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What is empathy? A genealogical account

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What is empathy? There are so many accounts of empathy that have been proposed by philosophers and psychologists, it is hard to know where to begin. In this paper, my main goal is to show that neither a purely empirical approach nor a purely conceptual analytic approach, nor even a union of the two, has been particularly successful at the task of explicating empathy. I then suggest that a third approach—genealogy—may be illuminating. Genealogical approaches, which provide ‘a narrative that tries to explain a cultural phenomenon by describing a way in which it came about, or could have come about, or might be imagined to have come about’ (Williams, 2002, p. 29), have been effective in dealing with concepts, such as trust, that are complex in ways similar to empathy. As such, they may be particularly well-suited to explaining what empathy is, especially given what we know about empathy’s own complicated genealogy.

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