LAN 312: What is Empathy?

Course Description

Is empathy an innate human trait, can it be learned or nurtured through art, or does it consist of nature and nurture? Philosophers, religious leaders and artists have discussed empathy as charity, compassion, sympathy and fellow-feeling. Evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and developmental psychologists explore if empathy is uniquely human or not. We shall take an interdisciplinary approach by examining and comparing religious, philosophical, literary, cinematic, psychological and scientific perspectives. Comparing and contrasting mutually enriching definitions of empathy of various eras, cultures, and fields constitutes a key interdisciplinary approach in this course. A final section asks the question: Can empathy be nurtured through art? We shall analyze theoretical responses in various fields (drama, poetry, prose and film) and artistic works from various cultures, eras, and perspectives. No prerequisite courses are required. No technological expertise is needed for this course.

View Course Syllabus

Course Schedule

LAN 312: Descriptive Week by Week Course Outline: What is Empathy?

Part I: Answers from Eastern Religions, Philosophy, Poetry, Film:

We shall compare similarities in these answers with their aesthetic depictions in poetry and film, and through contemporary social engagement such as that of the Dali Lama.

Week 1

Introduction to the course, outline of basic questions on empathy, overview of definitions of empathy, and of similarities/differences in the works to be discussed. Chinese Philosophy: Essays, Chinese thinkers: Confucius and his follower Mencius. Film excerpts:“The Buddha:Story of Siddhartha” (Dir. David Grubin, PBS)

Week 2: Indian Philosophy and Poetry, Buddhism&South Korean Film

Assigned Essay Questions: How does Buddhist philosophy describe “karuna” or compassion? How do Tagore’s poem and Ki-duk’s film portray Karuna?

Part II: Western Religions, Philosophy, Literature and Film:

We shall compare religious and philosophical answers with their depiction in fiction and poetry and through social engagement (Mother Theresa; Hannah Arendt).

Week 3: Western Religions (with Epic poetry, fiction & film)

Assigned Essay: Compare the Parable of the Good Samaritan with the lesson Parzival learns in his search for the Holy Grail. Compare these two texts with the lesson that the narrator learns in Sebald’s short story “Paul Bereyter”.

Week 4: Western Philosophers with history, poetry and film

Assigned Essay: Contrast three philosophical definitions of empathy with Arendt’s definition of “the banality of evil,” embodied in Eichmann. Eli Wiesel said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Apply Wiesel’s observation to Eichmann.

Part III: Answers from the Sciences and Social Sciences: We shall compare the recent discoveries in these fields regarding the evolutionary, psychological and neurological development of humans, especially children, and how they enhance our understanding of discoveries in each field and of human motivation.

Week 5: Evolutionary Biology

Assigned Essay: By drawing upon the discoveries of Darwin, de Waal, and neuroscience, support the argument that empathy is an innate human trait. Compare these viewpoints to those of Mencius, the Dalai Lama and one of the western philosophers we have studied.

Week 6: Developmental Psychology and Feminist Psychology

Assigned Essay: Explain the difference between emotional contagion and a more mature empathy. Do animals have the former or the latter? Compare Hoffmann’s description of mature empathy to the definitions of one religious leader and one western philosopher.

Week 7: Neuroscience

Assigned Essay: By referring to recent discoveries in neuroscience argue that empathy is not simply a human trait and compare this viewpoint with those of Darwin and de Waal.

Week 8: Paper Presentations

Part IV: Can Empathy be learned? The Arts: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Photography, Film: We shall apply definitions of empathy from Parts I, II and III in an interpretation of various texts--dramatic, fictional, poetic, and cinematic and in discussions concerning the nature/nurture debate regarding empathy and the genetic, familial, historical and cultural influences on an individual and his/her predisposition for an empathic response to others.

Week 9: African-American Experience: Tragedy, History, and Film

Assigned Essays: 1.Compare and contrast Aristotle’s description of tragedy as evoking pity and fear to Schiller’s view of theater’s effect on its audience. 2.The key line in Death of Salesman is “attention must be paid”. How is that statement a plea for empathy? 3. How does a play such as A Raisin in the Sun evoke more empathy than historical narratives of slavery and of the fight for human rights? Apply Hoffmann’s theory of various “biases” in empathic responses that we discussed earlier in your answer. -Assignment: Midterm Paper presentations.

Week 10: The Experiences of the Child: Poetry, Psychological Theory, and Film

Assigned Essay: How do artistic works, evoke a mature empathy as described by Hoffmann and western philosophers and as discovered by neuroscientists?

Week 11: Experiences of the Oppressed, the Poor, the Colonized: Photography, Film Theory, Literary Theory, Philosophy, and the Novel

Assigned Essay: Compare and contrast the empathy evoked by photos and film with that evoked by the more mediated form of language. Does reading literature require more imagination than viewing images? Apply Sontag’s theory of images, and ideas of James, Eliot or Nussbaum on the relationship between literature and readers in your discussion.

Week 12: LBGT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transsexual) Experiences: History, Literature, and Film

Assigned Essay: Watch one of the optional films. Drawing upon the instructor’s lecture on the historical persecution of gays, the literary passages we have read from the optional readings, and one of the optional films, compare and contrast the mistreatment of gays and/or lesbians as ostracized minority groups with that of African-Americans, the untouchables in India and the colonized. What are the similarities and the differences? What are the social structures and ideologies that maintain or support social inequality?

Week 13: Life as a Woman (where East meets West): Religion (Islam), the Novel, and Film

Assigned Essays: 1.Contrast what the Koran teaches about respecting women with the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 2. Watch an optional film and compare the treatment of the protagonist in Bliss to the protagonist in the optional film. 3. How are these fictional stories relevant to current events such as the attack on Malala, who was defending the rights of girls to have an education?

Week 14: Native American Experiences: History, Prose, and Film

Assignment: Finish writing paper.

Week 15

Paper presentations and papers due during assigned exam period

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