empathy. I’ll then contrast this by discussing the importance of particularizing in empathy. After that I will give a quick look at how language can be used to expand our capacity for empathy. Those four sections will comprise Part I called ‘Defining The Problem’. After that I’ll start analyzing a possible solution to this problem of empathy and language. The first step in this will be analyzing how social relations (in which empathy matter) are typically conducted. The short answer is that they are conducted intuitively, on ‘autopilot’ so to speak. So I’ll be trying to address this issue of how it is that our use of language and empathy exists on a largely unconscious, default sort of frame of mind. I’ll then corroborate this idea by discussing some neuropsychology on how the brain models reality for us. I’ll then try to explain how we can go about changing our mental models. I believe that if we are to successfully use language to improve our capacity for empathy we have to be using it to change our unconscious behavior, we have to be using it to alter our mental models that tacitly govern our feelings, thoughts, and actions. Those three sections will constitute Part II ‘Defining The Solution’. After that I’ll spend some time explaining how we can actually engage in this process, how we can use language to alter our mental models of reality so as to make our default behavior more empathic. I’ll do this by explaining how we have to explore, then modify, then re-internalize our mental models.

Sounds awfully abstract (as usual). But I think what I’m talking about is fairly serious. It matters how much empathy is a part of our default, autopilot behavior. If we are naturally empathic then we might have a richer and more rewarding social life. Perhaps all this business about empathy actually has something like political implications. I’m writing this partly so as to clarify issues I want to tackle in ‘Art, Zen, and Insurrection’. Here I go.

Part I: Defining The Problem: Tension Between The Inclinations of Language and Empathy

So in this section I’m going to be trying to define the problem of empathy in human life. The issue that I want to examine most closely is the way that our capacity for language interacts with and hinders our capacity for empathy. First, the issue generally. Second, the potential solution. Third, language and generalization. Fourth, empathy and particularization.

2.The Issue: Language As Dulling Empathy

So as I’ve been saying, the big issue is that language can dull our capacity for empathy. I sat down the other day in front of a book called The Age Of Empathy. I don’t know what the author argues, but the title suggests that he thinks that there is some sort of innate human capacity for empathy, and that this is somehow going to play a role in our lives. I also find this sentiment in other writers. Marco Iacoboni, the author of Mirroring People: The Science Of Empathy And How We Connect With Others, also lauds the human capacity for empathy, saying that it is one of our defining features (along with other social animals). Alvin Goldman, in Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, And Neuroscience Of Mindreading, also believes that empathy is a crucial part of how people interact with one another. This is no doubt the case. Mirror neurons exist, the enactment-imagination exists, simulation theory seems like a viable theory of mind. But I don’t think that there is quite as much empathy evident as I would like. It seems like people are harsher than that, that they are more dominated and consumed by their own lives than these authors let on.

So what is this lack of empathy in America all about? What is going on that is making it easy for people to bypass empathy and judge people in other ways? How could this supposed human tendency, natural human trait, be muddled or forgotten in this way?

This doesn’t mean that language has no place in empathic thought. On the contrary, I think that language can be used to make us more empathic. That is my solution. But before I elaborate the solution of how language can buttress empathy I would like to focus on two differing qualities of language and empathy: their inclination towards generalization and particularization, respectively.

3. Language and Generalization

So I think that the main thing that prevents language from being easily compatible with empathy is that language tends to generalize things. I think it has something to do with language and the way that language gives us new ways of looking at the world. I think that language simplifies people for us, it labels people for us, and it makes it so that we don’t have to spend much time trying to empathize with people. If we are too wrapped up in believing that a person is a criminal, or is crazy, we don’t need to pay much attention to the particulars of their experience. If we can label someone then we don’t need to go past that label: the label, the word, can stand in for any type of nuanced picture of that person themselves. I think these are the issues with language that Zizek is getting at when he refers to ‘the violence of language’. Language disfigures things, it alters them, both in our perception of them and in their perception of themselves. We can’t label something and act like we aren’t changing that thing in the process of labeling it. A friend referred to this as a Heisenbergian uncertainty phenomenon: we can’t label something without altering it, we can’t observe something with the aid of language without changing it. And unfortunately, I think that using language to classify in this way prevents us from engaging with empathy as much as we could or should. Furthermore, I think that our culture is overloaded with language and symbols. They are everywhere. We have names and labels for everything, and most of those labels have implicit value judgments. I think that our society in particular is one in which language might be drowning out empathy.

