We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals
Lantern Books, $20 (paper)
The most striking thing happened as I began reading Lori Gruen’s book, Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals. I was sitting on the porch when a baby white-throated sparrow flew inside. Attempting to escape, the sparrow repeatedly dashed itself against the screens, head down in exhaustion. I tried to lead it to the open door. No luck. But then a male cardinal appeared outside. It hovered, went first to one side of the screen, then the other; held tight one moment, moved softly the next. Flying against the screen, it guided the captive bird, gradually, from side to side, up and down—all the while outside the porch—and led it to the open air. For twenty minutes I watched a bird save another not of its brood, and I thought: now that is empathy.
Yet empathy is a word I have always distrusted. Deep and enigmatic, at best it means being present to or with another being; at worst it calls forth a moral surround as exclusive as it is well intentioned. Along with sympathy, and often confused with it, empathy summons an intensely humanized world, where our emotional life—how much we feel for or with—matters more than the conditions that cause suffering and sustain predation. Examples are all around us. To consider but one, we all know the sad excesses of sentiment that followed the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Money flowed to the coffers of international aid organizations and NGOs, but it never reached the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who continued to live as displaced persons in camps. Inhumanity can easily be moderated, legitimized, and even reproduced by the humanitarian concern that is analogous to it.
As an Americanist, I learned from Edgar Allan Poe how the language of sentiment animates subordination. A slave, a piece of property, a black cat—once loved in the proper domestic setting, they arouse a surfeit of devotion, bonds of dependence that slavery apologists claimed could never be felt by equals. Winthrop Jordan recognized this long ago in his brilliant analysis of abolition, White Over Black (1968). “A romantic sentimentalism was a symptom of, and perhaps a subtle yet readily intelligible social signal for, a retreat from rational engagement with the ethical problems posed by Negro slavery.” Narratives of humane care are always conducted by the free in the name of the bound, their emotive impulse turning away from political action and toward what Yasmin Nair has called the neoliberal “performance of pathos.”
But recent attacks on empathy have been as problematic as the postures of self-serving affirmation they criticize. David Brooks, in his New York Times column, condemns empathy as an easy “shortcut. . . . a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.” For Brooks, the cult of fellow feeling substitutes for a useful and necessary “obligation” or “duty” to live according to “the code.”
What is that code? In The New Yorker, cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom argues against the “increasing focus on the emotions” and the “politics of empathy” that lead to the worst excesses of humanitarianism. Quoting Steven Pinker in the much-celebrated The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), he overrides the claims of empathy with “harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.” Bloom relegates empathy to nothing more than a “spark of fellow-feeling.” Returning to the familiar dichotomy between moral rationalism and sentimentalism, the feminized culture of sensibility and the masculine call to right reason and duty, he concludes, “Empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.” Bloom extends the argument in a 2014 forum in this magazine, “Against Empathy”: “If you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.”
What if humanity, with its assurance of moral progress and enlightened rationalism, is the problem?
But what if humanity, with its assurance of moral progress and enlightened rationalism, is the problem? As John Gray recognizes in an incisive review of Pinker’s book, it is the “civilizing process” that needs to be questioned, not the manufactured primitivism of “backward” peoples. Moreover, as Gray writes in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), secular progress and the chimera of morality mask the rock-bottom truth about “the human animal”: “a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.”
So much for Bloom’s demand that reason replace empathy. What if we decide, just for a moment, to dislodge humanity from our approach to empathy? Can we insist on empathy but avoid alignment with the humanism that traditionally grounds it? Can we turn feeling into action? In Entangled Empathy, Gruen argues that we can.
Finding herself in this world of greed and brutality—nowhere so cultivated as in the precincts of presumed enlightenment—Gruen thinks through another medium of engagement. A philosophy professor at Weslyan University, where she directs the Ethics in Society Project, she knows the nonhuman animal, having worked for years with chimpanzees in and out of captivity. So she founds an ethics that takes seriously both the perils and the positive effects of empathy, not only in the private world of feeling but also in the public world of action. This ethics requires a radical departure—that we define empathy by a vehement attachment to and inhabitation of what we are not: what is not human.
Before turning to Gruen’s radical, indeed groundbreaking, approach to our relationships with nonhuman—hence also, inevitably, human—animals, I want to define the word at issue here.
