Empathy, dialogical self, and reflexive interpretation: The symbolic source of simulation

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This chapter begins by distinguishing two models of a nontheoretical approach to interpretation. According to the first model, I can understand others on a precognitive and thus pretheoretical level by simulating how I would feel and act in their shoes. The idea is that the psychic similarity of human subjects allows for the empathetic grasp of emotional states, the transformation of myself into the other and her situation, and the analogical inference from myself to someone else, without invoking any explicit theory or discursive mediation. I can thus simulate being in the other’s situation and, given that I and the other are basically similar, understand and predict the other’s behavior by observing my own responses. Any discrepancy between myself and the other’s perspective or situation has somehow to be integrated, or “added on,” to what is basically an intuitive and psychological process of understanding. According to the second model, understanding someone else requires in principle an interpretive reconstruction of their basic beliefs, assumptions, and practices. Since the meaning of a situation is taken to be disclosed through a holistic framework including individual, symbolic, and practical dimensions, any adequate understanding of another agent demands a thorough grasp of the respective cultural, social, and historical background. In addition, since the interpreter can only make sense by drawing on a symbolically mediated perspective, and since the existence of a similarly struc-tured background has itself to be established in interpretation (and cannot be taken for granted), the explicit and discursive reconstruction of the other’s (and in turn of one’s own) situation alone yields a reliable understanding of the other. Although implicit assumptions and practices are necessarily invoked in such a process, the intuitive background is not taken to provide a pretheoretical and universal ground allowing for the prediscursive prediction of the other’s behavior.

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Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences

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