In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Literature and Empathy
  • Michael Fischer

Many humanities professors feel anxious about the future of their subject. Declining enrollments, shrinking budgets, a depressed academic job market, and widely publicized gibes by governors and editorialists about the uselessness of the humanities are prompting some humanities scholars—myself included—to wonder occasionally whether anyone is going to carry on the work we care so much about. In her contribution to one of several recent books that I will be examining here on the plight of the humanities, Judith Butler admits, “I even sometimes think maybe I will be lucky enough to leave the earth before I have to see the full destruction of the humanities.”1

Although pressures to demonstrate the value of the humanities cannot be ignored, the case for the humanities must be made carefully.2 Literary study will be my primary focus here, but I imagine other humanities fields face a similar dilemma. Calling the study of literature intrinsically valuable or an end in itself only aggravates parents, students, and taxpayers who want more tangible evidence of its benefits. But reducing the study of literature to the marketable skills it imparts (such as writing) shortchanges why most of us are indebted to it. We professors of literature need to articulate the larger usefulness of studying literature (which can include learning transferable skills) without reinforcing the [End Page 431] narrow, instrumentalist determinations of value that have called literary study into question in the first place.

One increasingly influential response to this challenge defends literature by claiming it promotes empathy, most often defined as the capacity to see the world from other vantage points. The empathy defense has many advantages, including the fact that just about everyone praises empathy. A survey of recent opinion writing in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times and in the Chronicle of Higher Education finds empathy touted as, among other things,

  • • An evolutionary tool for survival

  • • The key to successful fund-raising, classroom teaching, university administration, doctor-patient communication, and drug addiction treatment

  • • A necessary precondition for moral action and judgment

  • • An indispensable means of nonviolent conflict resolution

  • • A reason for the decline of fighting in the National Hockey League.3

Financial advisers need empathy and CEOs do, too. Empathy contributes to such workplace priorities as smart hiring, collaborative problem solving, constructive employee evaluation, and sound management. In the New York Times Sunday business section a headline goes so far as to ask, “Is Empathy on Your Resume?”4

Along with these testimonials to empathy, the absence of empathy gets invoked to explain many things, among them:

  • • The rise in African American incarceration rates

  • • Male physicians overmedicating women patients

  • • Challenges facing political conservatives in presidential elections

  • • Police violence against African Americans

  • • Mass shootings and other horrific killings

With so much riding on the cultivation of empathy, it is not surprising that a Center for Building a Culture of Empathy has been established to promote empathy worldwide through training, community organizing, and publications.5

Adding to the widespread affirmation of empathy may be scientific evidence that reading fiction enhances our ability to detect and understand others’ emotions.6 Moreover, fostering empathy feels like the right fit for literary study right now: neither too audacious (such as achieving wholesale social change) nor too smug (such as T. S. Eliot’s blithely [End Page 432] calling poetry “a superior amusement”).7 Finally, instilling empathy supports the professional benefits of literary study without, however, reducing it to vocational training. In the March 2013 issue of The Rotarian magazine, Frank Bures connects workplace success to empathizing with others, which he argues gets reinforced by the power of fiction to shore up “our ability to imagine what another person is thinking or feeling.”8

Academic advocates for literary study rightly argue that we can get more from literature than improved business skills. What Bures sees as the point of reading fiction, others regard as an unintended, maybe even unwelcome, byproduct. Nevertheless, if we are trying to strengthen public support for studying literature, I do not think we should dismiss out of hand an injunction in The Rotarian to read more novels. Unlike snide dismissals of literature, Bures’s praise...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 431-464
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.