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Which empathy? Limitations in the mirrored "understanding" of emotion

Remy Debes
Synthese
Vol. 175, No. 2 (July 2010), pp. 219-239
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40801338
Page Count: 21
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Which empathy? Limitations in the mirrored "understanding" of emotion
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Abstract

The recent discovery of so-called "mirror-neurons" in monkeys and a corresponding mirroring "system" in humans has provoked wide endorsement of the claim that humans understand a variety of observed actions, somatic sensations, and emotions via a kind of direct representation of those actions, sensations, and emotions. Philosophical efforts to assess the import of such "mirrored understanding" have typically focused on how that understanding might be brought to bear on theories of mindreading (how we represent other creatures as having mental states), and usually in cases of action. By contrast, this paper assesses mirrored understanding in cases of emotion and its import for theories of empathy and especially empathy in ethical contexts. In particular, this paper argues that the mirrored understanding claim is ambiguous and ultimately misleading when applied to emotion, partly because mirroring proponents fail to appreciate the way in which empathy might serve a distinct normative function in our judgments of what other people feel. The paper thus concludes with a call to revise the mirrored understanding claim, whether in neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy.

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