A Proposal to the Fetzer Institute
Evan Thompson, Ph.D.
Department of Philosophy & Centre for Vision Research
York University

©Evan Thompson & The Fetzer Institute 1999


  1. Introduction
    Guiding questions
    Conceptual architecture
  2. Enactive Cognitive Science and Phenomenology

  3. What is enactive cognitive science?
    Phenomenology and the lived body
  4. Embodiment and Intersubjectivity

  5. The lived body-environment
    Self and other
    Affect and feeling
  6. Empathy

  7. What is empathy?
    Empathy and the constitution of the self
    Empathy and animal life
    Phenomenology and cognitive ethology
  8. From Intersubjectivity to Interbeing

  9. Emotion and value feeling
    Modes of mind in human development
    The value-sensing modes
  10. The Next Step
  11. References


1. Introduction


Human consciousness is not located in the head, but is immanent in the living body and the interpersonal social world. One’s consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual embedded in the world emerges through empathic cognition of others. Consciousness is not some peculiar qualitative aspect of private mental states, nor a property of the brain inside the skull; it is a relational mode of being of the whole person embedded in the natural environment and the human social world.

The purpose of this report is to present this perspective on human consciousness with an eye to its implications for the emerging field of consciousness studies.

Guiding questions

Two main questions will guide this report:

How can recent research in cognitive science help us to understand intersubjective consciousness and empathy as part of our natural, evolutionary heritage?

How can phenomenological methods and contemplative practices deepen and guide scientific research on intersubjective consciousness?

Conceptual architecture

The conceptual architecture of the report can be summarized in three main points:

Individual human consciousness emerges from the dynamic interrelation of self and other, and is therefore inherently intersubjective.

Cognitive science and the philosophical tradition of Continental European Phenomenology* provide the main support for this point.

A deep understanding of intersubjectivity requires an understanding of empathy as the basic mode of experience in which one relates to others and understands their experiences. Empathy is developmental and opens up pathways to self-transcendent or non-egocentric modes of "interbeing."

Phenomenology and the contemplative and meditative psychologies of the world’s wisdom traditions provide the main support for this point.

Real progress in the understanding of intersubjectivity requires a "science of interbeing" that integrates the methods of cognitive science, Phenomenology, and contemplative and meditative psychologies.

The previous two points provide the main support for this conclusion.

2. Enactive Cognitive Science and Phenomenology

According to the enactive approach of recent cognitive science, as presented originally by Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, in their book The Embodied Mind, the mind does not internally represent an independent external world, but rather enacts a meaningful world through embodied action. To say that cognition is embodied means that it depends upon the perceptual and motor capacities of our body, and that it is intertwined with the environment. What recent cognitive science has begun to show is that the embodied mind is intersubjective at the most fundamental levels. Human self-consciousness, for example, emerges from a primordial and preverbal proprioceptive sense of self that is inseparably coupled to the perceptual recognition of other human beings. To what extent this experiential coupling of self and other, which is operative from birth, is distinctively human, or present in other primate species or animal lineages, remains an open issue for current research.

The discovery of the importance of embodiment and intersubjectivity links cognitive science to the older tradition of Phenomenology in philosophy and psychology. To appreciate this link we first need to provide some background material.

What is enactive cognitive science?

Three major approaches to the study of the mind can be distinguished within cognitive science:


• Connectionist


Although each approach, in one form or another, has been present in cognitive science from the beginning, the cognitivist approach dominated the field from the fifties to the seventies. In the late seventies, connectionism began to challenge the cognitivist orthodoxy, followed in the late eighties by the enactive approach. It seems fair to say that all three coexist in contemporary research.

Cognitive science came into being in the fifties with the so-called cognitivist revolution against behaviorist psychology. At the center of the revolution was the computer model of the mind, according to which cognition is information-processing after the fashion of the digital computer. Whereas behaviorism allowed no reference to the internal states of the organism in the explanation of behavior, the computer model made such reference legitimate by showing its necessity in accounting for the behavior of complex information-processing systems. Even more important, the computer model was taken to show how content or meaning could be attributed to the states inside the system: a computer is a symbol-manipulating machine; and a symbol is an item that has a physical shape or form, and that stands for or represents something. According to the computer model of the mind, the brain too is a computer, a "physical symbol system," and mental processes are carried out by the manipulation of symbolic representations in the brain. Cognitivism gave birth to functionalism in the philosophy of mind, which, in its most extreme form, holds that embodiment is essentially irrelevant to the nature of the mind: it is the software, not the hardware, that matters.

Cognitivism made meaning, in the limited sense of representational semantics, scientifically acceptable, but at the price of banishing consciousness from the scientific territory of the mind. (In fact, cognitivism inherited from behaviorism a consciousness taboo.) Mental processes, understood to be computations in an inner symbolic language in the brain, were taken to be entirely unconscious. Thus the connection between the mind and meaning, on the one hand, and consciousness, on the other, was completely severed. Of course, Freud had already undermined the identification of the mind with consciousness. The cognitivist distinction between cognition and consciousness, however, was rather different: mental processes were considered to be "subpersonal routines" that by nature are completely inaccessible to personal awareness under any conditions. In effect, cognitivism split up the mind so as to create an apparently unbridgeable chasm between the mind’s personal and subpersonal regions: the unconscious subpersonal region, the "cognitive unconscious," is where the action of thought really takes place, whereas personal consciousness has access merely to a few results or epiphenomenal manifestations of subpersonal processing.

In the late seventies the cognitivist orthodoxy was challenged by the connectionist approach, which revitalized ideas from the pre-cognitivist era of cybernetics. Connectionism is now widespread. Its central tool is not the digital computer or physical symbol system, but rather the self-organizing neural network. According to connectionism, mental processes occur through the emergence of global patterns of activity in a network of neuronal or neural-like components. The idea of emergent phenomena–higher-level phenomena that arise through the interaction of lower-level elements according to so-called learning rules–is fundamental. The neural network’s emergent patterns of activity are not symbols in the traditional computational sense, though they can be described approximately in symbolic terms. Thus the connectionist search for cognitive principles and mechanisms is formulated not in the language of symbolic computation, but rather in the entirely different formal discipline of nonlinear dynamical systems.

The connectionist movement of the seventies and eighties emphasized perceptual pattern recognition as the paradigm of intelligence, in contrast to deductive logic as emphasized by cognitivism. Nevertheless, connectionism inherited from cognitivism the idea that the mind is essentially the cognitive unconscious, the region of unconscious, subpersonal routines. Human experience still had no place in the modern science of the mind.

The repression of consciousness could last only so long before consciousness would return as a peculiar problem for cognitive science. Thus, in the nineties, consciousness has emerged as one of the main challenges facing cognitive science.

