Empathy and psychiatric illness

Authored by: Matthew Ratcliffe

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy

Print publication date:  February  2017
Online publication date:  February  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138855441
eBook ISBN: 9781315282015
Adobe ISBN: 9781315282008


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It has become something of a commonplace for philosophers to observe that the term “empathy” has been and continues to be used in a number of different ways (e.g. Coplan, 2011, p. 40; Zahavi, 2014, p. 152). I accept that this is the case, although I am less sure that it should be. Nevertheless, given the possibility that “empathy” legitimately refers to a range of different cognitive achievements, I will restrict my enquiry here to something that people often (but by no means always) refer to as empathy in the context of psychiatric illness. I will sketch an account of what it is to empathize with experiences of psychiatric illness by asking, “What, exactly, is lacking or judged to be lacking when the sufferer states that others do not or cannot empathize with her?” and, conversely, “When she does feel empathized with, what is it that she recognizes?” The answer to these questions, I will suggest, points to a conception of empathy that differs markedly from the kinds of cognitive achievement philosophers tend to associate with the term.

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