It is this ability for language to generalize, its tendency to over simplify things, that causes it to drown out our capacity for empathy. I think the problem with language and generalization will become a little clearer if I explain how empathy requires particularization.

4.Empathy and Particularization

While language is typically used in terms of generalization, I think empathy should be thought of more in terms of particularization. Because when it comes to emotions, empathy, and emotional sensitivity, language comes across as very generalized and doesn’t do very much to help us empathize with people. We speak of ‘anger’, ‘sadness’, ‘confusion’, ‘anxiety’, ‘irritation’, and so on, as if though they were simple, static, and self-evident feelings. But they are far more complex and nuanced than that. At one point in The Principles Of Art Collingwood says that every emotion we feel is always different than the one that came before it. I might feel ‘angry’ and it might be similar to other angers I have felt in the past, but each time it is wholly new, wholly different in its particular cause and manifestations. Emotions are not general, as we like to think, they are nuanced, particular, and embedded in complex social situations.

If we were to take pains to recognize the nuance of emotions I think that people would be more likely to empathize with others. If we were to recognize that emotions are very dependent on our social situation, our context, our history, then we might take these things into account on a more regular basis, and we might empathize with people on a more regular basis.

I guess what I’m getting at is the level of creativity and imagination that is required to really empathize with someone. If we want to understand someone’s thoughts and feelings in complex and rich ways we can’t revert to generalization and labeling. We can’t say ‘oh well she feels sad because her boyfriend broke up with her’, or ‘he is just sad because his dog died’. because that doesn’t do justice to people’s experience. They are so much more complex than that! And while perhaps those words capture the core of it, they don’t capture the nuance of it. So empathy, creativity, and the imagination pretty much go hand in hand. That is why I’m talking about empathy as requiring particularization. We have to push ourselves to treat other people’s experiences as particular, not general.

My life feels pretty god damn particular. I am ‘sad’ sometimes, ‘elated’ at others, even ‘excited’. But why?! You think I live this general existence in which it is just easy, simple, and fun to be a barista? Doing what I do because working for money is what you do?! Outrageous! I feel incredibly contingent, dynamic, complex, weird, uncomfortable, particular. I think and hope that other people also feel complex and nuanced. I hope that other people are turned off by generalization. I hope other people feel robbed of their nuance when they are labeled.

Anyways, this essay is ranty, not academicy. Good.

I think that if we want to empathize with people then we need to recognize that emotions are particular, that empathy requires creativity, imagination, and most importantly, particularization. Now let me try to explain how language can assist us in this quest for particularizing, creative empathy.

5.The Solution: Putting Language Towards The Expansion Of Empathy

So the task is therefore to make it so that language is used to expand our capacity for empathic thought. But how to do this? How to make it so that language loses its overly generalizing nature and acquires instead a sensitive and nuanced view?

Well I guess right now I think that there would have to be two parts to this process of re-empathizing language, re-sensitizing language. We would first have to attack the overly generalized social taxonomies that we work with so as to reveal how they give us an over-simplified perspective. That would be the negative component. Second, we would have to undertake a positive process in which we equipped ourselves with a set of concepts that were more prone to particularizing rather than generalizing.

As for the negative component of attacking our current set of concepts. To me this is the proper project for nihilism. I continue to believe that nihilism is ultimately a positive philosophy that contributes to the larger project that I am searching for, that is bubbling in me. In this case, it is clear that nihilism contributes something to this project of overcoming our overly-generalized set of social labels. I have written on several occasions about how nihilism is the elaboration of certain forms of meaning that are meant to escape other forms of meaning. This is precisely what I am saying we need to do in order to put language at the service of empathy. If we want to be able to use words to become more empathic, and the issue is that words can make us less empathic, then we have to engage in this process in which words are able to help us escape the domination of words. It is articulation that is in search of the ineffable. It is words that are meant to make us better at feeling emotions.