The return of consciousness as a problem for cognitive science coincided with the emergence of a third approach to the mind, the enactive approach. Cognitivism and connectionism had left unquestioned the relation between cognitive processes and the world in which the mind is embodied and embedded. Classical cognitivist and connectionist models were typically disembodied, in the sense of not involving perceptuomotor interaction with the environment in real-time. It was simply assumed that the mind-world relation is one of abstract representation: internal symbols or network patterns of activation stand for objects, properties, events, and states of affairs in some delimited region of the outside world. The mind and the world were treated as independent of each other, and the outside world was supposed to be represented in a model inside the head. The enactive approach called into question this idea of mental representation. Like connectionism, enactive cognitive science focuses on self-organizing, dynamical systems, but it takes the further step of emphasizing how cognition emerges from the reciprocal interactions of the brain, the body, and the environment. Mental processes cannot be limited to operations in a model inside the head, because cognition is embodied in sensorimotor activity and embedded in the environment. The mind and the world, rather than being two independent realms linked through representation, are members of an inseparable couple that enact each other.

The enactive approach provides a different perspective on the cognitive unconscious. The cognitive unconscious is no longer seen as disembodied symbol manipulation or as pattern recognition separate from motor activity in the world, but rather as those processes of embodied and embedded cognition that are not experientially accessible to the person. Such processes include not only those underlying language comprehension and perceptual pattern recognition, but also the sensorimotor processes that enable movement, the maintenance of posture, the incorporation of aspects of the environment into one’s own body schema, and the preverbal sense of self and other. Thus the cognitive unconscious extends throughout the body and loops through the physical and social environment in which the body is embedded; it is not limited to subpersonal routines inside the brain.

Most of the recent cognitive-scientific discussions of consciousness have been from a cognitivist or connectionist viewpoint. The enactive approach, because of its vision of the mind as embodied and embedded, offers a unique opportunity to go beyond these viewpoints and put human experience and the cognitive unconscious back together again in the science of the mind.

The key step is to relinquish the false objectification of the self as a cognitive entity or process lodged in the mind-brain and recover the true being of the self or person as an embodied being embedded in the world. It is this step that reveals consciousness to be a mode of being-in-the-world, not a peculiar aspect of mental states inside the head.

Phenomenology and the lived body

If consciousness is a mode of being-in-the-world, then clearly it cannot be understood apart from that by which we inhabit and engage the world, namely, our bodies. Although the human body is an objective, physiological entity, it is also something that we live directly. For this reason, phenomenological perspectives on the lived body are essential to enactive cognitive science.

The distinction between the objective body and the lived body comes from the Continental European tradition of Phenomenology, in particular from the writings of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) (see References). The distinction is best understood not as one between two different bodies, but rather as a conceptual one derived from two different ways of perceiving the same body (Gallagher 1986). The objective body is the body observed as an object that can be scientifically analyzed; the lived body is the body that lives through and sustains the act of perception. Clearly, there need be no opposition here: the lived body is the human organism and the human organism is the lived body; the difference is simply a matter of perspective.

The methodological question of how to relate these two perspectives is a central issue for consciousness studies. Varela, Thompson & Rosch (1991) proposed the idea of "mutual circulation," in which each perspective enlightens the other (see also Varela 1996; Gallagher 1997). From the perspective of phenomenology, the task is to uncover the invariant experiential structures of the lived body; from the perspective of enactive cognitive science, it is to understand how these experiential structures emerge from the adaptive coupling of the brain, the body, and the environment. These two tasks proceed in tandem, each drawing from and revising the other, to the point where the distinction between them becomes blurred as they forge a new kind of phenomenological cognitive science.

3. Embodiment and Intersubjectivity

The lived body is not limited by the skin, for it includes the world beyond the biological membrane of the organism. The lived body is intertwined with the environment and with the other in the interpersonal human world.

The lived body-environment

The lived body often escapes conscious experience: we are not conscious of it in all of its aspects or in all of its performances. As you read these words, you may be marginally aware of your posture, and perhaps your breathing, but you are probably not aware of the blinking of your eyelids, the beating of your heart, and the pulsing of your blood. The lived body, though present and perceptible in certain respects, is also experientially absent. As the very ground of experience, it tends to recede from experience; it absents itself while remaining operative, available for non-conscious performance and, in certain repects, for consciousness (through mindfulness or heightened focusings of attention, for example). Phenomenologists have called this kind of experiential absence the "absent body" (Leder 1990) or the "absently available body" (Gallagher 1986) and have shown it to be a fundamental, invariant structure of our embodied experience: "The experiential absence of the body is always involved in living the body, even while the body is present [to consciousness], whereas the presence of the body is only sometimes an acessory. Therefore, the presence of the body… depends on its absently available performance" (Gallagher 1986, p. 155).

The lived body in its absently available mode has a number of important characteristics compared with the body as it is consciously experienced. When consciously experienced, the body appears as our own, as belonging to our self or as being our self. As absently available, however, the body is there, at our disposal, but as "a pre-personal cleaving to the general form of the world … beneath my personal life" (Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 84). In other words, beneath personal consciousness, which includes awareness of our own body, there courses a more fundamental pre-personal or pre-egological life that sustains our sense of self and personal involvement in the world.

As an example, we can consider our experience of ourselves in space. Our perception of space and our sense of self-identity are inextricable: we experience things as being located at various distances from ourselves, while we perceive from "here," from the center or "zero-point of orientation" of our world. Now matter how we turn, our body is always here, at the zero-point, never there. Our body, as that by which we experience the world, cannot show up as a fully present object in the world; it recedes while remaining absently available. Our sense of self-identity and orientation in the world are grounded on this absently available lived spatiality of the body.

When consciously experienced or reflected upon, the lived body can often appear as the subject set off against the environment as object; or, for those whose sense of self is especially intellectual, it can appear as the mediator between one’s self or mind and the world. Yet this dichotomy between subjective and objective does not characterize the absently available body: it is lived directly, and therefore not an object; and it is pre-personal (pre-egological), and therefore not a conscious subject.

The subjective/objective dichotomy involves the idea that there is a kind of distance or separation between the mind and the world, but there is no such distance or separation between the lived body and its environment. The environment calls upon the lived body to act in certain ways, while the body responds so as to bring forth a meaningful environment. The lived body-environment is thus a unitary structure that emerges through reciprocal interaction.

Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991), from the perspective of cognitive science, described this process as "structural coupling." The brain is structurally coupled to the body, and the body is structurally coupled to the environment. The dynamics of these three coupled systems enact the lived body-environment. This viewpoint implies that the brain is not a conductor hidden within the head; rather, the nervous system is one of a group of players engaged in jazz improvisation, and the final result emerges from the continued give and take between them. In other words, adaptive behavior is the result of the continuous interaction between the nervous system, the body and the environment, each of which have rich, complicated, highly structured dynamics. The role of the nervous system is not so much to direct or program behavior as to shape it and evoke the appropriate patterns of dynamics from the entire coupled system… As a consequence, one cannot assign credit for adaptive behavior to any one piece of this coupled system (Chiel & Beer 1997, p. 555).

