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Academic Empathy

An occasional paper given at The Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies (FIGS) within the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at UCL November, 2013.

Academic Empathy: A concept worth bearing in mind?


Talk of empathy is everywhere: in science, the humanities, business and politics. Yet do we, as academics, think enough about how it applies to us in our academic and intellectual lives?  This paper introduces the concept of Academic Empathy in order to clarify how empathy might apply specifically to our lives in a university. The recent essay by the cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, to ‘neglected novelists and embattled [humanities] professors’ was an attempt to offer an olive branch across the Two Cultures divide yet only succeeded in enraging many of its intended beneficiaries. It appears that many thinkers are unable to ‘feel in’ to the worlds and outlooks of their academic colleagues – as an empathetic approach would ask them to do. We will examine briefly this empathy deficit in academia and ask why it exists and what we might do about it. We consider the implications for the university as a community of scholars, teachers and learners and ask whether our lives would be improved by aspiring to more academic empathy. We conclude by asking what implications our discussion might have for the way we educate our undergraduates.


Talk of empathy is everywhere. The empathy scholar Roman Krznaric speaks of entering an age of ‘outropsection’  (his take on the rise of the importance of empathy), and his RSAnimate video on the subject has been viewed nearly half a million times. (1) The Roots of Empathy programme in Canada is teaching empathy to tiny school children. (2) Barack Obama devotes several pages to empathy in his autobiography and raises the issue of the ‘empathy deficit’ as one of the more pressing political matters of our day. (3) And the empathy wires are singing loudly in business and management circles, plucked and bowed by psychologists such as Daniel Goleman and various scholars who write on leadership. (4,5) In science, the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys in the 1980s gave us, it appears, a scientifically hard, irreducible ‘neuronic’ explanation of how we might feel empathy. (6) This was an exciting scientific corroboration of the humanistic idea of einfühling (feeling-in), first introduced into the English language as ‘empathy’ in 1909. Such a discovery is fascinating, and sheds a new kind of light onto the central position that empathy, as such an important part of the human condition, currently occupies in humanistic studies and the studies of the social sciences.

Yet I wonder if we in universities are among the last communities to take empathy to heart, or, perhaps better, to head?  In order to take seriously the concept as applying to us, we might consider a closely related concept, really a special case: that of Academic Empathy.

What do I mean by this phrase?  Simply, ‘the ability to see the world through an intellectual framework different from one’s own’.  An academic empath aspires to put aside disciplinary inculcation, perhaps even disciplinary education, in order to see the world afresh from different points of view – those of her colleagues with different presuppositions, motivations, methods and knowledge claims.


In the August edition of the New Republic, the cognitive neuroscientist and writer Steven Pinker gave what one assumes he thought was a passionate but generous defence of the sciences, coupled with a plea to humanists not to see science as engaged in ‘an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities’. (7) The reaction from some quarters was, I venture, not what he was hoping. Ross Douthat in the New York Times chastised Pinker for using his own brand of scientism to militate ‘very strongly in favour of…Steven Pinker’s very own moral world view’. (8) The writer and critic Leon Wieseltier weighed in with his opinion that the ‘attempt to reduce human experience’ to science has had ‘a terrible effect’ and has ‘alienated…people from…the original humanistic excitements’ (9); then Daniel Dennett, the atheist and strongly pro-science philosopher, countered these humanists by referring to ‘the lamentable Wieseltier’ and requesting that ‘we start with a respect for truth’ (10), as if somehow the critics of Pinker ignored this important phenomenon. Some tried to stop the squabbling. There was an intelligent and measured piece in The Berlin Review of Books by the philosopher Gloria Origgi, who works with neuroscientists at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. Origgi made a sensible offering of seven ways in which sciences and humanities are ‘different’ from (though of course not better or worse than) each other, as well as pointing out the ‘obvious fact’ that ‘the [recent] decline of the arts and humanities is a much greater disaster than tolerating a handful of [rubbishy] post-modernist thinkers’ (11) – the implication being that it is these post-modernist thinkers who so irritate the scientistic lobby.

But by and large, despite some attempts at reconciliation, the flames reignited and fanned in these exchanges demonstrate that the ‘Two Cultures’ described by C P Snow in 1959 – those cultures of ‘the sciences’ and ‘the humanities’ – are as far apart in Western intellectual circles as they ever were.

