‘Empathy, Imaginative Resistance, and Fragmentary Understanding’ 22-6-2023

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‘Empathy, Imaginative Resistance, and Fragmentary Understanding’ 22-6-2023

Date Published: 22 June 2023

Empathy, Imaginative Resistance, and Fragmentary Understanding: Trying to Make Sense of Extremism‘ by Prof. dr. Karsten R. Stueber

The abstract
We commonly explain human actions by pointing to the reasons for which agents have acted. Explanatory understanding of individual human agency is thus gained in that we understand a person’s mental state not merely as inner causes but also as considerations that from the perspective of agents speak for their actions. For that very reason, empathic understanding is also the default method of trying to make sense of each other’s actions. It is only by being able to bring each other’s reasons home to ourselves, as Adam Smith likes to express it, only by grasping how their reasons could be my reasons with the help of imaginative perspective-taking, that we can find other people’s action to be intelligible. Equally important, such understanding is a central precondition for forming social bonds and holding each other accountable on a variety of normative dimensions within the social realm. Yet empathic understanding has a perspectival character since it is dependent on our own outlook towards the world. For that very reason it has its limits, and it encounters unique epistemic difficulties. The greater the differences between what we as agents care about the more difficult it is to reenact another person’s reasons. In some sense, calling other persons extremists, to think of them as holding extremist views or as engaging in extremist behavior, indicates some of the contextual and perspectival nature of ordinary action explanations. It indicates that we are unexpectedly puzzled by the views of relatively ordinary people within our own cultural orbit in the same manner that we are puzzled by people in very different cultures (take, for instance, the Ilongot and their headhunting practices). We experience different degrees of imaginative resistance. Some would argue that in those circumstances we must relinquish the attempt to find reasons for another person’s behavior and appeal to mere causal explanations that highlight situational factors of an agent’s environment, a common way of understanding the results of Milgram’s experiments. In contrast, I will argue that appeal to further theoretical information is better understood as trying to highlight salient features of the agent’s environment that would allow us to find a way of understanding why in certain situations ordinary agents focus only on some aspects of the situation rather than the ones that are most relevant from our perspective. In cases of extremist behavior such information ultimately does not dissolve our puzzlement given that it has from our perspective some rather problematic implications. It ultimately shows that only a fragmentary understanding of extremist beliefs and behavior is possible as the various mode of understanding ordinarily at play in understanding individual agency cannot be unified. Such merely fragmentary understanding is probably one of the root causes for the deep polarization and division that we currently experience.

Information speaker
Prof. dr. Karsten R. Stueber is a professor working in the fields Philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and psychology, philosophy of social science, meta-ethics, and Wittgenstein.