Empathy derives from Einfühlung, invented by the philosopher Robert Vischer in 1873 to denote the projection of human feeling onto the natural world or into the object of beauty. In 1919 the British cognitive psychologist Edward Titchener coined empathy as a rendering of Einfühlung. Gruen points to Theodor Lipps—the philosopher, psychologist, and aesthetician long admired by Sigmund Freud—as a major early proponent and theorist of the idea. In her words, Lipps saw empathy as “a specific perceptual way of understanding the world and others in it.” It literally means feeling inside or into.
With this definitional prompt, we can prepare ourselves to understand empathy as Gruen uses it, in a way that goes beyond sympathy and is closer to Hume’s contagion, or a reciprocal infusion of feeling between creatures. If empathy has now become a buzzword for all kinds of cultish compassion—as in, “I feel your pain”—that is because we have lost touch with its active principle, the move inside or into a felt apprehension of someone or something. “Empathy,” Gruen writes, “is a particular type of attention, what I think of as a kind of moral perception.”
It is instructive to return to Freud’s use of the term. Inspired by Lipps, Freud first conceives Einfühlung, in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), as the way we understand others by putting ourselves in their place, or more precisely, by being a mirror insofar as one creature can reflect another. This is a mimetic stance, but it goes beyond the reductive power of imitation. Instead it is akin to an infection or contagion that makes the self inextricable from its passing into and through what lies beyond it. Or, equally, bringing the other into the self. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Freud recognizes Einfühlung as essential to that most wondrous of relations, the transference that makes analysis possible.
A path leads from identification by way of imitation to empathy, that is, to the comprehension of the mechanism by means of which we are enabled to take up any attitude at all towards another mental life.
To get at the intricate power of empathy in Freud’s analytic practice, we must turn to his early papers on technique: “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912), “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” (1914), and “Observations on Transference-Love” (1915). It was in transference—primarily the redirection of a patient’s past emotions onto the present relation with the analyst—that he grounded his method. The very “peculiarities of the transference to the doctor,” Freud writes, exceed “both in amount and nature, anything that could be justified on sensible or rational grounds.”
The ritual of transference necessitates attending to what lies beyond the self as we understand it. In such knowing without knowing, Freud locates a fearless attentiveness more like faith than reason. His insights, with their contingencies and perils, grasp the transport between selves as essential to the psychoanalytic project. We might understand this transference of emotions as both a conceit of love and an “artificial disease.” The struggle—or, more precisely, interpenetration between analyst and patient—becomes paradoxically both a powerful resistance to analysis and the vehicle of cure.
Might the empathic relation of transference prompt the ultimate form of love? Might it be the most real? Freud brings this saving turmoil into the mind. The mind knows and fulfills what the body wants. His observations help us to get at Gruen’s idea of entanglement. She asks us to experience surrender without sentiment, salvation without angels and harps. Such entanglement is ever proximate, earthbound, and sensible (dependent on the senses). Reducible to no moral, or any other kind of code or doctrinal purity, such a revitalized encounter is not empathy as we usually understand it. Instead it is a giving away of self. Empathy thus demands not only that you recognize another’s feelings, but also that you attend and respond to, become infused by and then act on, another person’s feelings and needs.
For Gruen such openness is not confined to humans but engages explicitly with animals, the nonhuman persons in our midst. She emphasizes attentiveness as well as the leave-taking of self, that prelinguistic place of mutual inhabitation and lived reciprocity where “the unique capacities that other animals possess . . . might be valued in themselves” rather than for their resemblance to human qualities. To be so entangled is to revitalize the meaning of empathy by embracing what might seem to deny it: beings who are not necessarily victims but rather adamantly other, standing beside or outside of our easy care. This effort has little to do with friendship or love and everything to do with what remains unknowable. Against the secular proponents of a humanism that carries with it a politics of cultural supremacy—and often, even if unintended, assumptions of elite authority—Gruen reclaims something like trust beyond the comfort of ordinary human bonds.
In writing for years about the legal history and practice of slavery and imprisonment in the United States, I learned that the beast or “senseless icon of the human”—to quote Edward Long, the eighteenth-century natural historian of Jamaica—was a category best avoided. After all, in racist taxonomies and natural histories of the Caribbean and the American South, categorical thinking ushered in taxonomic boundaries that not only separated humans from animals but also generated new ideas about what was to count as human. These taxonomies depended on the rank of animal to embody the slave, a fiction of law that became a moral truth: an imagined amalgam of human, animal, and inanimate thing. Such racist fantasies could locate “a guinea-negro” in the same category as “learned horses, learned and even talking dogs.”
