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Book Review - Empathy and Agency

by Hans Herbert Kogler and Karsten R. Stueber (Editors)
Westview Press, 1999
Review by Bill Wringe, Ph.D.
Aug 1st 2000

It is one thing to have a mind and another to have a conception of the mind: this much is a truism. Nevertheless almost all readers of this review - in common with the majority of humanity - do not just have minds: they also have a conception of the mind. This may be less explicit and detailed than the one possessed by philosophers and psychologists, but it is still extremely useful: it allows us to understand and sometimes to predict the behavior of those around us by enabling us to attribute to them beliefs, desires, intentions and a whole range of other mental states. In recent years philosophers and psychologists have spent a great deal of time discussing just what is involved in our possession of a conception of the mind which can be put to use in everyday contexts.

Until recently, academic discussion of these matters has mostly been restricted to a hard core of specialists in the area, and there has been little attempt to relate the issues under discussion to wider philosophical debates about what is involved in understanding human behavior. This state of affairs should alter with the publication of Kogler and Stueber's collection Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences. The book sets out to address a gap left by existing contributions to the area and does so by instituting a debate between figures from the philosophy of mind - some of whom have already made important contributions to the study of our ability to operate with an everyday conception of the mind - and philosophers of history and social science, who have their own traditions of thinking about what underlies the ways in which we understand human behavior.

The best way to give a flavor of the book's contents is to give a brief overview of the main issues involved in debates about our understanding of others as they have presented themselves to the psychologists and philosophers, and then to say something about how these are addressed by some of the books contributors.

Roughly speaking there are two main views about what enables human beings to ascribe mental states to one another. One view - which might be regarded as the orthodox position - is that our everyday conception of the mind constitutes something worth describing as a theory. It is not a theory which we formulate and deploy explicitly, but one which nevertheless underpins our operations with mental state concepts in the same way that our knowledge of the streets of a familiar city might guide our movements through it, without enabling us to draw an accurate street plan. This is known - not entirely surprisingly - as the 'theory view'. An alternative suggestion, much debated recently under the name of the 'simulation view' is that our ability to understand others depends less on a general capacity for understanding abstract subject matters than on an ability to imagine ourselves in the position of another person and to work out from our responses to such imaginings what another persons response is likely to be.

What is interesting about the second view is that it suggests that our understanding of other people is very different from our understanding of most other subject matters. After all, our understanding of what is going on in the engine of an automobile, for example, does not depend on our being able to imagine ourselves in the position of a sparkplug or carburetor. And since it suggests that our understanding of other people is not only different from, but also perhaps more immediate and fundamental than our understanding of the physical world, we might expect it to be a view that would recommend itself to philosophers of history and social science.

In the light of this it is perhaps surprising to find how many of the contributors to Kogler and Stueber's volume are skeptical about the claims of the simulation view.

Two recurrent grounds for this skepticism are that the simulation view seems to underestimate the multiplicity of different processes that are involved in the understanding of other peoples behavior - particularly when that behavior seems alien to the person trying to understand it - and that it over intellectualizes what goes on in more straightforward cases. So, for example, it may be impossible for me to imagine myself in the position of a common soldier in the Third Reich or an individual who believes themselves to have supernatural powers - to take two examples where the historian or social scientist might have an interest in explaining; while it is probably unnecessary for me to imagine myself in your position to understand your actions in offering me of a cup of coffee.

These are interesting objections to the simulation view, and if they are correct, then it may be true that it does not have much to offer the historian the social scientist or even the individual wishing to understand everyday human interaction. Nevertheless, my impression is that a hard-line defender of the view could respond to the first criticism by distinguishing between its being difficult (and perhaps morally undesirable) to imagine oneself in certain positions, such as that of the Nazi, and its actually being impossible; and to the second by focussing on the role played by the imagination in facilitating understanding when taken for granted patterns of interaction on which we often rely break down.

Whatever the truth of this it should be emphasized that Kogler and Stueber's book is a high quality collection containing many stimulating papers. It is perhaps only fair to add that its intended audience appears to be one consisting of professional academics rather than general readers and that at times the style of the contributors reflects this.

Bill Wringe, Department of International Relations, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Simulation, Empathy, and Interpretation in the Philosophy of Social Science by Hans Herbert Kögler and Karsten R. Stueber
  2. ``
  3. Simulation and the Explanation of Action by Robert M. Gordon
  4. ``
  5. The Theory of Holistic Simulation: Beyond Interpretivism and Postempiricism by Georg Vielmetter
  6. ``
  7. Imitation or the Internalization of Norms: Is Twentieth-Century Social Theory Based on the Wrong Choice? by Stephen Turner
  8. ``
  9. Simulation and Epistemic Competence by David Henderson and Terence Horgan
  10. ``
  11. Understanding Other Minds and the Problem of Rationality by Karsten R. Stueber
  12. ``
  13. Simulation and the Verstehen School: A Wittgensteinian Approach by Theodore R. Schatzki
  14. ``
  15. From Simulation to Structural Transposition: A Diltheyan Critique of Empathy and Defense of Verstehen by Rudolf A. Makkreel
  16. ``
  17. Empathy, Dialogical Self, and Reflexive Interpretation: Simulation as a Method in the Social Sciences? by Hans Herbert Kögler
  18. ``
  19. The Importance of the Second Person: Interpretation, Practical Knowledge, and Normative Attitudes by James Bohman
  20. ``
  21. The Object of Understanding by Paul A. Roth
  22. ``
  23. Reenactment as Critique of Logical Analysis: Wittgensteinian Themes in Collingwood by Simon Blackburn

Number of pages: 328