Rowan Williams, the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, comes off a bit like a teddy bear talking serious philosophy. He’s brilliant, humble, amiable, a former leader of a vastly diverse Anglican flock, and a major religious figure in an often-polarized and hostile world. You’d think a man like that would be head cheerleader for Team Empathy.

Think again. Williams delivered this year’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Harvard and spent considerable time combating what he sees as popular and misleading myths about empathy. Nevertheless, I’m going to try and empathetically communicate three of Williams’s major lessons, contextualize those lessons within the worlds of science, religion, and culture, and offer my humble opinion that empathy ought to be at least partially vindicated as a human good.

1. Don’t trust neuroscience.
Williams repeatedly suggests that modern scientists’ ability to map empathy onto the brain doesn’t imply that empathy is key to all ethical understanding, as some neuroscience enthusiasts have claimed. A strictly-biological understanding excludes the very real influences of culture and politics, Williams says, not to mention employs a philosophically-unsound definition of empathy that involves somehow getting outside your own mind—impossible.


True empathy sans self-serving intentions, he says, would manifest “not in saying ‘I know how you feel,’ but ‘I have no idea what you feel.’”


Williams uses a commonplace humanities-style critique of science: questioning the definitions, calling out claims as aggrandized. But I wonder if Williams himself might be a bit guilty of both aggrandized claims and a lack of empathy for the scientific community when he extrapolates that because the empathy brain area also plays a role in activities like irony and discovering deception, empathy itself must be “connected with a range of mental skills that deal with gaps between appearances and truth.” In fact, mind scientists have noted the limitations of brain-mapping technologies; I would argue that most scientists are far from believing that brain mapping proves concrete connections between human capabilities. (Note: Lest you’re tempted to believe my interpretation and BuzzFeed-style headings outright, I also offer fellow SRC blog contributor Mara Block’s extensive analysis of Williams’s take on neuroscience and empathy.)

2. Get out of that (colonial) state you’re in.
“I am human: Nothing human is alien to me,” the Roman slave Terence supposedly said. Williams, however, diverges sharply, saying in his lectures, “There is no shortcut into the alien heart of the neighbor.” In claiming that empathic shortcuts actually appropriate or absorb somebody else’s emotional state, Williams makes one of his strongest arguments. He points out that intellectual (or scientific, or spiritual) concepts like empathy exist within cultural structures and power dynamics; thus, our belief that empathy “breaks down barriers between self and other” has serious colonial problems.

To avoid the implicit violence of trying to colonize another person’s mind, Williams suggests “silence” and “hesitation,” a focus on the shared experience of deep difference rather than false sameness. True empathy sans self-serving intentions, he says, would manifest “not in saying ‘I know how you feel,’ but ‘I have no idea what you feel.’”

3. Realize that empathy isn’t enough.
It’s important to make clear that Williams does value a philosophically-careful concept of empathy, mainly in two ways. First, empathy challenges and helps reformulate the self: “Empathic understanding is grasping something of my location in the midst of others’ centers of experience, the worlds of others,” says Williams. Second, empathy pushes us to expand the ranks of those fellow humans we consider worth our time and consideration.


It’s not accidental that two major contemporary cultural fields, science and religion, both tend towards a sense of human emotional unity.


But Williams thinks empathy falls far short of achieving the public ethical goals its supporters claim. For example, he says, emotional identification between grieving Israelis and Palestinians parents will not provide ethical political solutions. Empathy—in the popular sense of trying to relate to another’s experience—can fail to provide interpersonal solutions, too. “The challenge and the source of many of our relational ills is instead what arises from a sense of the fragility of my own interiority, leading me either to push away or to try and absorb the alien reality of another state of mind,” he says, absorption being that crude, colonial form of empathy.

What’s more, crude empathy falsely homogenizes distinct experiences. “Suffering is diverse,” Williams tells us. “A burned finger is for the concert pianist a different matter than what it would be for the university lecturer.” (Note that Williams himself employs emotional identification here for its rhetorical power.) Williams discusses how beliefs in God’s literal ability to carry another’s suffering can homogenize. I’d argue that science, as Williams characterizes it, also homogenizes, reducing a person’s individual experience to banal and universal neural activity patterns.

And yet I wonder. How useless is this homogenization? That depends if you see empathy’s goal as justice, as Williams does, or another human value: comfort, solidarity, trust. It’s not accidental that two major contemporary cultural fields, science and religion, both tend towards a sense of human emotional unity. If I could offer an anecdotal hunch of my own: Just as there is diversity in suffering, there is diversity in solace. I, for one, have found myself comforted by the notion that hundreds and thousands have known my exact pain and survived it. True, not everyone would respond thusly, but dangling one’s toes over the cliff of human beings’ radical irreconcilability inclines dangerously close to tumbling into an abyss of despairing relativism. Distrusting empathy may lead us to “push away” altogether from our fellow creatures.

I understand, of course, the tinge of hypocrisy this post carries. It’s a bit recursive to argue one’s own perspective on empathy and precarious to empathetically respond to someone else’s perspectives, especially when that someone is as eminent as Rowan Williams. So I’ll end with his words on the process of true empathy and the good it creates:

“I apprehend somebody else is in a condition of serious distress. I engage in some way with that distress by saying, ‘I wish to be alongside in that distress in whatever way might be of use to you.’ I hope and trust that in that moment the other understands, apprehends something of my perception of their distress as something not completely empty or false or delusive, and thus in the accompaniment of another in their distress something is created which binds us, which gives us a language…A shared language, a shared world.”

Julia F.P. Ostmann is a junior at Harvard College, a concentrator in the Department of the History of Science, and a consciousness enthusiast.

Image from Flickr via Catholic Church (England and Wales)


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