This course will introduce a range of ways of thinking about empathy, and the related qualities of sympathy and compassion. It will take us on an intellectual investigation from Jesus’ teaching of parables in the first century CE to the work of the eighth-century Buddhist monk Śāntideva on compassion to Enlightenment philosophy to Silicon Valley’s adoption of empathy in the twenty-first century.
The main focus will be on the modern period (from the 18th to 20th century) and you will be asked to approach different genres of text through the lens of empathy. For example, you might be asked to contrast the philosophical approach of reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) with the analytical tools needed to read a nineteenth-century novelist such as Charles Dickens.
You will read and assess scientific research in neuroscience and biology that explores whether empathy is learned or instinctual, universal or particular to certain contexts. Finally, you will work with the playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith (who will be Visiting Artist at Stanford in October).
You will read one of her plays, engage in workshop exercises on empathy and drama led by Professor Smith, and read Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in preparation for seeing her live performance of the Letter in Stanford’s Memorial Church. This course satisfies the Engaging Diversity (ED) WAY.