Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 23 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

What is Empathy?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 23 seconds

I am writing this post to begin exploring the notion of empathy, which I have argued previously might be an essential component of a constructive critical citizenship. I am doing this as sort of pre-writing and brainstorming for a book chapter I am writing and a seminar on critical citizenship I will be leading soon. This might turn out to be a series of posts so that I can develop the idea further and bring in various understandings in the literature.

First off, I had been thinking of the expression “put yourself in my shoes” and how inappropriate it really is, because standing in someone else’s shoes does not necessarily equip us to understand how they would think, feel, or behave, had they been in those shoes. Knowing their surrounding circumstances helps. But it does not completely put us in a situation to truly “be them”. Coincidentally, someone said something very similar on facebook recently: that we cannot judge someone without having truly been in their situation with all its complexity. I guess even then we cannot judge them, but the key here is that there are a variety of complex factors that go into understanding why and how a certain “other” thinks, feels or behaves. Below is a really good cartoon about empathy.


Cartoon by: Dave Walker, originally at:

Second, I was reading about Hannah Arendt (in the book Interpretive Pedagogies, and she was quoted for saying “sympathy is not compassion, and compassion is not empathy (‘I’ am not ‘Thou’)” – this happened after the above thoughts came to mind, and reinforced them. They also reminded me that in order to talk about empathy, I need to unpack the connotation of empathy and articulate it further. I need to differentiate it from sympathy and from compassion. I need to clarify what I mean by it (whether individually or in a participatory manner with others) if I am to discuss its importance for critical citizenship, and to discuss ways of possible promoting it within education.

Third, I am reminded again that the traditional understandings of critical thinking do not often incorporate elements of empathy, but that this notion is not completely absent from the literature. It is in infused in Women’s Ways of Knowing as a preference from many women as opposed to antagonistic approaches to critical thinking. It is an element of Edward Said’s “philological hermeneutics” (where you seek to understand the author/creator of a work before critiquing them), and in Martha Nussbaum’s notion of Narrative Imagination (though she distinguishes it from practical reason).

Fourth, I need to go back and look at the references I had previously downloaded on the idea of teaching empathy.

Fifth, I seem to remember reading a popular science book that took a very deterministic and reductionist view that suggested some people had “empathy” and “altruism” genes, and others did not. While I believe there must be some inherent variability in our capacities for empathy, I intuitively expect that it is something that can be nurtured in our environment (e.g. Check out this toy for teaching empathy to kids), and I also have high hopes that those who do not develop a strong sense of empathy in childhood can do so in adulthood (e.g the activity “humility walk”that I often use as an ice-breaker in my classes). I also suspect that one can have empathy in one context but not transfer it to another context, and that, while this is a huge issue (e.g. If it makes one accept human rights abuses against certain individuals/groups one is biased against), I still think it is something we can work on, possibly through a cognitive approach that emphasizes social justice (the other element of critical citizenship that I suggest is essential, but which is already talked about often enough in the critical pedagogy literature, and so is clearer to me than the empathy element).

The above just sets out my thinking about where I stand now on the topic and opens up areas for inquiry in the next few weeks and months, which I plan to blog about. I will keep this blog post short, but include some of the definitions (which I, by no means, take as the “final” definitive understanding) of empathy, compassion and sympathy.

Dictionary definitions: just to start

Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

A fuller definition of empathy in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:

” the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”

But I actually think the shorter definition works well enough (Merriam-Webster also have a short def similar to the Oxford one)

Now, moving onto Sympathy, Oxford has two definitions that work for my purposes to compare it to empathy: “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” – this one is definitely how I normally understand the word sympathy and is definitely different from empathy because of the “pity” factor. The second definition, however, is less clearly differentiated from empathy, “understanding between people; common feeling” – this sounds very much like empathy to me.

Merriam-Webster also has two similar understandings for sympathy, so I won’t repeat here, except that their first definition adds something about “caring” about another’s misfortune, as well as feeling sorry.

Oxford defines it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” – I am unsure how that differentiates it from sympathy!
Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, makes compassion more active: “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.” (emphasis mine).

This quick exercise has helped me get into the mode of looking for nuances in meaning and is helping me think about what I truly do mean about empathy. Moving beyond dictionary definitions will be essential, of course, but this was a good start. Would appreciate any resources anyone can recommend on the meaning or teaching of empathy.

More on this topic soon (interlaced with other topics). But I leave you with this video I foud that differentiates between empathy and sympathy better than the dictionary defs above!

RSA Shorts, empathy


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