It is natural, then, to sense the danger of such juxtapositions. But Gruen attempts to trace a form of ethics that moves beyond dehumanization and beyond the anthropocentric worldview that supports it. Instead she focuses on the oscillation between categories usually kept separate in mainstream thought—between human and nonhuman animals. In her view, empathy is not a displacement of reason but rather a re-invention of it, in another register, as something like cognitive attentiveness.
Gruen reclaims something like trust beyond the comfort of ordinary human bonds.
But there is a fine line between feeling for or with animals and turning the nonhuman into a source of inspiration or grist for academic argumentation, nothing more than yet another prompt to our poetic or moral thought or inquiry. How can we inhabit and write about the creatures we dominate and describe beyond “an anthropocentric perspective?” That is the question asked by Cary Wolfe in What is Posthumanism? (2009) and Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (2012) but most urgently by Anat Pick in her ardent Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (2011). With her bracing call for a “rigorously material” process of “making ourselves ‘less human,’” Pick proposes that “animal studies at its most ambitious could be thought as a way of reshaping (contracting) the humanities and social sciences under the sign of dehumanization.” In her turn away from “utilitarian, reason, and rights-based approaches,” she endorses “creaturely thinking.” In order not to drag our debates into what she calls the “‘residual humanism’ of rights-based philosophies,” she asks that we become vulnerable, open ourselves to “physical realities that challenge or confound thought.”
Can we really think with animals? Can we think through human and nonhuman mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary devices? It sometimes seems the harder we try, the more present we become as medium. Yet whenever I wonder whether we can represent what we most love or value without turning it into muse or metaphor, I return to Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking When Species Meet (2008). Figures are more than mere “representations.” They become the “material-semiotic nodes or knots” that help us “grapple inside the flesh of mortal world-making entanglements” or “contact zones.”
The late M. H. Abrams assessed literary production from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth as a move from the mirror of mimesis to the lamp of imagination. I propose that we consider the twenty-first century not as a progression from one mode of human creativity to another, but rather as movement to and fro between the nonhuman and human animal, between humanity and animality. Entangled Empathy revivifies this alternation, while bringing to the fore the way empathy, once entangled, becomes quite distinct from sympathy. Again, Gruen deftly bridges the gap between imitation and the move to feel with and feel into animals. She turns toward an attentive or empathetic identification with the nonhuman, what Lauren Wispé in an article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1986) calls “a kind of animism.”
J. M. Coetzee first staged something like this encounter in 1999’s The Lives of Animals; in that same year in Disgrace; and then, less subtly, in Elizabeth Costello (2003). The argument continues. Gruen’s ethics finds its persuasive power through what is fraught, visceral, and tenuous: the adamantly not reasonable, enlightened, or morally empowered. As such it confronts the prevailing ethics of reasonable care or compassion—the arguments of, for example, philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan who, starting from very different views, agree in ascribing rights to animals. Gruen thinks that the focus on rights leads our thinking in inappropriately human-centered directions.
In Moby-Dick’s “The Grand Armada,” surely one of the novel’s most difficult chapters to read, Herman Melville lingers for pages on the pods of whales, hovering together in conjugal peace, coming up to the boats as if “household dogs” reveling in “dalliance and delight,” before being wantonly slaughtered by Ahab’s crew. As Melville understood, sympathy merely substitutes one hierarchy for another: the hunter becomes the sympathizer taking pity on, or performing charity for, the hunted animal. But the animal still gets killed, and mercilessly. Sympathy becomes the icing on the cake of cruelty, hiding its effects in an excess of feeling.
Such ethical hypocrisies abound in the current animal welfare movement. Sometimes, as Gruen reminds us, the push for animal rights, its “abstract theories” and coincident “abstract individualism” can leave “the context of a particular life” out of the picture. Gruen is not interested in animal rights, in giving animals what we think we get as bearers of rights and obligations in liberal terms.
The terminology of human rights—or rights writ large—is not natural. It has a history both paradoxical and vexing. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt observes that rights are not shared, despite repeated claims to universality. Further, beneficent efforts to recognize rights closely parallel those aimed at directing sentimentality toward animals. Arendt’s interpretation is bracing and instructive:
All societies formed for the protection of the Rights of Man, all attempts to arrive at a new bill of human rights were sponsored by marginal figures—by a few international jurists without political experience or professional philanthropists supported by the uncertain sentiments of professional idealists. The groups they formed, the declarations they issued, showed an uncanny similarity in language and composition to that of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals.
