Stein’s Account of Empathy

To propose that we can empathize with Walter White seems problematic in the sense that Walter White is not actually a human being. It’s not that Walter White’s actions are so immoral that we no longer regard him to be human. Rather, the problem is that he is a fictional character, and whatever mode of existence fictional characters enjoy, it is radically different than the one we humans enjoy when we order a pizza and specifically do not throw it on the roof of the garage1 (“Caballo Sin Nombre”). From the outset, we can identify two clear means of differentiating fictional characters from humans: the latter are composed of flesh and bone, and also have the capacity to respond when we ask them why, for example, the pizza is on the roof of the garage. Of course, it’s wrong to claim that fictional characters lack any sort of material component—the pixels on our TV screens are just as material as the corpuscles of blood running through our veins. That both fictional characters and human characters have a material ontic base, however, doesn’t imply that they are the same sort of things. Different kinds of material arrayed in different ways can yield fundamentally different kinds of entities. That fictional subjects cannot be enough like us based on differences in their material constitution is the topic of our second section. The second claim, that fictional entities lack the capacity to respond to our queries, seems much more problematic. I can walk over to the science building and ask a chemistry professor how to make wonderfully pure meth, and while I might not like the answers or the police officers who subsequently come knocking on my door, I can be sure that both the chemistry professor and the police officers are beings like me because they have the capacity to respond to my actions. And yet through all five seasons of Breaking Bad, Walter White never once answered my question of why he seemed to prefer to wear tighty-whities.

In On the Problem of Empathy, Edith Stein points out that we can feel empathy toward an entity under two conditions: if it fits into our phenomenal world, and if it demonstrates a capacity to communicate with us. Walter White fulfills both of these conditions. We are transfixed by his descent from a fine upstanding school teacher to the morally reprehensible drug czar who allows his partner to be tortured by white supremacists (“Ozymandias,” “Granite State,” “Felina”). Elaborating on the nature of the “individual” with whom we empathize, Stein notes:

.. .[T]his living body is not given as a physical body, but as a sensitive, living body belonging to an “I,” an “I” that senses, feels, and wills. The living body of this “I” not only fits into my phenomenal world, but is itself the center of my orientation of such a phenomenal world. It faces this world and communicates with me.2

While we cannot merely identify a fictional character with a “living body,” we should note that an object of our empathy need only exist in the phenomenal world and engage in acts that the audience can recognize as meaningful. Though he is clearly different from us in all sorts of substantive ways, we can empathize with Walter White because he exists as something to be encountered, which does seem to amount to a form of communication, in the sense that information is conveyed to the viewer.

In particular, fictional entities exist in the phenomenal world but have no particular spatio-temporal extension, no location in time and space. Roman Ingarden makes this point when he illustrates the absurdity of asking questions about the location of a work of art. Ingarden writes:

What is it supposed to mean, for example, that Beethoven’s sonata, opus 13, is “here”? Where is “here”? In this room, or in the piano, or in the section of space over the piano? And if the sonata is performed at the same time in ten different cities, is one and the same sonata then supposed to be in ten different places? That is an obvious absurdity.3

Like the characters appearing in various works of art that may function as subjects we can empathize with, our empathetic acts are not a species of our perception of the external world (i.e., our outer perception). We cannot identify empathy with outer perception because anything perceived as a part of the world external to consciousness has a very specific spatio-temporal localization. Empathy, on the other hand, defies any attempt to localize its object.4 While there may be a subject in the world external to consciousness that I empathize with, the process of my empathizing may expand to refer to other spatiotem- poral objects. That empathetic acts are not part of our perception of the world external to consciousness implies that empathy might be a sort of inner perception. In characterizing empathy in this way, we need to be careful to distinguish it from our memories: none too happy with the identification of empathy and memory, Stein clarifies the nature of memory:

The memory of a joy is primordial as a representational act now being carried out, though its content of joy is non-primordial. This act has the total character of joy which I could study, but the joy is not primordially and bodily there, rather as having once been alive (and this “once,” the time of the past experience, can be definite or indefinite). The present non-primordiality points back to the past pri- mordiality. This past has the character of a former “now.” Accordingly, memory posits, and what is remembered has being.5

When we remember something, the act of remembering is present with us as something right here and now, but also points to something in the past. When we remember a trip to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, for example, this memory is not primordial in the sense that its content is only here with us now as something that has already come and gone. In other words, the act of memory is dependent on the existence of some prior event, and this is why the act of remembering is not primordial. Though our memories may seem real, they are really more akin to Badger’s meth-induced delusions of grandeur, which no matter how vivid and how profound, derive their entire measure of reality from something else. While our memories might take us out of the dark places we end up, and, like in Walt’s case, might provide some measure of comfort on those cold and lonely New Hampshire nights, these memories merely posit the existence of actual acts and events. Our memories are just the unreal things we summon and metaphorically cling to in order to give our lives a small degree of happiness, as in Jesse’s case, for example, when our business partner has betrayed us and our lover is dead.

When we are empathizing with Walt’s plight as he gets his initial cancer diagnosis, this act is performed in our present lived experience. Elaborating on the nature of empathy and the content of empathetic acts, Stein explains:

[I]t [the content of our empathizing] arises before me all at once, it faces me as an object (such as the sadness I “read in another’s face”). But when I inquire into its implied tendencies (try to bring another’s mood to clear givenness to myself), the content, having pulled me into it, is no longer really an object. I am no longer turned to the content but to the object of it, am at the subject of the content in the original subject’s place. And only as successfully executed clarification, does the content again face me as an object.6

When we empathize with Walt, we are drawn into what we imagine his psyche might be based on his words and gestures. Our empathic connections with Walt blur the ontological boundaries between subject and object to such a degree that we identify with him. Only once this identification has occurred do we come to realize that Walt is a violent other with whom we empathize. For example, the joy that we feel when Walt seems to truly become “the one who knocks” does not come from us, but from his own sinister glee. Our process of empathizing is distinct from the process of remembering, in the sense that remembering is specifically a remembrance of a past which has obtained as something real, and when we empathize with Walt, he is something that obtains in our present.

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