Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Alexander Levine, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Lee Braver, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Stephen Turner, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Joanne Waugh, Ph.D.


Empathy, Intersubjectivity, Affectivity, Phenomenology, Biomedical Ethics


This dissertation contributes to the philosophy of empathy and biomedical ethics by drawing on phenomenological approaches to empathy, intersubjectivity, and affectivity in order to contest the primacy of the intersubjective aspect of empathy at the cost of its affective aspect. Both aspects need to be explained in order for empathy to be accurately understood in philosophical works, as well as practically useful for patient care in biomedical ethics.

In the first chapter, I examine the current state of clinical empathy in medicine including professional opinions about empathy, the dominant definition being employed, and the problems that arise from this definition. By trying to define empathy in a way that is useful to the current presuppositions in medicine, clinical empathy aligns with simulation theory, which has three problems: the discrepancy between the way empathy is defined and the way it is explained, the lack of diversity that this theory of empathy allows in our understanding of others, and the lack of affective understanding and affective engagement involved in the patient-physician interaction. These three problems are used to derive three questions that are important for any theory of empathy: (1) What is the phenomenon being explained? (2) What is the intersubjective context of empathy? (3) What is the affective dimension of empathy? The best theory of clinical empathy can be formulated by answering these three questions as they relate to phenomenological theories, which are more attuned to overcoming presuppositions.

Chapters two and three each examine a different phenomenological approach to empathy from opposite extremes in their theories of intersubjectivity. Husserl and Stein begin from an isolated, transcendental subject that needs empathy to bridge the gap between itself and others, while Scheler begins from a primary intersubjectivity in which self and other are undifferentiated, making empathy a largely unnecessary skill. Despite their strongly opposed positions, and the acknowledgement that their theories of intersubjectivity necessitate their theories of empathy, I argue that both fail to understand the affective dimension of empathy. Husserl and Stein leave no room in empathy for it to be an affect, while Scheler prioritizes affects that reunite subjects, but leaves empathy itself as a non-affective skill.

Chapter four explains Gallagher’s interaction theory as a more moderate approach to the relation between empathy and intersubjectivity. He draws on the insights of the other two theories, but conceives of empathy as a multi-leveled phenomenon that allows for an understanding of others. While this theory does aid in addressing the intersubjective context of empathy in a way that best solves the first two problems with clinical empathy, interaction theory still fails to fully address the affectivity of empathy, maintaining empathy as a largely cognitive ability. Gallagher does acknowledge the affective core of empathy, but he does not explain the way in which it is affective. In response to this problem, I explain Anya Daly’s application of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of reversibility to affectivity as a possible solution to the problematic gap in Gallagher’s theory.

Chapter five focuses on theories of clinical empathy in order to address the neglected affective aspects of empathy, and respond to the problem of detached concern. The problems caused by detached concern are explained, as well as why the theories discussed in the middle chapters are still unable to solve them. This is done in two parts. In the first part, I explain the basis of this issue in the cognitive/feeling divide, as explained in the philosophy of emotion. Then, I give a brief overview of the phenomenology of affectivity to be used as a guide to the affectivity of empathy. In the second part, I examine three theories of clinical empathy that attempt to solve the problem of detached concern, noting their strengths and weaknesses based on their similarities to phenomenological approaches to empathy and affectivity.