Do we really need empathy? Is “putting yourself in another’s shoes” the remedy to the political, racial, and economic divisions that fill our headlines and newsfeeds? In 2006, then senator Barack Obama suggested as much when he argued that a “sense of empathy” needs to “infuse our politics.” But is there a limit to what empathy can do? Is putting yourself in another’s place even possible? If it is, whom should we feel empathy for?
We will start with Adam Smith’s influential work on empathy, asking what are empathy’s necessary conditions, along with Achille Mbembe’s work on enmity and society. Then we will move to cognitive science and studies on empathy produced in readers of literary fiction; we will test those claims by reading Recitatif by Toni Morrison. We will examine “empathy-projects”: contemporary works that mobilize a radical engagement with empathy to transform a reader’s position on such issues as trans rights, class politics in the 21st century, neo-liberalism and the commodification of emotion, and the clash between religion and medicine. We will conclude by asking if humans are the only fit subject for empathy. What about animals, the environment, and even machines? We will ask: what does it take for empathy to transform the subject and what are the limits of that transformation? As Anne Fadiman writes, “empathy is so hard – harder than anger, harder than pity.”