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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Rowan Williams



 Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury is an Anglican bishop, poet and theologian.  






Trials of empathy
An emphasis on complexity in Williams’ Tanner Lectures
Late yesterday, in a packed Paine Hall, Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, gave the first of his Tanner Lectures on Human Values — part of a traditional series delivered at nine or more universities across the world since 1979.
With a complex critique of empathy, he quickly got into the spirit of what philanthropist Obert Clark Tanner intended for the series he founded: “a search,” Harvard President Drew Faust reminded the audience, “for a better understanding of human behavior and human values.”

“I Have No Idea How You Feel”
“I FEEL YOUR PAIN,” then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton famously declared in 1992, and empathy—coined from the German “Einfühlung,” meaning “feeling into”—is a popular concept. Empathy entails compassion and understanding, the taking of another’s problems as one’s own. Evil itself, argued autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, is a matter of “empathy erosion,” the unwillingness or inability to understand the plight of others. “Empathy is like a universal solvent,” he wrote inThe Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. “Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.”


Tanner Lectures: The Paradoxes of Empathy

Tanner Lectures: The Paradoxes of Empathy
Lecture 1 - "The Other as Myself: Empathy and Power"

Pending papers/transcrips




Empathy - a recovery of the self through the other.
Empathy and dignity

Language and meaning



Rowan Williams

  • Mirror neurons

  • developmental story

  • empathy - the awareness of the emotional condition of others..

  • nurturing a child into an empathic adult

  • learning to image oneself and imaging others

  • maturing in empathy is at the heart of an ethical culture for individuals and groups

  • Example: Sue Gerhards book - (article) seeing empathy as the key to ethical behaviour is part of this trend.

  • Problem of empathy being a new comer to language

    • from Einfuhlung

    • neuro science has given credence to it.

  • Example: Simon Baron-Cohen - Zero Degrees of Empathy - evil is empathy erosion.

    •  cause by

      • being threatened

      • ideology

      • conformity

      • cultural sanction

      • etc

    • any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.

  • He will argue that the idea that empathy can address social problems is mistaken

    • it rests on faulty definitions

    • it is a narrowing down and privatizing of ethical discourse

  • Ethics is a linguistic and cultural discourse in which the issues of power is central and troubling.

  • what can and can't we understand in the experience of others

  • what we know and what we don't know about others?

  • Definition of empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen

    • cognitive - may not be able to read the signals (autistic)

    • effective -  deficit - (psychopath)

  • 23:00 - Empathy as treating the other as an object doesn't fit

    • example horror stories - murders. killings, etc.

    • is not treating others as objects but rather as subjects who can be humiliated, tortured, etc

    • perpetrator is aware of the emotion generated by their action

      • don't see these pains as causing them distress and actually find pleasure in it

    • the cognitive effective grid does not help here

    • the problem is not the absence of emotional awareness  but inappropriate response to someone's pain

      • detachment, tuning out

    • this looks like learned behavior

    • this is like a surgeon had to learn before anesthetics

    • parent removing a

  • Raymond Tallis - no one could be a surgeon and empathize with the patient they operate on.

    • (why not?  seems to be talking about sympathy)

  • Casual cruelty -  can't be seen as seeing someone as an object

  • killing someone who is dying, because you are suffering seeing them suffering.. how does this fit on an empathy map.

  • The grand inquisitor - kills people to save them.

    • [there is no dialog taking place. the inquisitor is not dialoging, hearing the feelings of the person they are torturing.. This is very unempathic]

    • how does Baron-Cohen respond to this?


  •  Baron-Cohen says that by definition empathy cannot oppress anyone. this says empathy is based on proper emotional response.

  • Joanna Bourke  - what it means to be human

  • We're up against learned behaviour and culturally endorsed behaviour

  • Israeli - Palestinians have a shared suffering

    • but it's not leading to a just resolution

    • all  the issues related to boundaries, settlements, etc

    • empathy will not solve that?