As I explained in the previous section, words have the tendency to generalize our experiences and our perceptions. If we are too quick to label things then we will be dulled to the nuance of our experience. Words get in the way of accurate perception of ourselves and others. So the negative component of this project has to be about overcoming the overly-generalizing nature of words. And I think that nihilism can help us do that. I think if we are willing to use history to attack our vocabulary we would be able to see how inadequately it captures our and other’s experiences. I think that nihilism is an integral component to mindfulness in modern America.

But what about the positive part of the solution? Well, the issue is still that words are often overly-general, but we still have to use words. So what we need to do then is come up with a way of using language that manages to avoid dangerous levels of generalization. We need to reacquaint ourselves with how very particular and nuanced language can be. We need to particularize language. We need to be careful about synonyms and about labels. I’m not saying we can avoid generalization entirely. We just need to be mindful about how we are using language. We need to recognize it as limited but not give up on it entirely. I’m sorry I can’t say this more clearly. But I suppose the issue is that what we require is creativity, is brand new words and ideas, new understandings of things. So I can’t really tell you what this looks like because what it looks like doesn’t exist yet. We need to be creative with the way we think of ourselves and the way we think of others. We somehow need to go about particularizing the language we use.

This isn’t very clear, I realize. But I think that this is a very important thing. I think we need to care about how language prevents us from being empathic, and we need to consider how to use language to become more empathic. Like I said, it has to be creative, so I can’t be precise about what this looks like. But it has to involve both a negative and a positive component–it has to be about attacking our current concepts and about particularizing a new set of concepts. But I would now like to turn to the way I see this as happening within an individual mind. I’d like to give an analysis of how individual minds work and relate to language and empathy in the social world. Hopefully this will help me articulate how I feel that I am trying to go about this process of using language to become empathic.

Part II: Defining The Solution

So in this section I want to do a little bit of work to explain how this process could be undertaken. I think that this has been a major task of mine for the last number of years. This is a very personal essay for me because I feel like have been working so hard at using my intellect to become more empathic and compassionate. I hope that I am not just talking bull shit. I hope that I have really done this. I don’t want to ooze intellect, I want to ooze gentleness, love, compassion, and empathy. I want to be everyone’s mirror. Because I want people to be my mirrors. So I hope that the things that I’m about to talk about will explain how I think of this issue, how I think that things can happen, and how things can change. So first I’m gonna talk about how social life is intuitive, we just do it, we don’t reflect, we just do it. The problem therefore becomes modifying our intuitive behavior. In order to do this I think we need to reckon with how our intuitive behavior is structured, we have to identify our tendencies, our habits, because we have to modify those. So I’m going to talk about the notion of a priori thought and that of mental models. Then I’ll be talking about how intuitive empathy requires the restructuring of models.

6. The Problem Of Autopilot: The Intuitive Nature Of Social Life

Now, I think the problem with this idea of using language to make us more empathic has to do with the intuitive nature of social life. We don’t operate consciously most of the time, we operate on autopilot. We just do things. We walk around living our lives unreflectively for the most part. I just do my thing, I laugh, I smile, I talk to people, all with minimal reflection or conscious thought. I hope this is true for the rest of you as well. I hope you feel that life isn’t all about consciousness, but is about being intuitive. This clashes with some of my other concerns, because I also think consciousness, mindfulness, and all this is very important stuff. But we can’t be ever vigilant. Sometimes we lapse into unreflective behavior. And I should say that I think we are behaving unreflectively most of the time. It is more appropriate to say that sometimes we lapse into consciousness, not the other way around. Autopilot is what we do. Think of driving, think of most our lives.

So the issue becomes modifying autopilot. Changing the way we behave has to come back to changing our default, intuitive, autopilot behavior. But how?! How to change our heart of hearts! Our core of cores! How to feel that we are modifying our intuitive behavior? Well, the first step has to be conceptualizing intuitive behavior adequately. But first a digression.

What am I doing with this writing? What is this language doing to me and to you? Does it feel particular to you? Does it feel general to you? Is my language doing an adequate job of explaining how I want language to bring us empathy and not generalization? Does it seem like this language is doing anything for empathy? I think it is for me. I think the more I push myself to grapple with this problem the more empathic I become. I hope. I am engaging in this articulation to get at the ineffable empathy that I want. I want your emotions. I don’t want you to become my words. I want my emotions to become your emotions. I want my words to become your heart.

