- Reading Stories, Reading (Others’) LivesEmpathy, Intersubjectivity, and Narrative Understanding
Empathy seems to be in short supply nowadays, judging by how we cope with the main challenges of our times. There is despair and devastation in so many parts of the world, yet efforts to invite empathy with the victims from those who are better off and can help often have disappointing results. Consider, among the many examples available, appeals for donations for Syria, which present the desperate situation of the refugees to convince all of us to help them. Here is but one example, an appeal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr) focusing on a special category of victims:
For three years, too many innocent people in Syria have suffered—above all the children of Syria. Over one million Syrian children have fled Syria for safety and three million children remain displaced inside the country. The situation for these children is dire. [End Page 51] These children have lost their homes, seen their loved ones killed, their schools destroyed and their hopes eroded. They have been physically or psychologically wounded and they are vulnerable to the worst types of exploitation. They remain the most vulnerable victims in the conflict.1
If you’ve read this appeal, which by now is already a couple of years old, and decided to donate money to a Syrian refugees fund, then you have probably experienced some degree of empathy with their plight and have been moved by the fact that even the children have to suffer. However, if you won’t rush to make a donation and might even forget completely about this appeal as you go on about the challenges of your own life, it doesn’t mean that you don’t understand that Syrian refugees are suffering. Rather, it is probably because their world and ours remain different and disconnected. Theirs is, in the words of Luc Boltanski (2013), a “distant suffering” from which you and I are detached. Difference is a major obstacle to empathic understanding, but it is also an inevitable feature of intersubjectivity. We can readily be selfish creatures, because we can close ourselves down to the feelings and needs of anonymous others and thereby remain isolated in our own subjectivity, safe and undisturbed by their troubles. What pulls us out of the confines of our own world and makes us more aware of others (and of their needs) is a feeling of recognition, and with it, commitment, that stories can convey more masterfully than any other form of argument.
Narrative theorists have long recognized the role played by narratives in providing knowledge of people, experiences, places, and times that are different from those already familiar to us. For Walter Benjamin (1936), the storyteller had the wisdom of an old sailor who had traveled the world over and returned home full of tales of exotic people and places. Benjamin’s depiction of storytelling as a way to enter another moral universe and be transformed by it is not only compelling but, as recent studies show, empirically verifiable (Kidd and Castano 2013). If reading high-quality literary fictional works improves the ability to understand others’ mental states, can narratives systematically foster empathy? This question is important not only for narrative theory but also for political thought. If narratives can trigger empathic responses, they could be used to promote a compassionate politics that encourages [End Page 52] us to understand extreme experiences that we might have not had the misfortune to encounter. Narratives draw us toward other subjectivities, not merely to observe and examine them but to make sense of them and to look at the world from within their perspectives.
In proposing to study the empathic function of narratives from a hermeneutical perspective, I extend the efforts of Jens Brockmeier and Hanna Meretoja, who have argued that “narrative hermeneutics holds the promise of shedding new light on (the) meaning-oriented, creative, imaginative, and in principle ever-open process of understanding” (2015: 10). To examine narratives in a hermeneutical perspective is an opportunity to clarify the mechanism of intersubjectivity, in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s tradition (1960/2004). My approach situates the tenets of...