    • seeing the emotions on the two sides is confusing and makes solutions difficult

    • he went with a group and saw the pain on both sides and it didn't help. was confusing

  • 2 Charities campaigning for funds

    • Charity 1. donation will save the child (appeal to empathic resonance)

    • Charity 2. will create businesses (deal with the cognitive questions of suffering)

    • what is an empathic response? empathy will not solve this.

  • Paul Bloom - thoughtful and important article.

    • the identifiable victim effect - needs of the victim with a face will be addressed

    • it's about how I take away my discomfort and make myself feel better

    • how I deal with my distress at an identifiable other.

    • competing identifiable victims

    • appeal to empathy for victims of a crime or disturbed perpetrator

      • how do you move from there to justice?

  • 36:00 An ethical discourse that gives sole central place to empathy as emotional identification - draws away from  questions of culture and power.

    • structural advantage, beliefs, habits.

    • need to see the full moral world of possibilities

    • who is eligible for empathic feeling?

    • Who decides who is eligible?

    • How do we deal with competing claims for empathy?

    • Empathy erosion can't cover the story of evil

  • How might we tidy up the concept of empathy?
    [redefining empathy?]

    • history of empathy

    • Edith Stein - nun - Ph.d on Einfuhlung

      • orientate yourself from other embodied minds

      • see yourself from the perspective of the other

      • feeling our way into Einfuhlung others

      • a way of knowing

      • a shared environment

      • you would see the incompleteness of sensing the other

  • empathy as appropriating someone else's feeling (like pain)

  • two obscured aspects of empathy

    • from stein. empathy as the recognition of something radically inaccessible

    • can move away from the other but not from self

    • I am an embodied perspective

    • Ongoing apprehending of the other or each other

    • it's an ongoing

    • it's not saying I know how you feel - I have no idea how you feel

    • You have to learn the otherness of the other

  • He's responding to the idea of empathy as the responding appropriately to the suffering of another.

    • takes us only so far

    • sidelines the cultural dimensions

    • over appropriating the experiences of the other

    • not colonizing the other

  • 58:00 Gods solidarity with peoples suffering

    • suffering is context specific


  • can develop the idea of an empathic stance


David Tracy Response

  • Empathy has become a major topic in neuro science, philosophy theology

  • Could have added law school, theater, medicine, psychology

  • Study empathy in interdisciplinary way

  • criticisms of Simon Baron-Cohen

    • idea that evil is not useful - odd

  • empathy is a two edged sward

  • shifting from empathy to compassion


1:28:00 - Discussion and Q-A

  • Q: No shortcuts into the neighbor? in terms of Solidarity and civic relationships?

    • think about the the law

      • liberty of the other to speak is guaranteed

  • Q: 3 aspects learn for neuroscience

    • 1. the unconscious

    • 2. collaborative research

    • 3. at the beginning of understanding ourselves?

  • Q: Role of Edward Said?

  • 1:45:00 Q: With your definition of empathy, Why is there a benefit to the empathee of being heard?

    • a process of empathic relationship

    • I see someone is in distress

    • I engage in that distress

    • Other understands

    • something binds us

    • creating a shared language

    • I feel your pain - no you don't. don't pretend you know me.

    • roles block the connection

    • 12 years a slave - structure keeps empathy from happening

    • a reciprocity happens.

  • Q: A block to empathy is a projection of the ego?

    • set aside projection of both egos

    • then empathy flows in both ways

    • an effective at of compassion -

  • Q: (Africa) Empathy and systems of power? Acceptance of gay people.

    • people have fear of gays

    • need empathy all around

  • 1:55:00 Q: I may not know how you feel but I'll try to know.

  • 2:06:00 Q: You've explained the common definition of empathy as a privatized and sentimentalized understanding. What is the subject of empathy? What is the self? 