Merleau-Ponty (1968), in a Phenomenological context, introduced the term "intertwining–the chiasm" to describe this kind of coupling. David Abram, in The Spell of the Sensuous, describes the idea well when he writes:


The experiencing body… is not a self-enclosed object, but an open, incomplete entity. This openness is evident in the arrangement of the senses: I have these multiple ways of encountering and exploring the world–listening with my ears, touching with my skin, seeing with my eyes, tasting with my tongue, smelling with my nose–and all of these various powers or pathways continually open outward from the perceiving body, like different paths diverging from a forest. Yet my experience of the world is not fragmented; I do not commonly experience the visible appearance of the world as in any way separable from its audible aspect, or from the myriad textures that offer themselves to my touch… Thus, my divergent senses meet up with each other in the surrounding world, converging and commingling in the things I perceive. We may think of the sensing body as a kind of open circuit that completes itself only in things, and in the world. The differentiation of the senses, as well as their spontaneous convergence in the world at large, ensures that I am a being destined for relationship: it is primarily through my engagement with what is not me that I effect the integration of my senses, and thereby experience my own unity and coherence (Abrams 1996, p. 125).

This "synaesthetic flowing together of different senses into a dynamic and unified experience" (ibid.) is apparent in our experience of ourselves in space. The space of the world as we live it is not a uniform external container, but rather a medium molded by our sensing, moving bodies. The lived body possesses a number of what phenomenologists call "kinaesthetic systems" of bodily movements–of the eyes, head, hands, torso, and so on. To these kinaesthetic systems there correspond various kinds of perceptual appearances–visual, tactile, auditory, and so on. The correspondence between bodily movement and perceptual appearance is such that any movement or change of position (such as an eye movement) brings about a change in how things appear (such as a change of visual focus). All perception is "kinaesthetically motivated," to use Husserl’s term, that is, it is directed and carried along by movement, so that an indissoluble circuit forms between our bodily comportment and the appearance of things in space (Husserl 1997). The space of the lived body-environment thus comprises a range of worldly settings or situations whose contours are enacted by the body.

This idea, long a theme for Phenomenology, has been rediscovered by recent cognitive neuroscience. The brain does not represent space in a single multipurpose map: there are numerous spatial maps in the brain and many are located in cortical areas involved in the control of bodily movements (Rizzolatti et al. 1994). The unity of space perception derives not from a unitary spatial map that is separate from motor processes, but rather from the coordinated activity of several highly specialized sensorimotor networks. The movements of the body "progressively carve out a working space from undifferentiated visual information" and this "movement-based space… becomes then our experiential peripersonal visual space" (Rizzolatti et al. 1997, p. 191). In fact, the neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, at the conclusion of a recent article in Science, himself makes the connection between these findings and Phenomenology:

[These findings] are at odds with the traditional view of cognitive sciences that percepts are built from elementary sensory information via a series of progressively more and more complex representations. In contrast, they stress the importance of motor areas and motor-to-sensory pathways for the construction of object and space perception, and the artificiality of constructing a rigid wall between sensory and motor representations. It is interesting to note the closeness of this view, emerging from single-neuron recordings, and the philosophical stance of phenomenological philosophers on space perception. Space is [quoting Merleau-Ponty] ‘not a sort of ether in which all things float… The points in space mark, in our vicinity, the varying range of our aims and our gestures’… (Rizzolatti et al. 1997, p. 191).

Our experience of ourselves in space provides one example of how "body schemas"–systems of sensorimotor abilities (Gallagher 1986)–effect the intertwining of the lived body-environment; the experience of time too can be seen in this light (Gallagher 1998; Varela 1999a, 1999b). Another telling case is the intersubjective experience of self and other, to which we now turn.

Self and other

In the human case, the lived body must complete itself not simply in things or the world, but in other human beings. Thus, in human experience, the lived body and the world intertwine according to the interpersonal dynamic of self and other. Recent cognitive science has made clear that this dynamic too depends upon particular kinds of body schemas.

An especially interesting case is that of infant imitation. Recent studies show that newborn human infants (less than an hour old) can imitate the facial gestures of another person (Meltzoff & Moore 1994). This kind of imitation is known as "invisible imitation" because the infant uses parts of his body invisible to himself to imitate the other’s movements. For this kind of imitation to be possible, the infant must be able to match a visual display (the facial movements of the other) to his own motor behavior; therefore, he must have a developed body schema, which organizes his experience of his own body’s position and movement, and to which he can relate the visible gestures of the other person. If imitation requires such a body schema, and newborns can imitate, then such a schema must be operative from birth, rather than having to wait upon the infants acquiring a visual image of themselves (contrary to what earlier theorists, such as Piaget, proposed) (Gallagher & Meltzoff 1996).

How would such a schema work? The basic idea is that the infant, faced with novel gestures, uses her proprioceptive awareness of her own unseen facial movements to copy what she sees in the face of the other person. This performance depends upon a "supramodal" body schema that enables the infant to recognize equivalences between herself and the other person (Meltzoff & Moore 1995; Gallgher & Meltzoff 1996). The schema links the perceptual modalities of vision and proprioception, both to each other and to motor processes of action. As a result, when the infant sees the gesture of the other, it is recognizable in the terms of her own proprioceptive awareness (via the intermodal link between vision and proprioception); while her body schema enables her to move so that her proprioceptive awareness of her own body and its position coincides with what she sees (via the intermodal link between visuo-proprioception and motor action).

Invisible imitation in infants brings out the myriad interwoven layers of the interpersonal lived-body environment. The infant does not need to learn to translate back-and-forth between vision, proprioception, and action, because from the start her senses are synaesthetically united with each other and with possibilities of action, while this unity is called into performance by the other: the gestures that beckon from the other are seen proprioceptively and felt visually, and thus incorporated by the infant in her response.

The trajectory of this interpersonal dynamic is not "from-the-inside-out": we do not, as infants, first experience ourselves proprioceptively and then "transfer" this sense of self outward so as to recognize the other as a being like us. Although an intracorporeal schema makes possible the interpersonal dynamic, the schema operates intercorporeally from the start:

no… transfer is necessary because it is already accomplished, and already intersubjective. A supramodal code already reaches across the child’s relations with others… From early infancy… the visual experiences of the other person communicate in a code that is related to the self. This communication is organized on the basis of an innate system that does not necessarily give priority to body experience over and against the experience of the other… The body schema, working systematically with proprioceptive awareness, operates as a proprioceptive self that is always already ‘coupled’ with the other (Gallagher & Meltzoff 1996, pp. 225-226).

This intersubjective framework of self and other becomes increasingly cognitive as children grow and develop. Between the ages of two and five, children begin to be able to interpret themselves and others in the human psychological framework of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, and perceptions (see Astington 1993). This interpretive ability reflects a particular type of social intelligence. Such intelligence, from an evolutionary standpoint, seems to be a recent innovation, one that probably emerged before the divergence of humans and apes, for it seems to be present among great apes such as chimpanzees (de Waal 1996, 1998; Gallup 1998). Indeed, there are striking similarities in the development of children’s and chimpanzees’ psychological abilities; though there are crucial differences too, ones which exemplify the cognitive refinements in the evolution of the human interpersonal dynamic of self and other (see Povinelli & Preuss 1995; Povinelli 1998).