Now let me try to more clearly conceptualize intuitive behavior

7. Intuitive Behavior As Structured By A Priori Assumptions And Mental Models

I think that if we want to get a grip on our intuitive behavior, so as to modify it and make it more empathic, we need to have an adequate conceptualization of intuitive behavior. As I said above, I think we need to grapple with the structure of our intuitive behavior. We can notice that we have certain tendencies, there are trends to my behavior. I say certain things, I make certain sounds, I do certain things on a regular basis. My intuitive behavior is structured in certain ways. So how to think of this? Well, I have two alternatives. The first comes from R.G. Collingwood’s notion of the a priori imagination. The second comes from Chris Frith’s discussion of mental modeling.

In The Idea Of History Collingwood discusses what he calls the a priori imagination. He says that when we observe certain things our mind fills in gaps in evidence for us. When we look at a box of matches on the table all we see is two or three sides of it, but our mind automatically perceives it as a fully three-dimensional object with all of its sides. Same thing when we look at a table. All I see right now the top of my table, and a little bit of the legs. But my mind automatically knows that the table has an underside, that it has two legs in the back of it. In these ways my thoughts simply unfold a priori, they unfold automatically based on my assumptions about the physical world. This also applies to the social world. When I see people dressed in certain ways, when I see them doing certain things, it is very easy for me to simply have intuitive judgments of them. I assume that they act or think in certain ways. I see someone holding a door as I approach, for example, I assume that they are holding the door for me. Or I see a guy dressed in a certain way, I automatically make certain assumptions about him. Not that I mean to. I just have all these intuitive understandings of how things work in the physical and social world. I assume a lot of things without knowing it. My thought unfolds a priori because it is structured in certain ways. I think that this same idea can be spoken of in terms of how our brain models the world.

In Making Up The Mind: How Our Brain Creates Our Mental World Chris Frith discusses how our brains models reality for us. He talks about it in terms of ‘getting ahead through prediction’. That our brain wouldn’t be able to deal with complex information if it was simply receiving input all the time. On the contrary, the brain models reality, attempts to predict it, so that it can deal with it more efficiently. This is why he says that ‘perception is a fiction that coincides with reality’. What we are dealing with is not raw perception of reality, but our brains constructed model of reality. This is why sometimes we wake up at night and we think we see a person in the room, only for them to disappear when we turn on the light. Perception is not passive, it is active and constructive. Our brain builds reality for us, it doesn’t simply perceive it. Many of our social interactions likely function on these mental models. We perceive things to happen in certain ways, we categorize in certain ways, based on models. We think of ‘men’ and ‘women’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ people, ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘asian’ people. It doesn’t matter how fluid these categories are or how much they blend because our brain has locked them in as a model of reality. Our perception goes along these lines.

The most important point is that these models are not innate and static. They are not hardwired, but are rather cultural. In The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge has an appendix called ‘The Culturally Modified Brain’. In that section he explains how our exposure to culture changes the way that we perceive reality. A good example is that Inuit are able to perceive upwards of 100 shades of snow. Because they have more than 100 words for snow, their experience registers that on a certain day this kind of snow was around. Culture determines what we do and what we do not perceive. Because the brain is plastic and changes based on our experiences, our mental models of reality are formed by our exposure to culture. Because our models of reality are culturally crafted this means several different things. First, it means that our intuitive behavior is not static, essential, or hardwired, but is rather plastic and culturally determined. This means that we have hope of changing. Second, this means that our mental models are likely overly-generalized by our cultures tendency to label and categorize. In short, if our overly generalized mental models are cultural and not essential, then we have the potential to change them, and overcome our reliance on overly generalized thought. Let me explore this more fully.