Rowan Williams on Ethics, Empathy and Imagination
Here is the video of Dr Rowan Williams' lecture entitled 'Ethics, empathy and Imagination' that was delivered at the Global Network for Public Theology Conference at Stellenbosch University on 24 October 2016. It is such a wonderful contribution to the current interest in empathy in the scholarly discourse.

  • Can we truly enter into the experience and world of another person?

  • Why is empathy sometimes 'used' as a tool to achieve certain aims (such as reconciliation, or social cohesion?

  • Are there not more theologically responsible ways to think about the mystery and complexity of one's self and another?

  • What of deep solidarity, even when there isn't complete understanding of the experience of another?



Tanner Lectures: The Paradoxes of Empathy
Lecture 2 - "Myself as Stranger: Empathy and Loss"
  (2 hours)

LECTURE 2: "Myself as Stranger: Empathy and Loss"

David N. Hempton - Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School

  • Introduces Rowan Williams

  • Is empathy feeling what another feels or is it a recognition that we can't feel what another feels. Or a relational process.  A work in progress.

  • Summaries Lecture 1.


Rowan Williams: LECTURE 2: "Myself as Stranger: Empathy and Loss"

  • 9:00

  • Prof Kavel? - "empathic projection"

  • how do we acknowledge the others humanity

  • Sees empathy not as appropriating the other  but of recognizing "I am an other to an other."

  • Stein - 0 point  of orientation

  • human limit

  • Gillian Rose

  • * self sacrifice - can be a form of violence - [maybe like Karen Armstrong, need to dethrone your ego]

  • accept that we will never know the other? - but can work towards it.

  • 29:00 paradox at the heart of empathy that I am sketching is that the empathy stance, puts into question understanding my own interiority.

    •  Baron-Cohen argues extreme cruelty is lack of empathy

    • Baron-Cohen says empathy is the ability to read the emotional state of another. If you don't do this, it leads to cruelty.

    • people with low empathy are low in self awareness.

  • we can say empathy is associated with irony and standing back from primary emotion

  • 34:00 paradox - an empathic response challenges emotional intensity rather than just reinforcing it. Empathic understanding is grasping something of my location in the center of others experiences, the worlds of others. To learn a new level of scrutiny of myself and environment. Learning to live in the world as an intelligent body,

  • Merlo Ponte. example of anger which is in the body

    • babies can read emotions from an early age. they don't' work it out mentally.

  • Empathic intelligence is not a leap of intuition from one soul to another. As the skill of perspective. Bodies needing other bodies to interact with it in order to know anything.

  • See it as Empathic understanding - as perspective taking rather than penetrating the others interior state of the others feelings.

  • 39:00 Baron-Cohen says empathy is an under utilized resource.

  • this view is banal - if only people could see each others point of view. This is not a panacea  for human ills.

  • A fuller account of empathy will show how it mandates silence as well as communication. Hesitation as well as engagement.

  • our culture is impoverished with a focus on reason

  • study of empathy brings a lot.

  • ......   can't see ourselves.

  • we need to keep rereading one another.


Respondent: Regina Schwartz - Professor of English, Northwestern University

  • 52:00  competing understandings of empathy

  • empathy is inadequate -  how do we work toward justice?

  • Justice - rule making

  • Love - knows no rules

    • address peoples needs

    • prefer the language of love over empathy


Q and A

  • 1:15:00




Tanner Lectures: The Paradoxes of Empathy - Seminar 


The Tanner Lectures on Human Values April 8 - 10, 2014

Jonathan L. Walton
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, Harvard Divinity School
Pusey Minister, Memorial Church


Amy Hollywood
Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School

Richard Kearney
The Charles B. Seelig Professor in Philosophy, Boston College

Emma Rothschild
Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History, Harvard University

Regina Schwartz
Professor of English, Northwestern University

Nicholas Watson
Professor of English, Harvard University

Moderator: Homi K. Bhabha
Director, Mahindra Humanities Center


Rowan Williams


Homi K. Bhabha

  • intellectual and moral life

  • the panelists

Nicholas Watson

  • Simon Baron-Cohen has come under fire

  • invocation of culture -

  • reviews the preventions so far

  • importance of history...