Gruen’s critique suggests that rights discourse, especially in the animal welfare movement, unwittingly restores the primacy of humans to the detriment not only of animals but also of others oppressed by casual cruelty or everyday violence.
Gruen echoes Eduardo Kohn’s remarkable 2007 article “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement,” which proposes a multispecies “anthropology that is not just confined to the human but is concerned with the effects of our ‘entanglements’ with other kinds of living selves.” Gruen also warns against “a kind of ‘narcissistic projection’ of our own interests and desires onto others, particularly nonverbal others.” For her, a stance free of dominance and subordination promises a politics that transforms our relationships not only with animals, but also with the politically or racially suspect, those without status one is bound to respect.
In choosing entanglement instead of rationality, Gruen turns her readers toward a sentience that is always concrete: “It is a kind of embodied response to another individual or individuals in one’s immediate environment and does not require any reflection or conceptualization or even understanding.”
The route is not easy. Animality is what she wants us to think about, not claims for humanity. The knowledge that matters has everything to do with perception, an attentiveness that might unleash another kind of intelligibility: “our emotional, cognitive, and embodied connections” turned toward “those with whom we share or can share experiences.” Hers is a manifesto of unlearning; bafflement is what allows us to relate most fully to what lies within, beside, and beyond ourselves.
This alternative ethics is not morality, for moral judgment, as I see it, always depends on a communal surround of privilege that draws its power from the constructions that ordain right and wrong. Gruen’s ethics take on a meaning less abstract and less coercive. It has to do with locale, the proximity of one person to the next, or the way in which individuals relate to those who are outside their ken. To be ethical, in this sense, is to know how to locate oneself in relation to what one does not know, a world adamantly not one’s own. Whereas morality is an experience of non-relation, ethics demands the discomfort of utter relatedness even if it is distasteful or unsettling.
Can we live in Gruen’s world of entangled empathy? This intimacy of contact promises to lead us out of thought and into a feeling—a sensation but not a sentiment—that renews the sense of the political. In responding to the state of injury, the servility, pain, and violence of this world, such contact offers a reservoir on which all creatures might draw but from which most of us have learned to cut ourselves off completely. We need to step back and ask how we can know feeling that is not tied to our assumptions. Indeed, to risk losing ourselves in what is beyond our ken is to experience what it might mean to feel sufficiently.
After William Carlos Williams died in 1963, Kenneth Burke wrote a moving reminiscence in The New York Review of Books. A few years after Williams, crippled with ailments, had stopped treating patients, they both walked “slowly on a beach in Florida.”
A neighbor’s dog decided to accompany us, but was limping. I leaned down, aimlessly hoping to help the dog (which became suddenly frightened, and nearly bit me). Then Williams took the paw in his left hand (the right was now less agile) and started probing for the source of the trouble. It was a gesture at once expert and imaginative, something in which to have perfect confidence, as both the cur and I saw in a flash. Feeling between the toes lightly, quickly, and above all surely, he spotted a burr, removed it without the slightest cringe on the dog’s part—and the three of us were again on our way along the beach.
For Burke, this exchange captures what Williams called “contact.” But we could easily describe it as Gruen’s entangled empathy: a sentience that draws together two beings in a manner of experience that heals. It is tactile. It is a demanding reciprocity, a being together in pain that can be healed if shared. In becoming acquainted with what lies outside the self, we enter into another kind of knowing. This practice of discernment, evident in Williams’s poetry and medical practice, is not the precondition for uniqueness but rather an imperative to seek a more voracious if always provisional communion.
Early one morning, I walked my dog Stella down the main street of our neighborhood. We passed a white pickup truck idling in a driveway. The dog ran up, as she sometimes does when white men in trucks, those I grew up knowing as “crackers” or “rednecks,” look out at her. This is an inclination that I’m still trying to understand. She jumped into the truck, one paw on the man’s seat and another on his leg, and greeted him powerfully with licks and nudges. He welcomed her and said in answer to my wonder: “She knows I’m sick. I’m dying.” Then he gently beat his chest, adding, “She can smell it. She wants to give me some relief.”
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, and Haiti, History, and the Gods. She has just published With Dogs at the Edge of Life, a fierce personal enquiry into canine profiling, preemptive justice, and extermination.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Apps like Tinder and OkCupid should make an ethical commitment to freeing their services from a gender binary. It would help all users, queer and straight alike.
As the neoliberal order unravels, the international economic system can and must make room for cooperative forms of state-driven development.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.