Empathy and the Extended Mind

Here is the intro to Joel’s article:

Often, I tell a joke and the people around me laugh. (Sometimes this laughter even appears to be sincere.) I usually take this reaction to mean that they find my comment amusing. I like to smile at babies whenever possible and relish the bright-eyed facial animation and gestures they offer in response. When I see a young girl crying quietly on the train, discreetly turned toward the window in order to avoid detection, I respond to her grief with my own pangs of sadness. Before heading out for a night on the town, I perceive my wife’s single arched eyebrow to mean that my favorable judgment about the aesthetic harmony I thought obtained between my brown sport coat and favorite orange shirt has been radically mistaken— and that a return trip to the closet is in order. When a stranger on the streets of Copenhagen begins speaking to me, I interpret this as an attempt to convey some sort of thought or desire. I cannot understand the specific content of what he is saying because I do not speak Danish. Nevertheless, I recognize his expressive behavior as that of an agent with a mind like my own, a mind that at that moment wishes to tell or ask me something.

These kinds of interpersonal encounters make up the social fabric of our everyday lives. They happen so frequently as to appear largely unremarkable. Yet despite their taken-for-granted nature, they house important questions about our fundamental nature as social creatures. How is this common interpersonal sensitivity possible in the first place? How am I able to engage with another person as an expressive being and to understand and interpret their cognitive, affective, and motivational states and behavior? In short, how does empathy happen?

In what follows I consider these questions. My focus is on the mechanisms of empathy: the events, processes, and, most crucially, bodily structures that enable the interpersonal sensitivity we so easily take for granted. I use the word empathy in an enlarged phenomenological sense to refer to our ability to perceive both that as well as what another is thinking and feeling and to develop a felt response to these perceived thoughts and feelings. Empathy, I suggest, is our primary mode of access to another person as a thinking, feeling, and expressive agent. Moreover, it is fundamentally, though not exclusively, a bodily practice. Our capacity for empathic engagement connects with the fact of our embodied agency—our ability to perceive and act within the dynamic flow of a continually changing world, including the human social world. This means that a discussion of the mechanisms of empathy ought to include the intentional and expressive body as its protagonist. However, dominant stories about empathy in current philosophy of mind and cognitive science tend to feature rather different characters: inner knowledge structures and other intracranial items (such as theories, imaginative projections, and subpersonal simulation routines) that purportedly take us out of our own head and, indirectly, into that of another. Against these stories, I challenge the internalist orthodoxy of standard accounts of empathy and argue that, to the contrary, empathy is a kind of extended bodily-perceptual process. In other words, it is a bodily activity, and it largely happens outside of the head.

This way of putting the essay’s thesis resonates with ongoing discussions in philosophy of mind and cognitive science of what is commonly referred to as the extended mind thesis (EM). According to EM, some mental states are (potentially) composed of neural, bodily, and, most controversially, worldly, properties—such as tools, artifacts, and technologies; language and other symbolic representations; environmental affordances; sociocultural institutions; and other minds. In short, mind has an extended ontology. It is a dynamically hybrid entity that is quite literally constituted (again, at certain times and in certain contexts) by both biological and nonbiological parts, processes, and particulars both inside and outside of the head. Some cognitive states thus extend beyond the skin and skull of the cognizer. This seemingly counterintuitive thesis has been the subject of much discussion and debate. In what follows, I try to enlarge the EM discussion by coming at it in a slightly different way: namely, by considering EM in the context of social cognition and moral relatedness. My peripheral aim is to broaden the EM dialogue by showing how the notion can potentially enrich our understanding of human sociality and interpersonal sensitivity. I also want to inject a phenomenologically informed discussion of the lived social body into the EM dialogue, an angle that so far has received little consideration. The article proceeds in this way. First, I discuss the idea of interpersonal understanding and the notion of folk psychology. I look at how the two dominant models of interpersonal understanding in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, theory theory and simulation theory, portray the overtly cognitive link between folk psychology and empathy. Next, I challenge their internalist orthodoxy and explanatory reliance on folk psychology and offer an alternative “extended” characterization of empathy. In support of this characterization I analyze the narratives of individuals suffering from Moebius syndrome, a kind of expressive deficit resulting from bilateral facial paralysis. I then shift gears somewhat and, in the third section, conclude by discussing how a Zen Buddhist “ethics of responsiveness” is helpful for articulating the practical significance of an extended, body-based account of empathy and moral relatedness.