Could the truism be wrong: the psychopath lacks empathy?
In order that we can understand the ‘callous/lack of empathy’ criterion of the Psychopath Checklist (PCL–R), I ask What, is this thing called ‘empathy’?
Readers of this blog – those who have commented thus far, that is – range in expertise from therapeutic, to philosophical, to those whose experience has been forged through life with a psychopath. Responses have been striking in that they have highlighted each of the main ways the term is understood.
Extra-; Intra-; Inter–
The first thing to say is that when one accepts the existence of the phenomenon empathy one is choosing sides in a deep philosophical divide. One has chosen the third of three stances (over-simplified here to make the point):
1. Radical objectivism. The world exists outside ourselves but using the correct methods one can access that world. The task is to keep oneself, one’s values, etc. out. Just the facts, ma’am. All else is nonsense. The positivist tradition is the highest form of this approach: unless one can objectively measure something there is no way of truly knowing anything about it.
2. Radical subjectivism. There is no way to keep one’s values, etc. out of even the most scientific study. The postmodern theories exemplify this approach. On what basis does one choose what is worth studying?; perception is in the eye of the beholder; it depends… When one purports to look at another one looks into a mirror.
3. Subject/object. There is a real world ‘out there’ which interpenetrates with our selves. While we’ll never know with the kind of certainty sought by the positivist, we do have greater access to the essence of the other than a postmodernist would say. We are able to know something of the world via the area of overlap between us and the other.
Let’s come down from these abstract heights.
What might each position might mean with regards interpersonal relations?
1. Do I see you as angry? It is because I and see the clenched fists and quickened breathing; I can hear the proportion of particular ‘angry’ words, etc.
2. Do I assume that you’re angry? It is because I project my anger or fear of anger onto you. I have no way of knowing anything about you (after all, clenched fists, etc. can mean other things). The anger I attribute to you says something about me.
3. Do I experience you as angry? It is because – whether or not you show it – in your company I feel fear, or anger which is an affective resonance with what I take to be your feeling.
There is, according to this view, an overlap, an intersection between two people where things get blurred. The question ‘Is it you or is it me?’ cannot easily be answered.
The earliest instance of this is between mother and infant . Baby cries and at first mother knows no more than that something is wrong.
1. Were she to read the objective signs (the compliant mother) they would only takes her so far. It is likely the baby will feel unmet and ignored.
2. Were she to rely on her own subjectivity (the narcissitic or autistic spectrum mother, say) she would be led astray. Perhaps she’d project that upset onto the baby and wrongly assume that crying = upset. Perhaps she’d be overwhelemed by all the possible meanings of crying and try to address all or none (the anxious mother). It is likely the baby will feel unmet and impinged upon.
3. The good-enough mother, to use Winnicott’s wonderful phrase, is preoccupied with her baby and through imaginative identification, trial and error, etc. she gradually learns how to responds to the baby. And baby feels met.
This ‘knowing’ does not have to be perfectly accurate or perfectly constant – it must be good enough for the developing child’s needs. Knowing, here, is as much intuitive as it is cognitive: conscious, unconscious, physical, and emotional; mirror neurons, effort, love.
The beginnings of empathy
If empathy is the ability to get into the booties of another, then it is subject/object blurring which makes empathy possible (not inevitable). It implies that we can know something of what it’s like to be the other.
Let’s leave it here for now: Empathy is an intuitive and cognitive knowing something of what is going on for another.
Over a series of posts I intend to carve out a theory of empathy.
Readers comments on each leg of the trip will aid my steering of this cumbersome vehicle. What are your thoughts?
Next time: Is empathy necessarily accurate?