This debate surfaces periodically. The point I would like to make here is that to my ears there is little attempt at academic empathy from those involved on the different sides. There is little attempt to see the world through another’s intellectual eyes, little attempt to ‘broaden and not contract [the] ambit of concern’ (in Obama’s lovely phrase) little attempt on either side to ‘feel in’ what it might be to see the world through different intellectual lenses.

The level of animosity in the recent exchanges is nothing new, either. In fact, some of the early ripostes to Snow, most famously those of F R Leavis, were more vicious than any of the recent attacks. I imagine most of us are a little shocked by the level of vitriol and the personal nature of Leavis’ remarks. Leavis tells us that Snow is “portentously ignorant”; that he “exposes complacently a complete ignorance”; that “he is as intellectually undistinguished as it is possible to be” (12). Surely this is not helpful language – to use the modern terminology –  or even  civilized – to use an older one? But I must watch my language here, too. It is obvious, I think, that these are the words of a man drastically on the defensive, a man whose worldview and entire raison d’être is threatened by something he knows little or nothing about. As far as I can ascertain, Leavis’ mathematical and scientific education stopped at school, most likely at 16 or even earlier. My take is that Leavis felt deeply threatened by the rather mild claims for science and for education made by Snow, because he could not really understand half of the discussion. All that is left to a man so threatened is to attack in the best way he can, in this case with powerful and colourful language, drawing on the well of history, literature and culture which falls within his domain.

Lest this seem too much of a kitchen-sink psychological analysis, we now have evidence from moral psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt that we are all prone to this kind of irrational behaviour. Our views become entrenched, irrationally entrenched, when we are seriously challenged by other views which we do not like. The rationalising rider can guide the emotionally driven elephant – in Haidt’s metaphor – but it is the elephant that ups and decides where we want to go. (13) Proper debate has little purchase if we have no real grasp of its terms. Nor can we reason properly if our negative emotions, such as anger and shame, are strongly aroused. We will with great tenacity provide ‘rationales’ for our irrational positions rather than risk changing our minds.

Frankly, rather than getting on a high horse or, indeed, an even higher elephant, I think that Leavis, in order better to join the debate, in order not to let his anger run away with him, would have benefitted from a course in mathematics or engineering. This would have proved a strongly empathic experience and allowed him to see that his fight was in fact no fight at all.

“But surely this is a scandalous suggestion!”, you might interject,” the great F R Leavis to waste his time learning intermediate mathematics?!” Well, yes. My contention is that by entering into this world – the world of the enemy mathematician, scientist or engineer – Leavis would have become more empathetic to the claims of these ‘others’, and this would have – there’s no other way to say this, really – broadened his mind. This in turn would have led to a more productive resolution of the debate. To clarify, what I contend is 1. that Leavis’ response is driven by something other than logic and clear thinking  and 2. that it is generally more productive in all walks of life and ways of thought not to fight when there is nothing to fight about.

It is true that direct experience, such as taking a course outside one’s usual area of learning, is not the only way to increase one’s empathy. The neuroscientist and writer Giovanni Frazzetto reminded me recently that one of the triumphs of art and literature is to increase our empathy without having to live many different lives. Yet I contend that in some cases there is no substitute for lived experience. Isn’t this how Orwell conducted his great empathetic experiment? He lived as those others, those down-and-outs in Paris and London, in order to understand them better. Translated to an academic context this means that to increase one’s empathy, one would need to learn at least some of what the academic other learns. If Leavis had been able so to broaden his mind, I think he would have realised that the entire ‘debate’, the positioning of the humanities ‘against’ the sciences, or the ‘cultural critic’ against the philistine engineer and second rate novelist, was no more than a rush of blood. Rather than a ‘war’ to be fought between ‘clueless’ humanists (Dennett) and the ‘parochial and logically slipshod’ (Douthat) scientists, the conflict would simply have melted away. In learning how to ‘feel in’ for these other colleagues, he would have gained in academic empathy and the ability ‘to step outside himself…expand [his] moral universe’ (Krznaric) to ‘broaden his ambit of concern’. We are less likely to draw battle lines with those within our ambit of concern.

