Can We Feel Each Other's Feelings? Whitehead on the Ontology of Empathy
“The primitive form of physical experience is emotional— blind emotion— received as felt elsewhere in another occasion and conformally appropriated as a subjective passion. In the language appropriate to the higher stages of experience, the primitive element is sympathy, that is, feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another.”
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28) (p. 162). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
Ontology and Community
To Exist is to Feel the Feelings in Another
"Feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another." So writes Whitehead in Process and Reality. He is describing the activity of physically experiencing the past actual world on the part of a concrescing subject in the immediacy of the here-and-now. The concrescing subject may be a quantum event in the depths of an atom or an occasion of experience in the life of a human being. To be actual, says Whitehead, is to feel the feelings in another. Feeling the feelings in others connects us to them and is the foundation of our own existence. Whereas Descartes said I Think Therefore I am, Whitehead says We feel others' feelings, Therefore We Are. To be sure, we have our individuality, too. We are concrescing subjects, each with our past actual worlds, each with our decisions on how we respond. But our very subjectivity begins, not with an autonomous ego, but with sympathy, even if the only "other" we have is our own body.
State-Sharing and Perspective-Taking
Whitehead's idea can support a sense, found throughout the world’s wisdom traditions, that we humans carry, within the depths of our own experience something like empathy: that is, a feeling of the feeling of others in a way that conforms to their feelings.
A psychologist might call this conformity state-sharing. The states that are shared are emotions and moods in another person, or in a group of people, that you "feel" and thus "share," consciously or, as is more often the case, unconsciously. Their emotions and energies may be painful or pleasant, attractive or repugnant, healthy or unhealthy, sad or happy -- whatever they are, you feel them. Complementary to such state-sharing is perspective-taking: that is, imagining the world from the point of view of others, even if you don’t share in their emotional states. The two activities are different, but both are important to a sense of community and to love. We are rightly encouraged to feel the feelings of others, albeit with equanimity and compassion, and to imagine ourselves inside their shoes. This is particularly important in relation to the vulnerable or otherwise neglected. In our very feeling of their feelings and imagining ourselves inside their shoes, our hearts widen and we become, to use the language of process theology, wide and nurturing souls, each in our way.
Whose feelings can we feel? Whose "states" can we share? We can feel our own feelings as they existed in the past, but also the feelings of other people, the feelings of other animals, the feelings of plants, and the feelings of the earth. We feel the earth's feelings as its ambient energies. Our feeling of their feelings does not necessarily result in loving-kindness. We may feel their feelings as a threat to us; or we may feel their feelings with an eye toward manipulating them. But we do feel their feelings, their moods.
Feeling the feelings of others and imagining the world from their point of view to the kind of community needed today. A community is a gathering of people who feel one another's feelings, sharing in one another's destinies, and seeking their common good. In our time this sense of kinship can and should be extended to the more than human world. It is the affective side of a truly compassionate community. Education must be oriented in ways that help people do this.
The Great Compassion
Process theologians add that we may also feel the feelings of the great compassion in whose life the universe unfolds: God. To think of God this way, as a living whole in whom the universe lives and moves and has its being, is relational panentheism. This living whole is God, the great compassion. The feelings of the world, human and more than human, are physically felt by God fully and completely, and with love. God is, says Whitehead, a fellow sufferer who understands. And we ourselves, suggests Whitehead, are feeling God's feelings, too: God's yearning that we become whole and happy, fulfilled and satisfied, loving and just, not only as individuals but as communities. As we yearn for beloved community, so God yearns. State-sharing is horizontal and vertical; a sharing with others and a sharing with God. Sharing is the deep meaning of communion.