  • empathy and justice


Emma Rothschild

  • privatization of empathy

  • idealization of empathy and the market

  • conversation and observation

  • Adam Smith -

  • A politics of empathy - could intervene with empathic glasses

    • preventing the terror

  • what of empathy interventions to prevent cruelty

  • privatizing of ethical discourse

Richard Kearney

  • danger of a certain kind of empathy that leads to a merging and  dissolution of boundaries

  • we collapse into sameness

  • call for a sense of distance from each other

  • A story - Northern Ireland

    • The power of telling stories

    • empathy won out over murder

  • Topics

    • Phenomenology of empathy

    • Theology of empathy

  • Edith Stein - and Husserl (Aristotle)

    • touch is a part of empathy - leads to merging

    • and taste

    • merging but difference

    • in empathy we find touch

    • Husserl - (Phenomenology) the quality of empathy touch

      • > Schaller and Merlo Ponte

      • > Levi.., Dertier?...

  • The empathic god

    • a constant moving around each other without end

  • Empathy as a proper balance of connecting with each other.
    being like them but also maintaining how I am unlike them.
    Sometimes empathy needs to go more towards touch and taste.
    Away from the distance. Maybe we have lost touch with each other.


Amy Hollywood

  • gasping versus touching

  • Science, neurons,  Simon Baron-Cohen

  • What is empathy, what observable states quality as properly empathic?
    How do we come to see to be what we claim it is?
    What we say we feel is what we feel?

  • The science method

  • always being in the huermics frame

  • what we know of the human mind depends on the human mind - communications will always fail



Homi K. Bhabha

  • empathy elicits the story


Rowan Williams

  • historical hinterland

  • grief for the others

  • pity

  • why do we like empathy but not pity or compassion

  • Security

    • The security of the other has to do with the security of myself. [if others know they will be empathized with then I know I will be empathized with]

    • security is build with tactics like; excluding scapegoating, blame, etc. debase the other

    • reclaim security as empathy for all. A guaranteed voice

    • translating empathy into public policy

  • Question if law is enough to protect against injustice or pain. law as violence

    • law as creating security

  • Role of psychoanalysis

  • Authority

    • as common ground

  • the empathic god? passionless of god


Q and A

  • Alterity, intimacy, empathy?

  • Narrative and statistical compassion? Near and far empathy?

    • The others far away are not in our touch range.

    • the bridge between them

    • compassion fatigue

      • we have the idea that the way to deal with others suffering is we should intensely suffer for that person. we fail when we don't produce that. Or I can't  bear any more pain.

      • how about looking at my inter involvement with the security of others

      • [really about a culture of empathy. With compassion fatigue the way to address that is upstream empathy for the life of the sufferer, the sufferer empathizing with others, and the community surrounding the sufferer to empathize with them  and the intention of increasing empathy into the future. downstream empathy which will help with possible downstream suffering. ]

      • get away of the sentimentality or distance.

      • if feeling the other is my business and I have to feel terrible about it, suffer along,  - eventually I'll get tired of that and back away. detached. want to remain connection.

    • what about empathy and institutions

    • bridging hands on compassion and distance compassion - narrative empathy bridges that

  • ??

    • common ground

    • sacrifice giving ground to ?

  • Empathy - thinking in the theoretical realm versus in practice?

    • started with emotional identification - didn't work.

    • hungrier for intimacy

    • you are the ...

    • [imaginatively empathize - role play - with yourself, in the past, the present and the future]]

Everything that is sayable should be hearable.
[we have the free speech movement, we need a free empathy movement. People shouldn't just be free to  speck, but we need to hear others as well.]


[empathy as a conversation with ourself.  parts of myself are in dialog with other parts which are in conversation with other parts (other bodies). Parts can dominate each other, suppress, repress, or they can interrogate. Part of ourself is in conflict with other parts of ourself.  ]