Study: Why the Capacity to Pretend Matters for Empathy

A phenomenological insight in the debate on empathy is that it is possible to directly perceive other people’s emotions in their expressive bodily behaviour. Contrary to what is suggested by many phenomenologists, namely that this perceptual skill is immediately available if one has vision, this paper argues that the perceptual skill for empathy is acquired. Such a skill requires that we have undergone certain emotional experiences ourselves and that we have had the experience of seeing the world differently, which is a form of pretence.

By investigating how we retain knowledge of what is real while pretending, that is, how we anchor the experience of pretence in something that is not pretended, the paper argues that we split our experiential perspective into a double perspective, which differs from the cognitive act of understanding what a perspective is. With this notion in hand, we can return to the debate on empathy. It is argued that in order to have the capacity for direct empathic perception, one must have undergone experiences involving a double perspective.