Affect and feeling

Feeling plays a central role in the lived body-environment and the coupling of self and other. As we discussed earlier, the body carries on a pre-personal or pre-egological life beneath one’s personal awareness. Yet if the perceptual presence of the body to oneself depends on the body’s being "absently available" at a pre-personal level, then what makes us experience the lived body as our own? To answer this question we need to appeal to feeling in the sense of affect. The body emerges as one’s own in feeling, not in the sense of touch, but in the sense of affective presentation (Gallagher 1986, p. 154).

Affect is a kind of primordial bridge between the pre-personal and the personal, and the self and other. Affect operates prior to consciousness (one is affectively moved and oriented before one knows it consciously), but emerges personally in bodily feelings, emotions, and moods. It makes the lived body one’s own, while binding one to the other.

These dimensions of affect can be seen clearly in facial expression. As the neuropsychologist Jonathon Cole has recently written: "the body-part we feel most embodied in is our face, even though it is difficult to describe and so forms little part of how we describe ourselves to others" (Cole 1997, p. 467). Faces not only uniquely identify us but show our feelings and emotions. The newborn infant’s ability to imitate facial gestures thus points to the primordial link between feeling and intersubjectivity: "at the beginning was not the thought, or the word, but the feeling, seen facially… babies learn something of emotion, and how it is experienced, by taking the facial expressions of others and, by imitation, feeling their own faces to be like others" (ibid., p. 475).

The perception of the other through bodily feeling is certainly not limited to the case of infant imitation; on the contrary, it is a pervasive aspect of our being:

when I watch a stranger learning to ride a bicycle for the first time, my own body, although it is standing solidly on the ground, inadvertently experiences the uncertain equilibrium of the rider, and when that bicycle teeters and falls I feel the harsh impact of the asphalt against my own leg and shoulder. My tactile and proprioceptive senses are, it would seem, caught up over there where my eyes have been focused; the momentary shock and subsequent throbbing in my limbs make me wince. My hearing, as well, had been focused by the crash; the other ambient sounds to which I’d been listening just before (birds, children playing) have no existence for me now, only this stranger’s pained breathing as he slowly shoves the bicycle aside and accepts the hand I am offering, pulling himself to his feet. He shakes his head, laughs a bit, then grins–all in a manner that readily communicates to my body that he’s okay–and then turns to inspect the bicycle (Abrams 1996, pp. 126-127).

Cognitive neuroscience has also begun to cast some light on the neural processes underlying this kind of interpersonal affect. A good example is the "somatic marker hypothesis" of the neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994). Damasio uses the term "emotion" to refer to changes in the body, and "feeling" to refer to the experience of those changes in connection to what incited them, or, in the case of "background feelings," to experiences of one’s bodily state between the episodic changes of emotion. Background feeling "is our image of the body landscape when it is not shaken by emotion" (pp. 150-151) and therefore is integral to our sense of self.

According to the somatic marker hypothesis, neuronal "images" of the body’s activity play a central role in the formation of feelings. Our bodily states are continuallly changing; the brain forms images of these changes in connection to the situations that incite them; these images in turn incite further bodily changes; and these changes too can be felt:

the experience of what your body is doing while thoughts and specific contents roll by, is the essence of what I call a feeling. If an emotion is a collection of changes in body state connected to particular mental images that have activated a specific brain system, the essence of feeling an emotion is the experience of such changes in juxtaposition to the mental images that initiated the cycle. In other words, a feeling depends on the juxtaposition of an image of the body proper to an image of something else, such as the visual image of a face or the auditory image of a melody (Damasio 1994, p. 145).

The term "somatic marker" refers to this idea that feelings depend on the juxtaposition of neuronal images of the body and the world. Feelings are bodily, often visceral, and they serve to mark situations affectively in relation to oneself. In this way affect plays an essential role in interpersonal deliberation and decision-making.


A deep understanding of human embodiment and intersubjectivity requires an understanding of empathy as the basic mode of cognition in which we grasp the experiences of others.

What is empathy?

In Phenomenology, empathy is understood to be a unique kind of direct experience, distinct from other kinds of direct experience such as sense perception (Stein 1964). Empathy and sense perception are distinct because they have different objects and these objects are given to us in different ways. In sense perception we grasp the things of the world, whereas in empathy we grasp experiences other than our own. A person smiles, for example, and we become aware of his joy. The joy is not a perceptual thing, such as a tree in the courtyard or a bird flying across the sky, nor do we experience it as a perceptual thing: "Perception has its object before it in embodied givenness; empathy does not" (ibid., p. 19). We see the face of another; it stands before us in embodied givenness. But the joy of another cannot stand before us in this way; we can be aware of it only in its expression. Nonetheless, empathy, like perception, is a form of direct experience: just as sense perception gives us the worldly thing itself, not a representation of the thing, so empathy gives us the experience of another, not a representation of it. The person’s smile is not a representation of his joy; the joy shows itself in his smile, and we directly grasp the smile as the visible expression or manifestation of his joy.

In sum, empathy is that kind of direct experience in which we directly grasp the experience of another, without undergoing that experience ourselves.

According to Edith Stein’s (1964) important analysis, empathy unfolds as the feeling of being led by another’s experience, and it takes place in three steps. First, the experience emerges before us: "it arises before me all at once, it faces me as an object (such as the sadness I ‘read in another’s face’)." Second, we can inquire into the content of the experience, delving into it in an effort to comprehend it from the person’s point of view. The experience then ceases to face us as an object, for we have become immersed in the effort to clarify and understand its content. Finally, when this clarification is complete, the experience stands before us again, but now in a clarified or explicated way. Thus empathy is not one-dimensional, for "there are various grades of accomplishment possible" (p. 18). (This idea that empathy has various levels of accomplishment will become important when we consider empathic interbeing.)

There is one more aspect of empathy that needs to be mentioned here. This is the idea of what Stein calls "the reiteration of empathy" (p. 18). Just as we can reflect on a reflection (reiteration of reflection), or remember a memory (reiteration of memory), so we can empathize the empathized. In other words, "among the acts of another that I grasp empathically there can be empathic acts in which the other grasps another’s acts. This ‘other’ can be a third person or me myself. In the second case we have ‘reflexive sympathy’ where my original experience returns to me as an empathized one" (ibid.).

Empathy and the constitution of the self

One of the most important reasons that human consciousness is not a private subjective sphere enclosed within the head is that one’s consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual is accomplished in reiterated empathy with another.

This fundamental point is one of the major contributions of Phenomenology to the understanding of human consciousness. Its full explication, however, will take several steps.

To begin we need to go back to the notion of the lived body. When we see another person, we do not perceive his body as a mere physical thing; rather, we grasp it immediately as a lived body like our own. Thus empathy is not simply the grasping of another’s particular experiences (sadness, joy, and so on); on a more fundamental level, it is the experience of another as a being like oneself. This kind of empathy, moreover, is not layered on top of sense perception; it is woven into the fabric of sense perception from the start (see the quotation from Abram on p. 10).