It is important, of course, constantly to bear in mind the symmetry of this situation. Just as there are humanists who lack empathy for their scientist colleagues, there are scientists who would benefit from a similar broadening of their education. Frazzetto, himself deeply sympathetic to both domains, makes the point that although Pinker, in his New Republic essay, hails many of the great Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers as ‘scientists’, he ignores the fact that very few modern day scientists now read these thinkers. Such reading would surely deepen and put into perspective their own scientific thinking. Too many scientists are dismissive of the great achievements of the humanities and their central position in our best political systems, our ethical progress, our art and our value systems. The philosopher James Ladyman makes the telling point that the correlation between dictatorships and countries with poor humanities faculties is high. We ignore this at our peril. Too many scientists are ignorant of the centrality of the humanities in the understanding of our subjective and, indeed, empathic experience – the experience which guides the life of each of us – even scientists! There is no doubt, then, also an empathy deficit in the scientific community towards humanistic colleagues on the other side of the divide.

In recent years, Martha Nussbaum has been perhaps the most prominent and eloquent defender of the humanities. While scientists and the scientistic are not her primary target, the instrumentalist and short-term ‘economic’ arguments for education (usually associated with the more technical or scientific subjects) and those in government unable to see beyond the instrumentalist horizon, certainly are. The humanities teach us, she says, ‘the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.’ ‘When we meet in society’, she continues, ‘if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way, imagining in one another inner faculties of thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.’ (14) There are lots of words here, I think we can agree, that relate directly to our interest in empathy.  One can think of many scientists, economists and policy advisors who would do well to read Nussbaum’s book, to dwell in her ideas and perhaps even to take a course or two in poetry, dance or philosophy to expand their academic empathy.


There is an obvious objection to this stance. In the name of some kind of ‘balance’ or an attempt to give equal weight to both of these camps, haven’t I just walled myself into another kind of ‘silo’, the silo which says there should be no such silos? I want to argue that an increase in academic empathy can pull apart the wall between the humanities and the sciences but it could be said that all such a stance can achieve is to create a second wall and a third compartment containing those who believe there should be no compartments.

I have to try to answer this charge. There is, of course, no view from an academic Nowhere. In espousing any position at all we must, well, take a position. But intentions and aspirations are important here.

Recently I spoke to my students about includers and excluders. I came across this terminology in a piece by the journalist Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens defines himself as an excluder; I am an includer. (As an aside, there is an interesting asymmetry in the relationship between includers and excluders. Includers, if they are honest, are obliged to try to include excluders, whereas excluders, to be true to their mission, have no such obligation –  indeed, they must see who they can cut out of the picture.)

I accept that in some situations exclusion must remain an option. There are political and social situations where, at least temporarily, any kind of workable order can prevail only if we exclude those who make a modus vivendi impossible. And of course, on a personal level, every moment of every day we are obliged to exclude some extraneous information, in order to focus on the matter in hand. But when it comes to the world of thought, and whether we include or exclude, I think we should remember that we are a university. The name comes from the Latin universitas – the whole. For the first several centuries, the education one received at university was assumed to match this ambition. Until around the 17th century there was no word for ‘polymath’ as it was understood that a properly educated person would have universal knowledge. (15)  The first wave of information anxiety brought on by the publication of printed books split the academic community into those, like Isaac Barrow at Cambridge, who thought ‘he can hardly be a good scholar who is not a general one’, and those ‘like Lancelot Voisin de La Popelinière, who criticized what he called “les esprits universels”… as if their attempt at breadth resulted in lack of depth’ (16). But even among the new voices who wanted more specialist concentrations, there was little hint of divide along disciplinary lines.

Universities have generally been communities concerned with the universality of thought. In Lave and Wenger’s terminology we are a ‘community of practice’ – perhaps the archetype of such a community. (17) I take it that an enterprise, a practice so universal, brings with it an intellectual obligation to include. For what kind of thoughts can fall outside of an intellectual universe? The more common and garden universe is usually taken to include all physical things. A university, as its intellectual subset (?) and counterpart, made real by its human community and physical space, has an obligation to include the entire intellectual world.

A community strives to include everyone in that community, even if it chooses to exclude those outside. The university as intellectual community of practice, shares values, processes – and, we hope, some acknowledgement of the attempt to engage with that deeply problematic notion of truth. In order to keep in mind this idea of inclusion, would we not, as a community, benefit from continued and renewed attempts to refresh our academic empathic neurons? Would not this impulse – to try to see the world through another intellectual’s eyes – mutually encouraged and supported within the community, increase our well-being and productivity – our practice, as a community?


I confess that I find the animosity between the two cultures frustrating. It leads to internal divisions, internal exclusions – if you pardon the phrase.  There is a bigger picture which is being missed while the squabbling goes on. Like a married couple fighting over who left the oven on while the house burns down.

