Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences

Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences

Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences

Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences

Synopsis

How do we, as interpreters and theorists in the human and social sciences, understand agency? What are the methods, models, and mediating theoretical frameworks that allow us to give a reliable and adequate account of beliefs, actions, and cultural practices? More specifically, how can we as interpretive analysts employ our own cognitive capacities so as to render the beliefs, intentions, and actions of other human beings intelligible? These are the leading questions that a group of well-established social philosophers explore in this volume in light of the most recent (and hotly debated) findings in cognitive science, developmental psychology, and philosophy of mind. In particular, the debate concerning simulation -- whether agents interpret others by means of implicit theoretical assumptions, or whether they rather simulate their behavior by putting themselves in their shoes -- has produced a wide set of important empirical and philosophical insights. This book takes up those insights and discusses their impact in the context of their most important paradigms in social methodology today. A systematic introduction pertaining to the understanding-explanation debate sets the stage, followed by eleven chapters representing the different approaches tot he field. The paradigms include Wittgensteinian, Davidsonian and Diltheyan approaches, hermeneutics and critical theory, game theory, naturalized epistemology, philosophy of history and twentieth-century social theory, as well as simulation approach proper. As stake are the relation between everyday and social-scientific interpretation, the role of empathy (or role-taking) in understanding human agency, the implications of attributing rationality in the course of interpretation, as well as the relation between rational and causal models in social explanation. The discussions cut across well-established disciplinary boundaries so that the book appeals to both analytic and hermeneutic traditions within philosophy. In addition, the book speaks to all who are engaged in interpreting or explaining human agency in the cultural and social sciences.

Excerpt

In philosophy of mind and cognitive psychology, we have recently witnessed a revived interest in empathy, or simulation, as a cognitive tool for understanding others. By focusing on the question of how we gain knowledge of other minds, and whether we use simulation/empathy or theory as a means for this task, philosophy is rediscovering a topic that has been at the center of controversy in the philosophy of social science. "Simulation," as presented in recent cognitive psychology and philosophy of mind, is a challenge to the established orthodoxy that the understanding of others is based on theory or rationality. Evidence about the cognitive development of young children suggests that instead of using a "theory" to predict and understand others, we rather imaginatively put ourselves into the other's situation. in this vein, the role of emotions and motivations for making sense of others is emphasized. Understanding human agency is thus not the same as explaining how something in the material world occurs. This idea dovetails well with the conception of empathic understanding, or Nacberleben (reliving), of some paradigms in the philosophy of social science. in early hermeneutic thought, "empathy" was construed as a special method of access to historical and cultural phenomena due to the psychological similarity between interpreter and interpretee. It has been taken to break the monopoly of explanatory methods established by the natural sciences. Instead of just explaining and constructing external phenomena, interpreters in the human and social sciences "understand" the social or cultural world, that is, they relive and reexperience its meaning.

Yet in light of the cognitive revolution, linguistic turn, and what we might call "the unchallenged orthodoxy of the interpretive turn," philosophers of social science from almost all traditions tend nowadays to be skeptical and negligent about the role of empathy for understanding human agency. We believe that the new and overwhelming evidence from cognitive psychology and the philosophy of mind challenges the methodological status quo in the human and social sciences. We have conceived this anthology in the belief that the contemporary discussion justifies a renewed investigation of empathy within the realm of philosophy of social science by taking into account the current arguments for empathy/simulation in cognitive psychology and the philosophy of mind. At stake are issues like the relation . . .

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