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A Phenomenology of Compassion

Helmut J. Schneider

How Distant Can My Neighbor be?
Käte Hamburger’s Ethics of Mitleid and the Problem of Global Empathy – Summary

Veröffentlicht am 09.04.2018

DE

I

After a long life marked by discrimination both as Jew and woman, and finally having achieved international academic reputation with her book on The Logic of Poetry, Käte Hamburger, in her late eighties, turned to the philosophical problem of the ethics of empathy or compassion, in German (with a significantly different semantic ring), Mitleid. Her somewhat provocative thesis is that Mitleid is characterized by a “structure of distance”. This, she claims, has not been adequately recognized by the various theories from Aristotle to the 20th century, the reason for the many (self-) contradictions in which these theories became entangled. Specifically, it was the emphasis on the “feeling the other human’s pain” (prominent in the German word) that deprived this “other” human of his or her genuine otherness, potentially colonizing or even, consciously or unconsciously, degrading him. As negative proof of this the author points to the fact that in a loving (erotic) relationship we utterly reject being the recipient of “pity”. In contrast, Hamburger uses Wittgenstein’s definition of Mitleid as “the conviction of the suffering of another person” as a kind of clearheaded antidote against the pretense of emotional identification, be it Schopenhauser’s metaphysics of Mitleid, be it (as we may remember) Clinton’s famous “I feel your pain” or Angela Merkel’s “bleeding heart” vis-à-vis the plight of the Greek people. Hamburger concludes her deconstructive argument, that Mitleid has no intrinsical ethical value; it is an ethically neutral emotion possessing, as all emotions, an essentially ambivalent character.—However, this does not at all mean that Mitleid is insignificant for human interaction; on the contrary, Mitleid represents, as Hamburger had stated already at the outset of her examination, a “mode of behavior that concerns humans in their existential interaction with other humans like no other does”.

II

In order to characterize the positive function of Mitleid as “the simple fact of participation taken in itself”, Hamburger first distinguishes it from justice: While justice subsumes the interaction of individuals under general norms, Mitleid considers it under the aspect of its individual concreteness. Understanding between distinct individuals in their very individuality is made possible by the commonly shared human nature. In a second move of her argument, Hamburger refers to the Enlightenment notion of sympathy, particularly in David Hume’s version, which she claims is compatible with, even tied to the acknowledgment of the discreteness of the Other. For her, Hume represents the only authority of the philosophical tradition that combines the emotion of Mitleid—or sympathy—with the keen awareness of the distance between self and other. Thirdly, Hamburger points to the “obvious” fact that in our most intimate relations—family, friends etc.—there is no place for Mitleid. We feel “grief and concern” for their distress (in 18th century author Bernard Mandeville’s words). For Hamburger, this is just another, and potent negative proof of Mitleid’s “Distanzstruktur”, which she here even calls “impersonalness”, Unpersönlichkeit. Mitleid and intimate relations are mutually exclusive (think again of the lover’s rejection of pity). Both intimate interactions and globally extended emotions disregard the distance of rational understanding that for Hamburger constitutes the act of Mitleid.

But there is—step four—one possibility of compassionate action towards another human, who is not a close relative but a stranger, and this we call “mercy”, “charity”, in German Barmherzigkeit. Through it, we make the strange person our “neighbor”. Hamburger points to Jesus’ narrative of the good Samaritan, and stresses the biblical commandment of “love thy neighbor as you love yourself”, which is already formulated in the Thora of the Old Testament, not as an extension of self-love but as the fulfillment of Gods laws. Again, it is the moral praxis, to which the emotion of compassion may contribute but for which it is by no means indispensable, which for Hamburger forms the core of the ethics of Mitmenschlichkeit. And it is the intent to lay bare this core underneath the common moral-emotional confusion of the notion of Mitleid (a “gefühlsmoralische Verhaltensweise”), which characterizes the substance of her book.—Remarkable in this context, especially in light of her general abstention regarding socio-political issues, is the mentioning of big welfare organizations, which Hamburger regards as the institutionalization of the principle of Mitleid’s “impersonalness”. A lecture from 1942 traces the history of the idea of the Red Cross from Enlightenment humanism to becoming an unwilling facilitator of nationalist and imperialist warfare in the later 19th century—an impressive document of the author’s situation as a wartime emigrant in Sweden.

