Community & Government, Wellness

The Evolution of Empathy

Cornel West talks about the origins of empathy—its relationship to sympathy and how religion and empathy are interconnected. He also discusses writers Edith Stein, George Eliot, and Toni Morrison and how they tackle empathy in their work.

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Topics include: Sympathy vs. Empathy · Religion and Empathy · The Women of Empathy


[MUSIC PLAYING] CORNEL WEST: I think there is a need for empathy warriors in every context, every site, and every sphere in our society, who can look unflinchingly at the corruption and still try to manifest an empathy, a care, a concern, a compassion, or even a love of fellow citizens who are weak and vulnerable. [MUSIC PLAYING] For me, any serious talk about empathy in the 21st century has to begin with the shift from religious discourses about love in its various forms and secular discourses about sympathy. And the transfiguration of sympathy and the empathy is a fascinating story. Some people use the two words in a synonymous way. The overlap is real, but they're not identical. Sympathy was understood going back to the 18th century philosophers. David Hume talks about it in terms of sympathy and benevolence. It was their attempt to get beyond being spectators and simply looking at somebody else's pain and suffering and misery, you see. But you first had to have some identification with that pain. So the question became is it possible for persons to share the same feelings of other persons? Is it possible for persons to share the same experiences of other persons? And if so, what kind of process, what various stages do you have to undergo to result in a genuine sharing that produces a care and a concern for the people who are suffering? And then empathy is a word that doesn't emerge until the early part of the 20th century, as sympathy is transformed into empathy within the discourse. Now, when the philosophers hit the scene and said, well, empathy is actually deeper than sympathy because the role of imagination plays a more crucial role. It's not just a matter of perception, looking, seeing something. See, it's one thing to encounter somebody who's undergoing grief, and then you, all of a sudden, feel deep sadness and a grief for their grief. But when it's at a distance, and you're thinking, there's no way I can feel what they feel, but I can imagine what it's like to be in their shoes if I hear enough of their story, if I hear enough of their narrative, if I have an openness to what they have to say about their experiences, but I can never experience with the experience. That's what empathy is. [MUSIC PLAYING] Religious traditions, you know, talk about love all the time. They're locked into love talk. Some sense of love understood in terms of sympathy and benevolence. That goes all the way back to Chesed, the genius of Hebrew scripture, that lovingkindness that steadfast love tied to the welfare not just of others, but of the stranger, of the neighbor, love thy neighbor as thyself. That's Leviticus 19th chapter. So you've got a number of very rich religious traditions all around the world that have love talk at the center of it. The problem of many religions, if not most, is that they have very rich notions of empathy, but the scope of application is narrow. So it only applies to a certa...

About the Instructor

For the first time ever on MasterClass, a diverse range of our instructors come together to talk about the power of empathy and how it can transform the way you view the world. Join Pharrell Williams, Robin Arzón, Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, Robert Reffkin, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West as they share their experiences with empathy and its importance in their lives and careers. Learn how to exercise, cultivate, and promote empathy to connect with others on a deeper, more human level.

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Pharrell Williams, Robin Arzón, Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, Robert Reffkin, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West

Pharrell Williams, Robin Arzón, Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, Robert Reffkin, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West teach about leading life with empathy.

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