I have suggested that empathy necessarily involves consciousness only if one defines consciousness in the broadest terms to include ‘unsymbolised thinking’ – mental facts or events which are (possible) precursors to words, images, and feelings.
In the study by Scwitzgebel and Hurlbert Describing inner experience? it was found that, far from constant inner speech, inner experience includes unfelt feelings (the Beeps alerted the subject to note her inner experience at that moment):
We discovered that she had feelings, sometimes expressed bodily: of sadness/dread pressing on her chest in Beep 2.2, of yearning in Beep 4.1, of conviction that she was correct in Beep 6.1, of happiness (a lightweight feeling in her lungs) in Beep 6.2, of concentrating in Beep 6.3. But we also discovered that sometimes her feelings were apparently ongoing in her body but are not directly experienced: of being exasperated but not experiencing it directly in Beep 3.3, of concern and resentment not being directly experienced in Beep 4.2, of anxiety about being late not being experienced in her body but being thought about in Beep 5.1.
What Hurlbert calls ‘feelings’ occur at several levels of experience. More on this below.
Readers may be able to go along with the notion that perhaps empathy happens without the level of consciousness enables one to think, “There’s something going on here.” But I suspect they will be loath to give up the idea that empathy involves emotion, indeed is an emotion.
However, that’s in implied in the model I present today. The field I visit for concepts is Affect Theory, originally developed by the psychologist Silvan Tomkins and popularised by Donald L. Nathanson.
Affects are the strictly biological portion of emotion. They involve very short bursts of biological activity (ranging from a few hundredths of a second to a couple of seconds). There are nine universal affects.
Dissmell (reaction to bad smell)
The psychoanalyst Michael F. Basch developed Tomkins ideas as follows. The step from affect to feeling is a step from biology to psychology. Feeling is when one becomes aware of an affect. The step is not an automatic one by any means.
Over time feelings become attached to memories: an emotion is a complex interaction of feeling and memory. A feeling connects with memories which in turn trigger other affects. The step from feeling to emotion is from psychology to biography.
Empathy and emotion
All of the above applies to empathy too, with the distinction that empathy is an affect sparked off by something in the other. It is not quibbling to separate out these distinct processes, I don’t think. Indeed, it is the collapsing of them that has contributed to the misuse of the term ’empathy’.
Empathy is an affect evoked by the internal state of another; this evocation may be developed into higher levels of symbolisation – coherent thoughts and/or emotions.