The Empathic Dogma

Nolde_Masks1911(Part 2 of Against Empathy.)

Empathy—what a beautiful surrogate for the disempowered. –Jan Slaby

Western x-buddhism prides itself on being an exemplary supplier of a supposedly much-needed salve to contemporary social and interpersonal conflict: empathy. But according to Jan Slaby anything approaching a robust sense of empathy–literally feeling another’s pain–would require an untenable concept of personhood. It would require, for instance, objectification of the other person through an imagined, egoistically-informed pretense to experiential correspondence. Such an imposition is nothing short of an usurpation of agency. That the prevailing x-buddhist view of empathy mimics this popular view is particularly pernicious since it requires the inclusion of an (ostensibly) impermissible metaphysical feature: an atman. In contemporary western x-buddhism, empathy is understood as an encounter or “resonance” between discrete minds. Ironically, x-buddhists may abandon this absurdity by insisting on a notion of agency that is more consistent with classical-buddhist teaching in the first place. Such a notion will require, for instance, a revaluation of the currently anathema concept of reactivity, whereby the presumed certitude of “empathic resonance” is replaced by the non-presumptuous interaction with other people, of reacting, that is, with incertitude, to, for instance, gesture, facial expression, and language. But to do so, western x-buddhists will have to forgo their celebration of the currently fashionable theory of Human Nature 2.0.

Concerning the topic of empathy, what is most in need of analysis is the remarkably swift change in style, direction and normative tendency within both social brain research and science-inspired accounts of human nature in the past thirty or so years. (21; for references and links, see “Against Empathy” post.)

In short, according to Slaby, this shift concerns the recent scuttling of Human Nature 1.0 for Human Nature 2.0.  This topic is central to a critique of contemporary x-buddhism because Human Nature 2.0 has, like the belief in empathy that is embedded within it, become yet another ingrained–and poorly considered–western x-buddhist dogma.* Continue reading “The Empathic Dogma”