Next, we need to say more about what is contained in empathically experiencing another’s body as a lived body. Edith Stein points to five important ingredients of this experience. The other’s body is given to us

as animated by its own fields of sensation

• as another center of orientation of the spatial world

• as capable of voluntary movement

as animated by general feelings of life or of being in one’s living body (e.g., growth, development, aging, health and sickness, vigor and sluggishness)

• as expressive of experience

The first ingredient, the empathic grasping of another’s body as animated by its own fields of sensation, Stein calls "sensual empathy" or "sensing-in." It is easiest to understand in the case of particular sensations, rather than whole sensory fields (visual, tactile, and so on). To take Stein’s example: "The hand resting on the table does not lie there like the book beside it. It ‘presses’ against the table more or less strongly; it lies there limpid or stretched; and I ‘see’ the sensations of pressure and tension…" (p. 54). To say that we "see" the sensations of the other does not mean that we experience them ourselves, in the original, as it were. Rather, our experience of them is, in Phenomenological parlance, "non-original": we see them in the sense that they are part of the very meaning of what we see–a living human hand. It is this meaning that makes the seeing a case of empathy.

In this example of sensual empathy we have so far mentioned only the first step or level of accomplishment in empathy–the emergence of the experience of another. The second step involves delving into the content of the other’s experience. If this happens, then

my hand is moved (not in reality but "as if") to the place of the foreign one. It is moved into it and occupies its position and attitude, now feeling its sensations, though not primordially [i.e., not in the original] and not as being its own… the foreign hand is continually perceived as belonging to the foreign physical body so that the empathized sensations are continually brought into relief as foreign in contrast with our own sensations (p. 54).

Clearly, for this kind of sensual empathy to be possible, our own and the other’s body must be of a similar type. What the limits of this type might be is an open and important question. Stein notes that "empathy is quite successful with men’s and children’s hands which are very different from mine," and then raises the crucial point: "The type ‘human physical body’ does not define the limits of the range of my empathic objects, more exactly, of what can be given to me as a living body." For example: "Should I perhaps consider a dog’s paw in comparison with my hand, I do not have a mere physical body, either, but a sensitive limb of a living body… I may sense-in pain when the animal is injured." Nevertheless, "the further I deviate from the type ‘man,’ [read: humanity] the smaller does the number of possibilities of fulfillment become" (pp. 54-55). (We will return to this issue in the discussion of interbeing.)

The second ingredient is that we grasp another’s lived body as another center of orientation of the world. Earlier in the discussion of the lived body it was mentioned that our experience of space and our sense of self-identity are tied together: we perceive things to be arrayed around us, while we are "here," at the center or "zero-point of spatial orientation." This differentiation between here and there does not belong to space considered as a medium independent of the body; it can be found only in bodily space, in what philosophers call egocentric space. When we perceive another, we perceive her as "there" in relation to us "here," and we grasp her as having her own egocentric space.

To grasp the other as having her own egocentric space is to grasp her as having a space defined by her own bodily movements. This involves grasping her body as capable of voluntary movement (the third ingredient listed above). We do not experience her movements as merely mechanical, but as alive and spontaneous. Neither sentience (having fields of sensation) nor spatial orientation (having an egocentric space) can be separated from voluntary movement in our empathic grasp of another. The appearance of rigid immobility casts doubt on the body’s sensitivity; and, because perception without voluntary mobility is severely limited, it also casts doubt on the body’s having an egocentric perceptual space. If her body were simply an inanimate physical thing, devoid of life, then its spatial significance could only ever be that it occupies a "there" in relation to us. But in empathically experiencing her as a sentient being capable of voluntary movement, we experience her as having her own "here," in relation to which we stand "there."

If we then proceed to the second level of empathy and delve into the content of her experience, we gain a new spatial perspective on the world. At the same time, we continue to have (and always must have) our own center of spatial orientation. Thus empathy, at this fundamental vital level, makes possible an intersubjective field in which there is no one single zero-point or center of orientation. To put this point another way, empathy is a precondition for our experience of inhabiting a common, intersubjective spatial world. Empathy, as we just saw, provides a viewpoint in which one’s center of orientation becomes one among other centers of orientation. Clearly, the space correlated to such a viewpoint cannot be one’s own egocentric space, for that space is defined by one’s zero-point, whereas the new spatial perspective contains one’s zero-point as one spatial point among many others.

It is by means of this intersubjective space that one learns to see one’s lived body as a physical body like others. If one were confined to one’s own first-person point of view, such that one had absolutely no empathic openness to others, and hence to how one would be experienced by another (which is conceptually impossible because the very meaning of "I" is intersubjective), one would be incapable of grasping that one’s own body is a physical object equivalent to the other physical objects that one perceives. A physical object is something that can be present to perception, but the lived body, from an exclusively first-person point of view, cannot be made present in this way. No matter how one turns, one’s body is always here at the zero-point, never there; one cannot walk around it to behold it from all sides; it is never in front of one, but always marginal to one’s perceptions (see Merleau-Ponty 1962, pp. 90-97). In general, one’s body, as that by which one experiences a world, can never show up as a fully present object in the world; it is always "absently available." Therefore, as long as one’s experience were locked within an absolutely private first-person perspective, one’s body would be like no other physical object: it would be "the strangest object" (Stein 1964, p. 38), something radically "incomplete" (p. 58).

The other’s body is also given to us as animated by general feelings of life (such as health and sickness), and as expressive of experience: we "‘see’ shame ‘in’ blushing, irritation in the furrowed brow, anger in the clenched fist" (p. 70).

As blushing shows, facial expression of feeling and emotion is the paradigm for this aspect of empathy. As Jonathan Cole writes:

the face involves an injunction not only to express, and to observe expressions, but to immerse oneself in what is expressed and to feel something of it oneself. Though complementary to body language, in this it may go beyond what is usually considered to be expressed through posture. Expressions actually help in constituting what is within. A face, therefore, is not only an expression of a self available for others to read, but to some extent the self is constituted in the face and developed, and experienced, in the interaction between faces (Cole 1997, p. 482).

It is just this sort of constitution of the self that Stein analyzes more generally in terms of reiterated empathy. In reiterated empathy, one sees oneself from the perspective of the other. Stated more precisely, one empathically grasps another person’s empathic experience of one’s own body as a living body. As a result, one acquires a view of oneself not simply as a physical object, but as a physical-object-empathically-grasped-by-the-other-as-a-living-being. In other words, one does not merely experience oneself as a sentient being "from within," nor grasp oneself as also a physical thing; one experiences oneself as recognizably sentient "from without," that is, from the perspective of the other. Thus one’s sense of self-identity, even at the most fundamental bodily level, is inseparable from recognition by another, and from the ability to grasp that recognition in empathy.

Reiterated empathy also makes possible the kind of self-reflection in which we imagine ourselves from without. To imagine oneself from without is to imagine viewing oneself as one would be seen by another. It is to imagine oneself in the position of the other, and to grasp empathically how the other (or oneself-as-another) would empathize one. In Stein’s words: "This reiterated empathy is… the condition making possible that mirror-image-like-givenness of myself in memory and fancy… Probably it also accounts for the interpretation of the mirror image itself… If in a childhood memory or fancy I see myself in a branch of a tree or on the shore of the Bosporous, I see myself as another or as another sees me. This makes empathy possible for me" (p. 59).