In the case of Snow vs Leavis I have tried to indicate something of what I see behind Leavis’ aggression. But more broadly, what, really, is this fight about? Is it about that existential psychological threat that is apparent in Leavis’ words? I mean some sort of psychological defensive gut reaction against that academic other? Or is the fight connected to power in some way? Both personal power – the need to defend the academic fiefdom one has worked so hard to build – born of some kind of Nietzschean drive – and the related political power that such fiefdoms bring? Or perhaps these days we are simply reduced to bickering about money, grant pots and rankings; perhaps such worldly business distracts us to the point that we lose the ability to ‘think ourselves into’ another intellectual position. We are tired and unable to attempt the intellectual imagination necessary for this feat. Here Origgi is right to point out that for the humanities these mundane fights are currently more consuming and probably more exhausting than for our colleagues in the sciences.


Before we conclude, let us return to poor Leavis, obliged by Gombrich to attend his compulsory course in advanced calculus and a first course in mathematical analysis. Let us try to give an answer to those who say that Prof Leavis hasn’t time and that this isn’t relevant to what he can contribute to the Greater Good.

You know, I think they are probably right. Leavis is now grown up and may have better things to do. Why should one of the world’s greatest scholars, busy in his prime, be sent back to school? I have dramatized the situation to make a point, but there is too much of the Maoist 再教育, or ‘re-education’, about this.

The fact is, however, that we should have caught him earlier. How is it that one can graduate from a university without having any real interest in or academic empathy for roughly half the intellectual universe? Put this way, I hope that so narrow an education that allows a university graduate to pooh-pooh the sciences or remain ignorant of the humanities appears just as scandalous as any attempt to re-educate a learned don.

Such thoughts turn us naturally towards how we might wish to educate our undergraduates.  In this essay we have been considering the benefit that academic empathy might bring to us as academics and teachers: the time we might save, the fruitful – instead of hostile – relationships that might build, the gains to knowledge and to scholarship that can be had from collaboration rather than war, and the enrichment of our own, personal worlds of thought. Surely, if we can see the benefits that academic empathy might bring to us, we should try to pass on some of these benefits to our students.


However, such a discussion must wait for another time.

Suffice it to say that in attempting to teach students in such a way as to increase their academic empathy, we may find that we ourselves are more deficient in this regard than we believed. We may find delight in the possibility for unforeseen intellectual growth. There are always alternative viewpoints than can enrich our understanding and pleasurably enlarge our worldview. There are always new things to learn. Learning, at least we can agree, is something we should all aspire to at university.


  1. RSAnimate – The Power of Outrospection. 7 September 2013. Available from: [Accessed 7 September 2013].

  2. Roots of Empathy. 7 September 2013. Available from: [Accessed 7 September 2013]

  3. Obama B. Dreams from my father. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd; 2007.

  4. Goleman D. The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership. London: Time Warner Paperbacks; 2003.

  5. Kellett JB, Humphrey RH, Sleeth RG. Empathy and complex task performance: two routes to leadership. The Leadership Quarterly. 2002; 13: 523–544.

  6. Frazzetto G. How We Feel. London: Doubleday; 2013.

  7. New Republic. 6 August 2013. Available from: [Accessed 16 October 2013].

  8. The New York Times. 7 August 2013. Available from: [Accessed 16 October 2013].

  9. New Republic. No, Science doesn’t have all the answers. 7 August 2013. Available from: [Accessed 16 October 2013].

  10. Edge. Dennett on Wieseltier V Pinker in The New Republic. 10 September 2013. Available from: [Accessed 16 October 2013].

  11. The Berlin Review of Books. The Humanities are not your Enemy! 9 September 2013. Available from: [Accessed 16 October 2013].

  12. The Guardian. Leavis vs Snow: The Two Cultures bust up 50 years on. 16 August 2013. Available from [Accessed 25 October 2013].

  13. Haidt J. The Righteous Mind. London: Allen Lane; 2012.

  14. Nussbaum M. Not for Profit. New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 2010.

  15. Burke P. The Polymath: A Cultural and Social History of an Intellectual Species. In: David F. Smith and H. Philsooph, editors.  Explorations in Cultural History: essays for Peter McCaffery. Aberdeen: Centre for Cultural History; 2010. p. 67-79.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Lave J and Wenger E. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1991.

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