Introduction: Empathy, simulation, and interpretation in the philosophy of social science

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How do minds understand other minds? On what grounds and with what methods do we understand, predict, or explain how other human beings think, feel, and act? Based on our commonsense intuitions, it seems that we solve this task by empathizing with another person and by utilizing theoretical knowledge about how people in general act. When we hear that an airliner has crashed, when we are told that a friend has lost a job or a colleague has received a promotion, we can understand how the persons affected by such events feel and why they act as they do by empathizing with them and by putting ourselves in their situation. No theory seems to be necessary in order to understand their reactions in such situations. But we are also able to predict and explain another person’s behavior by taking a more detached perspective and by appealing to everyday and scientific knowledge about why people act in a certain manner. We know, for example, that people under the influence of alcohol drive erratically and are prone to be involved in car accidents and that people who do not prepare for exams tend to do badly on them. Theoretical knowledge seems to be sufficient to fully account for people’s behavior in these cases.

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

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