These points hold not only at the basic level of sentience we have been considering, but at "higher" psychological levels: "To consider ourselves in inner perception [inner awareness], i.e., to consider our psychic ‘I’ and its attributes [our personality], means to see ourselves as we see another and as he sees us" (Stein 1964, p. 81). Without such reiterated empathy, involving recognition from the other, one cannot grasp oneself as an individual in the full sense, that is, as a person in an intersubjective world.

Empathy and animal life

Reiterated empathy, in Edith Stein’s analysis, is the condition that makes possible the mirror-like image of ourselves in reflection, memory, and fantasy, and perhaps the recognition of our own image in a mirror. This idea provides a link to cognitive ethology and the so-called "mirror test" of self-recognition.

Gordon Gallup introduced the mirror test in the 1970s. An individual unknowingly received a dot of red dye placed above the eyebrow so that it would be invisible without a mirror. Chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as human children more than 18 months old, guided by their reflection in a mirror, rubbed the spot with their hands and inspected their fingers after touching it, thus recognizing that the dot on the reflected image was on their own face. Other animals, including a variety of primates, failed to connect the reflected image to their own bodies. Thus it seems that chimpanzees and orangutans have a self-concept and a capacity for self-recognition, whereas other animals do not. Gallup went on to argue that self-recognition implies self-awareness and "that such self-awareness enables these animals to infer the mental states of others. In other words, species that pass the mirror test are also able to sympathize, empathize, and attribute intent and emotions in others–abilities that some might consider the exclusive domain of humans" (Gallup 1998, p. 66).

The mirror test is controversial: most agree that the test is evidence for possession of a self-concept and that such a concept appears to be restricted to humans and the great apes, but some argue that such a capacity for self-recognition in a mirror does not imply awareness of one’s own psychological states and the understanding that others possess such states (Povinelli 1998). For this reason, it is better not to take the mirror test in isolation, and instead to ask the more general question of which elements of human intersubjectivity are recognizable in other animals (de Waal 1996, p. 79).

The primatologist Frans de Waal, in his landmark book, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, makes the important point that empathy is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon: "Many forms of empathy exist intermediate between the extremes of mere agitation at the distress of another and full understanding of their predicament. At one end of the spectrum, rhesus infants get upset and seek contact with another as soon as one of them screams. At the other end, a chimpanzee recalls a wound he has inflicted, and returns to the victim to inspect it" (de Waal 1996, p. 69).

De Waal shows that the animal kingdom exhibits a wide range of other-involved behavior of various degrees of complexity and sophistication:

parental care-giving

• succorant behavior to endangered individuals other than progeny

• emotional contagion (vicarious arousal by the emotions of others)

• cognitive empathy and sympathy

Underlying all caring behavior is mutual attachment and bonding, and therefore the ultimate evolutionary source for this kind of behavior is parental care: "with the evolution of parental care in birds and mammals came feeding, warming, cleaning, alleviation of distress, and grooming of the young, which in turn led to the development of infantile appeals to trigger these activities. Once tender exchanges between parents and offspring had evolved–with the one asking for and other providing care–they could be extended to all sorts of other relationships, including those among unrelated adults" (de Waal 1996, p. 43).

Succorant behavior–helping or providing care to distressed individuals other than progeny–emerges from parental care-giving, but radiates outward to include the social group: "We are not surprised to find that dolphins, elephants, canids, and most primates respond to each other’s pain and distress, because the members of these species survive through cooperation in hunting and defense against enemies and predators. The evolution of succorant behavior and bonds of affection is understandable, as every individual life counts for the rest of the group" (p. 80).

The next step, following attachment, mutual dependence, and succorant behavior, is emotional contagion, the vicarious arousal by the emotions of others, which, at its simplest, takes the form of "total identification without discrimination between one’s feelings and those of the other" (p. 80).

Cognitive empathy emerges as a further step in which there is a recognition of the other’s experience as belonging to the other without losing the distinction between self and other in emotional contagion. Cognitive empathy in turn makes possible the moral emotions of sympathy and compassion in which we feel genuine concern for the other: "Identifying with and caring about another without losing one’s own identity is the crux of human sympathy… this requires certain cognitive abilities, the most important one being a well-developed sense of self and the ability to assume another individual’s perspective" (p. 82). These cognitive abilities may not be widespread in the animal world; they seem limited to humans and, to varying extents, our evolutionary cousins the great apes.

Phenomenology and cognitive ethology

Phenomenology has shown us that empathy has several levels. First, there is the empathic grasping of the other as a living, sentient being, an achievement that involves a number of elements (such as grasping the other’s body as animated by its own fields of sensation, as capable of voluntary movement, and as expressive of experience). Second, there is the empathic grasping of the other as a person, an individual with mental states and psychological attributes. Finally, there is reiterative empathy and the interlocking ego-alterego structure of self-identification and recognition it makes possible.

Given this analysis, we can ask whether these phenomenological structures are particular to the human case, or whether they have degrees of correspondence to empathy in animals. Can we find in chimpanzee experience, for example, elements analogous to the ingredients involved in the first level of empathy (in which we grasp the body of the other as a lived body)? Do chimpanzees empathically understand each other as psycholological individuals? Are they capable of reiterative empathy, and if not, what does this tell us about their sense of self? Such questions point toward the need for a phenomenological cognitive ethology if we wish to understand the unique evolutionary and phenomenological characteristics of human empathy.


One of the unique possibilities that human empathy affords is the development of non-egocentric or self-transcendent modes of consciousness. To understand these modes we need to explore the path that leads from intersubjectivity to what we can call, borrowing a term from the Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh (1987), "interbeing."

Pathways of self-transcendence, although long familiar to the world’s spiritual or wisdom traditions, have barely begun to be acknowledged by cognitive science. What needs to be realized, however, is that cognitive science, as a result of its own internal development, now finds itself in the position of being able to understand, in concepts commensurate with its own scientific approach to the mind, that there are such pathways and that they exemplify one of the most significant aspects of the human mind–its empathic openness. Therefore, rather than trying to graft interbeing onto cognitive science from the outside, we need to see how the inner growth of cognitive science itself–especially in its enactive, phenomenological development–can mature into an exploration of interbeing.

Emotion and value feeling

Within Western moral philosophy there is a long tradition, going back to Immanuel Kant, that privileges reason over feeling: to act out of duties legislated by reason is thought to have greater moral worth than acting on the basis of feeling or sentiment. Yet as de Waal observes, echoing David Hume: "Aid to others in need would never be internalized as a duty without the fellow-feeling [sympathy] that drives people to take an interest in one another. Moral sentiments came first; moral principles second" (1996, p. 87). As we have seen, the precondition, both logically and evolutionarily, for moral sentiments, such as sympathy and compassion, is cognitive empathy, and cognitive empathy is not a disembodied and affectless knowing of the other, but rather the feeling of being led by another’s experience.

Feeling, in this context, does not mean only bodily sensation, but also value feeling or emotion: "how do ‘emotions’ differ, if at all, from ‘feelings’? The crux is that emotions are our value feelings. They mark importance. We experience emotion only in regard to that which matters" (Donaldson 1992, p. 12).