8. Intuitive Empathy As Requiring The Restructuring of Mental Models

I’ve made some important connections about how it is that intuitive behavior is structured. Now to bring this back full circle to the issue at hand. If we want to become more empathic, and we want to use language to become more empathic, then we have to think of it in terms of mental models and their restructuring. This is because our behavior in the social world is primarily intuitive, and because that intuitive behavior is structured by our mental models of reality. So if we want to become more empathic we have to be willing to restructure our intuitive thought. We have to be willing to grapple with our culturally determined models of reality and to recognize the ways that they either encourage or discourage empathy. As I said above, I think that our mental models of reality are overly generalized and categorized, because I think our society is overly categorized. The task is thus to create new mental models that would make us intuitively more open to empathy and particularization of experience.

Now that I have defined the solution as using language to 1. identify our existing cultural models, and 2. to create new mental models that would make us more empathic, let me try to explain how this could be done. How can we enact this solution?

Part III: Enacting The Solution

So, in order to enact this solution I think we need to take three distinct steps, all of which will blend in some kind of weird reflective process. But I think that nonetheless I can identify three distinct steps in this process. First, we need to grapple with our already determined models of reality. Because the bottom line is that we already think certain things, have certain mental models, simply because we were raised in a certain cultural and historical situation. Second, after having discovered our already existing models, we need to go about modifying those models so as to have them more under our control. Finally, we need to engage in a process of reflection in which those new models are internalized and can change our intuitive behavior.

9. Exploring Our Mental Models: Personal Archeology

So this first step of exploring our already determined mental models I think can be called ‘personal archeology’. It is as if though we are digging up parts of ourselves that are submerged deep in our mind. The structures of our thought have the quality of being hidden from us. They are elusive, they lie below the surface and influence us without our knowledge. So what we have to do is dig them up. We have to expose them. We have to go down deep into ourselves and figure out ‘why the hell do I think this way? Why the hell do I think any way at all?’ And this is a question that has to be historical in nature. Because our culture is historically created, and our mental models are cultural, it follows that our mental models are also historical. Duh.

This phrase personal archeology is actually inspired by Michel Foucault’s notion of historical archeology, the archeology of knowledge. I think that Foucault’s notion of archeology is actually something like the archeology of the unconscious of society. The archeology of our mental models of reality. It is an archeology of our perception of reality. I think that Foucault’s work does a huge amount of this work for us. It can show us why we think of sexuality in the ways we do, why we think of crime, medicine, insanity, all of that, in the very particular ways that we do. So the first step in overcoming categorization’s hold on empathy is to perform an archeology of our mental models of reality. Then we will have determined why we are thinking the way that we do. We will understand our own generalization in new ways. And hopefully then we will be able to move past those overly-general forms of thinking. Maybe then we will be able to see more then ‘men’ and ‘women’ who are ‘sad’ or ‘angry’, but rather particular people dealing with unique circumstances and emotions. We will then maybe we will be able to intuitively engage in a particularizing form of empathy rather than an over-generalized glossing of empathy. Now for the modification.

10. Modifying Our Mental Models: Intellectually Buttressing Empathy

So after we have exposed our already existing mental models the task becomes the modification of those models. Once we have dealt with our set of culturally formed concepts we can potentially go about changing how we relate to them, and thus the way we relate to ourselves and others. As I’ve been saying, that I think our culture encourages insensitive and unempathic engagement with other people. So once we have realized the way that our culture’s use of language encourages this insensitivity, how do we go about becoming more empathic? Well, I think the answer lies primarily in experience. Because empathy is all about experience.

10a. Empathy and Experience

In Simulating Minds Alvin Goldman discusses simulation theory of mind. He posits that we understand people by an extended form of empathy which he calls simulation. He discusses what he calls ‘experience-deficient simulation’. Meaning that when certain people try to imagine how someone feels, it becomes incredibly hard to imagine their feelings if you have never had a similar experience. People with a damaged amygdala, for example, cannot feel anger, and therefore have a very hard time understanding why other people are feeling angry. This extends more generally to the issue of empathy. I believe there is something called experience-deficient empathy. When we don’t have experience with other people it becomes very hard for us to feel for them, to empathize with them. If we don’t know what it is like to be poor it is easy for generalization to step in and just tell us that they are lazy or stupid. We might not realize how hard it is to pull ourselves out of a bad economic situation because our experience doesn’t give us a very rich palette to empathize with them. I think that in our culture we might have very narrow experiences. We don’t always get a sense of how dynamic and weird people’s lives can be. They can have such weird experiences. Life can be so hard. But we might not experience that directly. Wealthy people might not have much experience with poverty. Straight white people might not have much experience with feeling alienated and abnormal. And like I said, that could prevent us from being able to empathize with people. It might encourage us to simply label and categorize people and not empathize with them. The issue then becomes acquiring as much experience as possible so as to expand our capacity for empathy. So how to get experience?

