The Strength of Weak Empathy

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This paper builds on a neglected philosophical idea, Evidenz. Max Weber used it in his discussion of Verstehen, as the goal of understanding either action or such things as logic. It was formulated differently by Franz Brentano, but with a novel twist: that anyone who understood something would see the thing to be understood as self-evident, not something dependent on inference, argument, or reasoning. The only way one could take something as evident in this sense is by being able to treat other people as having the same responses – by empathy with them, in the weak sense of following their thought. Brentano's philosophical claim is that without some stopping point at what is self-evident, justifications fall into infinite regress. This is radically opposed to much of conventional philosophy. The usual solutions to the regress problem rely on problematic claims about the supposed hidden transcendental structure behind reasoning. In contrast, empathy is a genuine natural phenomenon and a better explanation for the actual phenomenon of making sense of the reasoning of others. What is evident to all who are capable of understanding is an empirically-defined subset of this class.

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Science in Context, v. 25, issue 3, p. 383-399