According to this conception, emotions are a subclass of feelings, the value feelings. Emotions enact or constitute the world of values: "a new object realm is constituted in feeling. This is the world of values. In joy the subject has something joyous facing him, in fright something frightening, in fear something threatening" (Stein 1964, p. 83). We have many feelings that are not emotions, such as hunger, fatigue, or pain. Such feelings are of course typically accompanied by emotions, such as anger or fear, which, as value feelings, reflect our evaluation of the situation in which we find ourselves. Emotions mark importance, and therefore involve conceptually structured meaning and the evaluative stance of an intersubjective, personal self.

Earlier we saw that feeling, in the sense of bodily affect, makes one experience one’s body as one’s own; similarly, emotion or value feeling makes one experientially aware of one’s personal self:

as it [the subject] feels it not only experiences objects, but it itself. It experiences emotions as coming from the "depths of its ‘I’"… the ‘I’ experienced in emotion has levels of various depths. These are revealed as emotions arise out of them (Stein 1964, p. 89).

in feelings we experience ourselves not only as present, but also as constituted in such and such a way. They announce personal attributes to us (p. 90).

Emotions, then, as value feelings, make possible the evaluative experience of self and world, and therefore are the very precondition of moral perception, of being able to "see" a situation morally before deliberating rationally about it. As the philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen has recently argued:

We experience the objects of moral judgments through emotion…Judgment presupposes perception in the sense that perception "gives" judgment its object; we pass moral judgment on things that are already given, or disclosed, to us through acts of perception… It is on this level, which logically precedes that of judgment… that we locate the emotions. Emotions anchor us to the particular moral circumstance, to the aspect of a situation that addresses us immediately, to the here and now. To "see" the circumstance and to see oneself as addressed by it, and thus to be susceptible to the way a situation affects the weal and woe of others, in short, to identify a situation as carrying moral significance in the first place–all of this is required in order to enter the domain of the moral, and none of it would come about without the basic emotional faculty of empathy (Vetlesen 1994, p. 4).

The issue that we need to consider now is the range of developmental possibilities open to us in empathy and emotion, in particular the possibility of cultivating self-transcendent or non-egocentric value feelings.

Modes of mind in human development

The developmental psychologist Margaret Donaldson, in her remarkable book, Human Minds, has shown that we have possibilities for emotional development as great as for intellectual development, despite the present imbalance between the two in our culture. Her argument rests on a developmental map of the human mind, in which there are four main "modes of mind," each made up of various mental components–perception, action, thought, and emotion–and each defined by its own "locus of concern":

The Point Mode

Locus of concern: here and now

Components: perception, action, thought, and emotion

The Line Mode

Locus of concern: there and then

Components: thought and emotion

The Construct Mode

Locus of concern: somewhere/sometime (no specific place or time)

Components: thought and emotion

• The Transcendent Mode

Locus of concern: nowhere (i.e., not in space and time)

Components: thought and emotion

These modes emerge progressively in human development, without one replacing the other; each is retained along the way and influences the others. Their progressive unfoldment involves a process of "opening out" or "disembedding" of the mental context: "to begin with, the mind functions in the context of its own totality and in the external context of people, things, and happenings… Then step by step the unity breaks up and new ways of doing and experiencing become possible" (p. 17).

The point mode emerges first and is the only one available to the young infant (under eight months). In this mode the locus of concern is always the present moment, the directly apprehensible "here and now." (This is not an extensionless point, but rather the kind of short span of duration that William James called the specious present.) Adult experience in the point mode is highly absorbed perception in the moment, in which past and future drop away, as can occur in losing oneself in a piece of music.

The line mode expands the locus of concern to include the personal past and the personal future, a development that apparently begins to occur at eight to ten months: "it is very likely that the baby, in the first half-year of life at least, while having a sort of ‘rolling’ sense of movement from immediate past to immediate present to immediate future, has no sense of an extended past in which specific events can be located–and likewise no sense of a future filled with events yet to come" (p. 54). The line mode, however, enables one to look forward as well as back, so that one can locate oneself in relation to a remembered past and a possible future.

The step from the line mode to the next mode, the construct mode, consists in a movement away from personal happenings toward the impersonal nature of things: "Instead of here/now or there/then the mind will next begin to concern itself with a locus conceived as somewhere/sometime or anywhere/anytime. Thus in the third mode we are no longer restricted to a consideration of episodes in our own experience–or even those we have heard about from others. We start to be actively and consciously concerned about the general nature of things" (p. 80). This mode is called the construct mode because its context is not provided by perception, memory, or anticipation, but depends instead on a deliberate constructive act of imagination. It apparently begins to emerge around the age of three.

When thought and emotion occur on an equal footing in the construct mode, then Donaldson speaks of the core construct mode. In some construct mode activity, however, the intention is to think unemotionally or dispassionately, and hence thought predominates over emotion. This effort gives rise to what Donaldson calls the intellectual construct mode, in which one’s concern is with the nature of impersonal phenomena in space and time.

The next development is the movement from the intellectual construct mode to the intellectual transcendent mode, which Donaldson believes emerges around the age of nine. Whereas in the former case, the locus of concern is still bound to space and time, in the latter case, a "disembedding" from this context has been achieved: "the fourth mode is ‘spaceless’. It needs no local habitation, present, remembered, forseen or imagined. To speak paradoxically, we may say that the locus of concern is nowhere" (p. 126). The paradigmatic mental activities of the intellectual transcendent mode are logic and mathematics. One’s concern is no longer with spatiaotemporal things themselves, but rather with the patterns of relationships into which things can enter.

We now come to the key question Donaldson raises in her book: does there exist, or could there exist, developments for the emotions that parallel the intellectual modes? Donaldson shows that such parallels do exist, and she calls them the value-sensing modes, "with the proviso that the values in question must transcend personal concerns" (p. 143).

The value-sensing modes

There are two value-sensing modes–the value-sensing construct mode and the value-sensing transcendent mode:

A value-sensing construct mode would be one where the main component of experience was an apprehension of transpersonal importance, powerfully felt, but where the functioning of the mode depended upon the support of the imagination (p. 150).

[in] the value-sensing transcendent mode… the need for a constructed context is gone, so that self-transcending values can now be experienced and responded to without the props provided by the working of the imagination (p. 151).

As Donaldson goes on to say, "once [the] defining features [of these two modes] have been recognized it is not hard to find evidence that they have indeed formed part of the repertoire of at least some human minds" (p. 152). The main body of evidence, some of which Donaldson discusses, comes from the world’s wisdom traditions–contemplative Christian mysticism; Jewish Cabbala; Sufism; Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana); Advaita Vedanta; and Taoism and Neo-Confucianism.

