Ann Astell on Empathy in the work of Girard, Stein, and Weil

Astell, Ann W. “Saintly Mimesis, Contagion, and Empathy in the Thought of Rene Girard, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil.” SHOFAR Winter 2004 Vol 22, No 2, 116-131.

Astell draws on the work of Girard, Stein, and Weil to construct an understanding of positive mimesis grounded in empathy, which she distinguishes from mimetic contagion as a mental state which takes on the perspective of the other without losing the perspective of the self. Such empathy with the afflicted, which requires a real self-emptying, can immunize one against the mimetic contagion of the scapegoat mechanism.

“Edith Stein (1891-1942) and Simone Weil (1909-1943) [were] women mystics, at once Jews and Christians, whose lives were marked by an extraordinary compassion for others, both of whom died prematurely in the violent tide of the Shoah.” (117) Their dual identities as scapegoated Jew and scapegoating Christian during such an intense period of genocidal violence surely gave them particular insight into the workings of the scapegoat mechanism, the power of mimetic contagion, and the contravening power of empathy.

Stein describes empathy as a process in which the subject imaginatively inhabits the experience of the other while retaining her own perspective and sense of self. Empathy inhabits the experience of the other, without becoming immersed in the identity of the other. Thus it is distinct from the “contagious transference of feeling” involved in mimetic contagion, because it “preserves a sense of subjective difference.” (120) This sophisticated process discerns sameness and differentness, dances subject and object. Neither appropriating the other nor abdicating the self, empathy is imaginative companionship.

Astell compares Stein’s understanding of empathy to that of Robert M. Gordon, who analyzes empathic experience from least to most sophisticated, as follows:

– infant mimicry of facial expressions, which is purely physiological, and gaze, which begins the socialization process. This is most similar to transferred feelings, abdicating the self and becoming immersed in the feelings of the other as if what has happened to them has also happened to you. (This is an element of a codependent relationship, where the self is insufficiently separated from the other.)

– mentally simulating the situation, but not the perspective, of the other. This is the basic operation humans perform to predict the behavior of others. It is most similar to appropriating the experience of the other, because it takes on the immediate situation but not the entirety of the other’s history and experience that is constitutive of identity.

An example that occurred to me is the man who dismisses women’s experience of street harassment on the grounds that he would take it as a compliment: he has failed to appreciate the effect of pervasive harassment, microaggressions, and rape culture that shapes women’s experience of a single catcall. This further relates to the dismissal of the Golden Rule formulation “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”: such dismissals accurately diagnose that different individuals have different desires, and the formulation of the rule does not demand that this be taken into account.

– taking on the perspective of another, by an “imaginative shift in the reference of indexicals [‘I,’ ‘here,’ ‘now’] . . . Amounts to a recentering of one’s ‘egocentric map’ at a different point altogether, moving it from one’s own “I” to that of the other” (Gordon, 734, quoted in Astell, 124). The consciousness of the other “stands in the foreground” of the subject (124).

Stein argued that empathizing with those who are similar helps develop one’s own self; empathizing with others who are different from us aids in accurate self-assessment. (Astell 125) “From the viewpoint of the zero point of orientation gained in empathy, I must no longer consider my own zero point as *the* zero point, but as a spatial point among many. By this means, and only by this means, I learn to see my living body as a physical body like others.” (Stein OPE 64, quoted in Astell 126). Thus, one might say that empathy functions as an anthropological principle of relativity.

Stein observes that it is imperative to develop and use both the ability to distinguish between the primordial and the non-primordial, and to empathize with those whom we have been socialized to hate, in order to resist the contagion of the mob. (129)

Astell describes the work of Simone Weil as arguing for a radical de-centering, to take ourselves out of the center of our own imaginative world, in order to make room to experience the other, creation, and God. Weil uses the term “decreation” for this process, and argues that it is the means of “understanding and imitating” God’s kenotic creativity. (126-7) Both beauty that arrests us, and affliction that crushes us, are involuntary modes of decreation.

Empathy is a form of voluntary decreation, especially empathy with the afflicted.

“Like and with Christ, who emptied himself of glory (Phil 2:5-8), the one who empathizes with the afflicted person empties himself. . . He expends his energy on a powerless person, desiring that person to exist.” The imaginative act of inhabiting the experience of an afflicted other is a form of self-renunciation, and is, according to Stein, “a redemptive act.” (127, emphasis mine)

Whereas Stein focuses on the relationship between the empathizing subject’s “I” (the primordial ‘I’) and the “I” of the other (the non-primordial ‘I’), Weil insists that empathy “with an afflicted person, who has been stripped of his human identity, requires simultaneously empathy with God and the self-emptying that gives way to God’s activity.” That is, it isn’t that we love God and thereby the afflicted other; it is that God loves the afflicted other through us.

“The one capable of empathy takes the side of the victim, whereas the mob, moved by a wave of transferred emotions, seizes upon a scapegoat.” (128)

I didn’t understand until I was writing this response why Astell chose to open her paper with a discussion of the life of Catherine of Siena, who lived in solidarity with the sick, particularly lepers; became ill herself; was miraculously healed while burying a leprous woman; and subsequently became a mediator, someone who could cross back and forth between the insider/elect and the outsider/scapegoats. It’s true that she exemplifies the pattern identified by Girard as someone who contracts a disease, survives it, and whose subsequent immunity grants them the status of a mediator. And it’s true that the physical contagion of leprosy is similar to the contagion of violence. But I didn’t really see what that had to do with empathy.

But now I do. Empathy is imaginatively taking the place of the victim. It is an imaginative act of volition that corresponds to the external actions of speaking up, stepping apart from the mob, and standing with the victim. Empathy moves us internally along the path that Catherine lived externally, and so enables us not only to be defenders of victims, but mediators across the boundary between rival groups caught up in the plague of violence.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Empathy is the gift of the Spirit that empowers us to live out this beatitude.

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3 Responses to Ann Astell on Empathy in the work of Girard, Stein, and Weil

  1. edwinrutsch says:

    some more on empathy;
    Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

  2. Pingback: Review: Edith Stein: Scholar, Feminist, Saint | Gaudete Theology

  3. Pingback: Stations of the Cross | Gaudete Theology

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