10b. The Humanities And Acquiring Synthetic Experience As Expanding The Empathic Palette

So what we really need in order to become more empathic is experience. We need to have lots of experience so that we can feel for more people in more situations, so that we don’t so quickly revert to linguistic categorization, but can more readily experience people’s emotions for ourselves. I like to think of this as the expansion of the empathic palette. If empathy depends on our experiences, then there must be a certain body of experience that we use to engage in empathy. This is what I’m calling the empathic palette. So how to get experience? How to expand our empathic palette?

I think that we can get experience from more places than just life. Of course, living life has to be our first way of acquiring experience. We have to talk to people, we have to go places, do things, meet people. So first of all experience has to come from real life, and most importantly from relationships with other people. Other people are the bread and butter of life. So experience in reality is other people’s experiences. The mingling of experience. The sharing of experience! What a delight it is to know that others too are alive and breathing with their dynamic and painful lives!

But apart from real life and other people’s real experiences, we can acquire experience from language itself, from reading and writing. I think that there is such a thing as synthetic experience. Alvin Goldman corroborates this idea in Simulating Minds by showing that the imagination invokes the actual qualities of experience. When we imagine being sad our brain is identical to when we actually feel sad. That means that imagining things is almost as good as actually doing them. So then, doesn’t the humanities suddenly take on a vital new importance? The humanities becomes an enormous store of synthetic experience. Think of all the worlds we could visit through language: fictional worlds, historical worlds, contemporary foreign worlds. There is an enormous store of experience out there in the humanities that we can tap into. And I think if we are willing to take that world seriously, if we are willing to read it with a potent imagination, we will be gaining access to all kinds of experience that will aid us in our quest for empathy.

In this way the humanities could be a way to intellectually buttress our capacity for empathy. We would be learning a new set of terms to think of people in. Historical terms, fictitious terms, empathic terms. These synthetic experiences would then transport into the real world and change the way that we engage with other people.

The modification of mental models therefore comes back to the acquisition of certain types of experience. And I think that the humanities can provide us with synthetic experience that will make us capable of empathizing with more people in a variety of situations. This is all an intellectual and linguistic process. We would be thinking hard about our own thoughts and experiences, and would be reading lots of things. But this is an instance in which intellectual work is meant not to make us smarter, but to make us more sensitive and empathic. This would be intellectual work that would change our intuitive behavior and make us more empathic. This is articulation that would be expanding our capacity to understand the ineffable world of emotions and experience. But this deliberate process wouldn’t be everything. Because we would have to make sure that these linguistic processes worked their way into our unconscious, intuitive world. That is the topic of the final section.

11. Re-internalizing Our Mental Models: Mindfulness As A Mental Model

So once we have dug up our old culturally determined models, and once we have gone about the process of modifying them through the acquisition of synthetic experience, how would we re-internalize them? How would we be sure that these newly constructed models would make it into our intuitive lives? Well, I think that the answer has something to do with reflection and rumination. We would have to be willing to daydream about these issues, let them float in our mind in uncertain ways, let them just be. But I think that if we were to reflect on these things carefully, take time to let them sink in, we would be able to internalize these things.

The main thing that I would want this to do would be to make us mindful. It would ideally enable us to pay attention to our experience and other people’s experiences in attentive ways. We would be more sensitive, more loving, more particularizing about how we treated other people. But there is tension between the issue of mental modeling and that of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about overcoming our overly-generalized perspective. Mindfulness believes that concepts and words get in the way of accurate perception. So how is it that mindfulness and mental models can both be possible? I think that this can be the case. But only if we recognize that mindfulness itself can be a mental model of the world. Mindfulness, though, would be a model of the world in which we are far more open to how particular people’s experiences our, how particular lives are, and how much imaginative effort it takes to really empathize with people. So then this is a task: to create a mental model of the world that is open enough to enable mindful observation. We need to encounter all kinds of different experiences and people so that we can say ‘holy shit none of these generalizations are adequate. I can’t believe how nuanced people and the world are and how hard I have to work to appreciate their complexity’. We need to be able to create a model of reality that is aware of the limitations and danger of language. Only then will our intuitive behavior be able to be constantly empathic and sensitive.

