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Freedom and Empathy

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There has been a strong revival of the scientific discussion on empathy in the last years. Especially in the fields of neurophysiology (mirror neurons), developmental psychology (theories of mind), and evolutionary anthropology (i. e. the question if 'human nature' can be understood as somehow 'social'). However all of this happens within an on-going paradigm shift in liberal politics and economics. The long-standing notion of homo oeconomicus as someone who is concerned with others mainly for reasons of individual pleasure-seeking is about to cease. I would like to access the question, in how far the one thing (a strong resurgence of notions of empathy) has something to do with the other (a re-shaping of liberal policy), by asking if there is an inner need for societies that are fundamentally based on the idea of individual freedom to somehow conceptualize our 'mental interconnection' with others? 

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The reading was really interesting but IKEA is threatening to swallow me
whole so I may not make it. As my contribution, and to pretend I'm not
spamming everyone. A bit from the NYTimes on Boris Johnson stepping in it.
Greed is good, but we should still help the dimwitted poor.


hi everyone, 

here's the text for next saturday's class. Sorry for those underlines, it's a library book (which I want to stress because those underlines are real stupid ;-)) 

you can find it here:

and here:

As I said I will give a presentation of its major arguments in the beginning of the class. But please also take a look into it for yourself so that we can have a lively discussion. Looking forward to see you :-)


hi everyone, 

great that there is such an interesting discussion already going on. The letters of Andre Gunder Frank are a great example for what we talked about last time. How essentially worldviews can totally clash in conceptualizing a society.

The book by Conolly is definitely something to talk about when we get to the question of where the developement of liberal thought is at the present moment.

However, next time I would like to take a last look into the past. To get an idea of since when actually psychological modes like empathy or compassion got a political connotation for the first time.

I found a little text about this which is called "Rousseau and the Discovery of Political Compassion". You dont have to know Rousseau to be able to read it (its actually a good introduction into some central ideas of Rousseau, but the text also refers to present political views on compassion and ancient discussions of the topic). I can give a little presentation of it in the beginning, but it might be good to read it for yourself. I will scan it in later tonight and then send a link for you. 

see you on sat at 4pm


by coincidence, i just stumbled upon a (very) brief genealogy of the notion of sympathy in late 17th and 18th century thought and its use by smith. (see , p. xxi-xxiii). interesting relating to saturday's discussion is the connection between sympathy and social harmony (grounded in something supposedly natural and prerational - without the need for leviathans and social contracts):

"The essential role of sympathy in human affairs calls to mind Hume and Adam Smith, for whom it is the bond that joins individuals together in society owing to ``the propensity we have,'' as Hume said, ``to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different and contrary to our own'' (Treatise, p. 316). Both stressed that since sympathy, like an instinct, works without deliberation, forethought, or reflection, neither the gestural expression nor the response to it can be false or mistaken. ``The passions, upon some occasions,'' wrote Adam Smith, ``may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person principally concerned.''12 This error-free effect of sympathy ensures that the grounds of morality are firm and public. In sympathy we sense the presence of the great agent Adam Smith memorably called ``the superintendent of the universe,'' whose invisible hand guides us to promote ends that do not figure in our intentions.""


TPS's picture
Also, while poking around on AAAAARG today saw this, which might be relevant:
The Fragility of Things. Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism
By William E. Connolly
TPS's picture
I thought of a text that may be of interest to the group related to today’s discussion:
Economic Genocide in Chile: Monetarist Theory Versus Humanity. Two Open Letters to Arnold Harberger and Milton Friedman
by André Gunder Frank


Hello everyone,

this is not meant as an obligatory reading for today's class, but if you want to read sth, I can recommend the article on empathy in the stanford encyclopedia for philosophy:  


Hi Caleb,

I thought maybe we can talk first about 'the way' the class should take because there are several possibilities. I can give kind of a small general introduction on the topic. After finding out what exactly we want to talk about, we might decide what texts to read (I will make some proposals). Looking forward to see you! :-)

caleb berlin's picture
Hi All,
The F&E class has been created and the first meeting scheduled for this Saturday @ 16:00 @ Archive Books. 
Are there readings for the first meeting?


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