One of her examples is St John of the Cross who, in explaining "how to reach divine union quickly," distinguishes between meditation, which involves focusing on an image, such as beautiful light, and contemplation, which involves emptying oneself of all images so as to attain a heightened, open, and receptive awareness of divine love. Donaldson comments: "It is clear that meditation in John’s sense belongs in the value-sensing construct mode. But in his view this mode, though useful, is strictly limited in its value for us since the divine reality far surpasses anything that we can know through the imagination" (p. 153). Proficiency in contemplation, on the other hand, belongs to the value-sensing transcendent mode: "The locus of concern is certainly not in space-time. Concern centres rather on something conceived as infinite and eternal–something conceived also as having supreme value. Accordingly, the response evoked is one of deep emotion" (p. 154).

Another example, notable for its precision, can be found in the Tibetan Buddhist practice of samatha meditation, which aims at achieving clear and attentive stability of mind (Wallace 1998, 1999). One of the main methods involves focusing the attention upon a mental image, while cultivating mindfulness (attention to the image without forgetfulness) and introspection (repeated checking of the quality of one’s attentiveness). There are said to be nine distinct stages in the development of samatha, leading to firm and sustained attention upon the meditative object. These stages, given their image-based character, fall within the value-sensing construct mode. On the other hand,

[w]ith the full achievement of Samatha, one disengages the attention from the previous meditative object, and the entire continuum of one’s attention is focused single-pointedly, non-conceptually, and internally in the very nature of consciousness … Only the aspects of sheer awareness, clarity, and joy of the mind appear, without the intrusion of any sensory objects (Wallace 1999, p. 8).

Upon attaining Samatha, by focusing attention on the sheer clarity and the sheer cognizance of experience, one attends to the defining characteristics of consciousness alone, as opposed to the qualities of other objects of consciousness (p. 9).

This description clearly suggests a transition from the value-sensing construct mode to the value-sensing transcendent mode. (The point mode is also present, because samatha is sustained attention to the here and now.) Indeed, the final aim of samatha is "to realize the ultimate nature of awareness, free of all conceptual mediation and structuring, transcending even the concepts of existence and nonexistence. Such primordial awareness, known in this tradition as ‘the Buddha nature’, is said to be our essential nature, and it is the fathomless well-spring of intuitive wisdom, compassion, and power" (p. 12).


The progression of the value-sensing modes amounts to an "opening out" or "disembedding" of the egocentric sense of self. The natural and spontaneous expression of "opening out" is compassion. Compassion is the heart of interbeing, and is the superlative expression of the human capacity for empathy.

Compassion is not merely an expression of nonegocentric value-feeling, one that can emerge only as a result of inward meditation, for it plays a guiding role in moving from one mode to another, in the expansion of the value-sensing repertoire. This is the reason that the practice of compassion is emphasized so strongly right from the start in the practices of the wisdom traditions. The example most familiar to Westerners is Jesus’ injunction to "love thy neighbor," and the Golden Rule "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Another example is the central Confucian virtue of benevolence or human-heartedness. When asked to explain benevolence, Confucius replied: "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire" (Analects XII: 2); and he explained the method of benevolence as "the ability to take as analogy what is near at hand" (VI: 30). "What is near at hand" means oneself; hence the method consists "in using oneself as a measure to gauge others" (IV: 15), that is, in placing oneself in the position of the other and asking what one would like or dislike. Finally, in the bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism, as described by eighth century Indian philosopher Shantideva, the cultivation of bodhicitta or awakened mind, whose main attributes are wisdom and compassion, depends on "meditation on the equality of self and other" and "meditation on the exchange of self and other." In the first, one aims to transcend the egocentric opposition of self and other through considering others’ sufferings as one’s own; in the second, one puts onself in the place of others to understand how they feel, and how one appears in their eyes.

Earlier, in the discussion of the Phenomenological conception of empathy (p. 13), the question of the limits of empathy was raised: how far can empathy radiate beyond the human case? Here the wisdom traditions give different answers. The extension of empathy and compassion to the nonhuman world is rather foreign to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but is central to the Buddhist ideal of compassion for all sentient beings, and to the Neo-Confucian ideal of "forming one body with the universe" (Tu 1985; see also Leder 1991, pp. 156-173).

The Neo-Confucian perspective, which arose as a synthesis of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in the eleventh century, presents us with an example of the great openness that some have found in the human capacity for empathy and compassion. Neo-Confucianism builds on the philosophy of Mencius (371-289 B.C.E.), who held that benevolence was innate to the human "heart-mind":

When I say that all men have the mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: Now, when men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have a feeling of alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]. From such a case, we see that a man without the feeling of commiseration is not a man… The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity (Chan 1963, p. 65).

The Neo-Confucian philosopher, Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529), took this line of thought much further, saying that even when the mind of the "small man"

sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an "inability to bear" their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet, even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of the small man necessarily has the humanity that forms one body with all (Wang 1963, p. 272).

Our culture today finds it hard to comprehend such a perspective. Yet the basic premise–that heart-mind and empathy are what distinguish human beings from other animals–is familiar from both cognitive ethology and Phenomenology.

Whereas cognitive ethology shows us the evolutionary roots of the human heart-mind, and Phenomenology shows us the experiential structure of empathy, the Neo-Confucian vision challenges us to consider how we as members of a Western scientific culture might conceive the range of empathy in relation to what David Abram has called the more-than-human-world (see also Tucker & Berthrong 1998). (In fact, a path to this idea can be found in the recent discussions by biologists and environmentalists of "biophilia," the idea that humans have a biologically rooted affinity for the natural world. See Wilson 1984; Kellert 1997). Whatever we might decide, we cannot know the range of empathy and compassion short of investigating the human heart-mind with the full range of tools available–cognitive science, phenomenology, and the contemplative and meditative psychologies of the wisdom traditions.


It has become commonplace to mention that we–contemporary Westerners–are children of the European Enlightenment and its discovery of reason and science. Some believe that we should abandon the Enlightenment, but the path followed in this report confirms Margaret Donaldson’s suggestion that what we need is a second "value-sensing enlightenment" to complement the first:

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with–as high as, level with–the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing modes is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning? (p. 264).

The path that we have followed in this report leads not so much to a fixed conclusion, but to a clear sense of the next step that needs to be taken for such a second enlightenment: we need to pursue a "science of interbeing" (Varela, in press) that integrates the methods of cognitive science, Phenomenology, and the contemplative and meditative psychologies of the world’s wisdom traditions.

What steps can be taken now in this endeavor? Clearly the first step is to bring together cognitive scientists, Phenomenological philosophers and psychologists, and contemplative practitioners to explore more thoroughy the common ground presented in this report. Especially important would be to establish a research program for the following tasks:

Clarification of the Phenomenological method of investigating experience and exploration of its scope and limits in relation to cognitive science and contemplative practices

• Development of more refined taxonomies of empathy and value-sensing

• Development of experimental techniques to explore the neurocognitive dimensions of value sensing

• Development of experimental techniques to assess the neurocognitive effects of value-sensing training (e.g., the meditations on equality of self and other, and exchange of self and other)

• Consideration of the implications of this research for biomedicine (e.g., psychoneuroimmunology) and for empathy in the physician-patient relationship

The Fetzer Institute, with its vision to "encourage scientific research to better understand the relationship between the interior and exterior aspects of life," and its specific scientific program devoted to the "Consciousness of Spirit," is in a unique position to help make these next steps possible.

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