12. Conclusion: The Paradox Of Empathy And Language

So that is that. I don’t know how I feel about this essay. I think it is all over the place and lacks continuity. I started out by trying to define the problem. I wanted to explain how there is tension between the tendencies of language and empathy. I think that language is more inclined to make us generalize, to simplify things. While empathy, on the other hand, has a lot more to do with particularization, with appreciating the nuance of things. I then tried to outline a solution in which language itself could be used to help us become more empathic. I said that it had to address the intuitive nature of social life, so the issue thus becomes modifying our default behavior, our intuitive thoughts and actions. I then explained how our intuitive behavior is structured by a priori assumptions and mental models of reality. I then explained how our capacity for empathy would therefore have to be expanded by restructuring our mental models. I then tried to explicate how we would go about restructuring our mental models. I tried to claim it would be three part process of exploring our old mental models, then altering them through the acquisition of synthetic experience, and finally the internalization of these new models through reflection and mindfulness. The goal would ideally be a mindfulness in which we were able to appreciate people as nuanced individuals that needed to be treated as particulars and not generalities or labels.

The hardest part of all of this is the way that language is paradoxically the thing to battle and the weapon that we are battling with. We need to overcome the tendency of language to dull our perception, to make it too focused on generalities, categories, archetypes, and so on. But the only way to overcome this aspect of language is to use language itself. We have to use language to attack the generality of our culturally determined language. We have to be creative with language to change our mental models of reality. We have to use language to enable empathy and mindfulness. This is so confusing to me.

This paradoxical nature of the relationship between language and empathy. They are both so necessary. They go hand in hand. Yet language can overrun empathy if we aren’t careful. And we can’t use language to simply replace our categories. We have to use language to overcome our categories. We have to use language to overcome language. It is so confusing. If articulation of empathy is ever done for its own sake we are making a huge mistake. Articulation of empathy is only useful if it puts us in touch with the ineffable, the inarticulable world of emotions. Articulation of empathy must leads to the transcending of language, and into the realm of the ineffable.

Original notes:

The notion of water should be in here. We should talk about submerging and raising. Because the water metaphor is helpful.

It seems like it does have to come back to the issue of mental modeling. The main concern should be the way the language changes our mental models, guides our assumptions, guides our interactions.

So it has to come back to this paradoxical idea of creating a model of mindfulness that would allow us to be compassionate.

Hmm. Using language to alter things. To change our models. To restructure our a priori thought.


  1. This font is so painfully small. My eyes are fleeing the screen. If these essays are gonna be accessible to me I can either get an e-reader, a printer, or your voice to read them aloud. I squint enough. Argh formatting! What's involved in the planning of an essay?! Craft!?!

  2. Ha, as a majorly important side note, if you click on the essay it takes you to the stand alone page where the font is much more reasonable. My apologies. The size is still an eyesore on the front page. The question of meticulously crafted essays remains (see your previous post). Guess I should relent, just click and read.

  3. The human-verifying permission-to-post generated word I had to type in was 'grating', too hard to resist mentioning. Psh, I can't wait till its not just humans that are consistently good at those things.

  4. I tried to fix the font! I swear! I'm not sure why it won't fix itself. It has something to do with the fact that I copied and pasted it from a word document.

  5. Also, I think the issue of meticulously crafted essays is answered in this essay. It is an articulation that is meant to get beyond articulation itself. You pose a serious question, no doubt. Also, human-verifying permission-to-post generated word. I don't know what that means. We will talk in person about these things when you come get Brats with me tomorrow at 1:30. Do it! But yeah, meticulosuly crafting essays creates a set of new thoughts and habits that will hopefully translate to new intuitive behavior in the social world. I think I tired to answer that in this essay, but don't think I did a good job. This is an incredibly hard issue for me. This essay is only the beginning of my probing into it (I hope).