III

The question arises how Hamburger’s critique of Mitleid relates to Enlightenment humanism and universalism, still the basis for our contemporary understanding and discussion of a ‘global empathy’. While Hamburger was a devoted advocate of that tradition, not least of Weimar classicism and philosophical idealism in Germany, she is equally critical of a blurring of the borderline between ethics and aesthetics, which she detects in important strands of that tradition. Here, in particular, it is Lessing’s theory of dramaturgical Mitleid form the mid-18th century that for her represents as it were the fall from grace regarding (that is disregarding) that vital divide. In linking the definition of tragedy as a “poem evoking the spectator’s Mitleid” to the moral-social norm that “the most compassionate human is the best human,” Lessing made himself guilty of crossing the ontological borderline between fiction and reality.—It is at this crucial point of the argument that Hamburger’s concern with the phenomenon of Mitleid shows the connection with her previous work. The “Logic of Poetry” as well as a later book lesser known on “Truth and Aesthetic Truth” set out with great intellectual rigor to determine the borderline between the two realms. The later book in particular, a strident critique of the notion of “aesthetic truth” prevalent in much German thinking from Hegel to Heidegger and Adorno, demonstrates that this separation is undertaken less for the sake of art’s acclaimed ‘autonomy’ than the ‘purity’ of the concept of truth. Just as Hamburger there wished to affirm truth “in its ultimately ethical meaning as the guiding value concept of human life and human society”, so here she subjects Mitleid to that line which “separates the interhuman <mitmenschliche> experience from the experience of fiction”.

IV

Finally, the question, of course remains, as to possible perspectives leading from Käte Hamburger’s critical concept of Mitleid to present-day concerns—concerns of this conference at that—of the possibility of “empathy” extending beyond the narrow confines of interpersonal relations perhaps into a global frame. Here, I want to submit an element constitutive for the Enlightenment notion of sympathy, which Hamburger tends to underestimate, the faculty of the imagination. Already important in Hume, it comes into full view in Hume’s follower Adam Smith. Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” develops a model of “sympathetic” human interaction, in which the two sides negotiate their expression and emotions respectively through the creative medium of the imagination, in this manner achieving a balancing of their particular feelings (the particularity of the ultimately physical one-sidedness of the individual), elevating them to a more general, a social level (Smith speaks of the “pitch of moderation” and “a certain mediocrity” necessary for this transaction to take place). Smith describes this process in terms of the theatrical constellation of actor and spectator that almost verbally reappear in Lessing’s theory of the theater. The social theorist and the theorist of dramaturgy symmetrically mirror each other: The implied dramaturgy of Smith’s social sympathy corresponds to the social import of Lessing’s dramaturgy. The theater also was to transform the physically present audience through the experience of shared Mitleid into a kind of spiritual community. The question, then, for us remains—one of the many questions—if our all-pervasive (visual) media may be able, at least in some outstanding circumstances, to unite a world-wide audience in a shared awareness of common humanity, without, however, giving up on the rational distance so important for Käte Hamburger.

After a long life marked by discrimination both as Jew and woman, and finally having achieved international academic reputation with her book on The Logic of Poetry, Käte Hamburger, in her late eighties, turned to the philosophical problem of the ethics of empathy or compassion, in German (with a significantly different semantic ring), Mitleid. Her somewhat provocative thesis is that Mitleid is characterized by a “structure of distance”. This, she claims, has not been adequately recognized by the various theories from Aristotle to the 20th century, the reason for the many (self-) contradictions in which these theories became entangled. Specifically, it was the emphasis on the “feeling the other human’s pain” (prominent in the German word) that deprived this “other” human of his or her genuine otherness, potentially colonizing or even, consciously or unconsciously, degrading him. As negative proof of this the author points to the fact that in a loving (erotic) relationship we utterly reject being the recipient of “pity”.

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Helmut J. Schneider

Professor (em.) für neuere deutsche Literaturwissenschaft an der Universität Bonn. Frühere Positionen an der University of California, Irvine and Davis. Zahlreiche Gastprofessuren (u.a. Stanford University, University of Virginia, Harvard University und Georgetown University). Veröffentlichungen über deutsche und europäische Literatur des 18. bis 20. Jahrhunderts.