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Compassion at the Interface of Self and Other

Any writer is familiar with the feeling of spending so long looking at a word on the page that it appears to be spelled incorrectly, even though they know it to be correct. Sartre describes the sensation of looking at your hand and it no longer appears to be the hand that it is, but some kind of fleshy crab. These sorts of problems are especially acute within Philosophy, where everything from society to morality to physical objects to even reality itself are prone to disappear under close inspection.

With much of the research at the Dalai Lama Centre being undertaken by Philosophers, I must confess I was half expecting that the results of our enquiry would ultimately point towards a rejection of compassion. Under closer inspection, the moral and political philosophers would conclude that there was nothing in it after all. They’d say Nietzsche is right and we should just all go home and await the arrival of the heartless supermen.

Saturday’s joint colloquium between the Humane Philosophy Project and the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion in Oxford certainly -to my mind at least – put those fears to rest. The Dalai Lama Centre’s director, Alex Norman, noted in his closing speech that the day had solidified in his mind the fact that empathy is unequivocally a central pillar of human nature. No doubt many who attended the colloquium would agree with this statement. Something like empathy is crucial for the formation of the self. The recognition that others are feeling, suffering beings like oneself underpins society, politics and law.

Michael Inwood’s highly entertaining lecture on self-consciousness and other selves in Hegel reminded me that developmental psychology takes empathy extremely seriously.  Empathy is the mechanism by which a baby learns to recognise itself as one of those things called a human being. It is compassion – the putting of others’ feelings before one’s own – which is the hallmark of a ‘grown up’. Learning that the world doesn’t revolve around you is a key part of human development. There must be a strong argument for saying that compassion and empathy form the core element of what it means to be human. This notion was further illuminated through Nikolas Prassas’ exposition of the centrality of empathy in the writings of Edith Stein.  

The interconnectedness of human life since the industrial revolution has brought us all closer together, but has also made us more aware of cultures whose values contradict our own. Jacob Burda described our current predicament as one of ‘radical subjectivity’, where the idea of there being something greater than oneself (such as society or a nation) is retreating and being replaced with a sea of individuals. His paper suggested that Buddhism might be the most logical belief system for the structural predicament of multiculturalism. It could be that, through the rejection of self-grasping and the nurturing of lovingkindness (as so eloquently explained by Tenzin Denzen Rochard in her illuminating paper), radically subjective human beings will be able to navigate the modern world, that is, live harmoniously.

Ferenc Hörcher’s paper also touched on the post-modern predicament, which he described as the problem of the connection between the person and her political community. This thread was further developed by Robbert-Jan Winters, who found that the rule of law suggests a bottom-up rather than top-down approach is best for such an atomistic society. The echoes with Jacob Burda and Tenzin Denzen Rochard’s ideas were startling, given that the starting points – Jurisprudence, theology and moral philosophy were so diverse. 

Saturday’s colloquium at Blackfriars wrestled with a dizzying array of issues: Psychology, social pathology, the rule of law, the problem of other minds, liberalism, the constitution of the self and other, and the individual/community dichotomy to name but a few. In spite of this breadth of scope, empathy and compassion returned time and again as the fundamental ground by which humans are able to survive and flourish as social beings. Agata Filipowicz’s talk on multiple personality disorders suggested that labelling other people as ‘mad’ or judging others is an uncompassionate act. Her talk on multiple selves also argued for a reading of the self as a micro-community.  On this view also, empathy is perhaps the mechanism through which we constitute ourselves as individuals.

I came away from the day feeling that  compassion is what binds the individual to the community.  Compassion is social cement.