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  • Writer's pictureCrone

The phenomenology of connection II

The experience is hard to articulate. Let me describe what happens. This very small bird and I actively choose to be close together, look into one another’s eyes and engage in a conversation – by which I intend something close to the roots of the word: con meaning "with" and versare "to turn", so that we turn together taking turns, my movements and sounds, his movements and sounds, an intimate call and response, face to face, present. In these moments, I do not merge with the bird, but I do apprehend his intentionality (which means I understand that he is a thinking, minded being) and he apprehends mine. This is the empathy of the phenomenologists – not emotional contagion or some form of projection or imagination but this, in the words of Dan Zahavi:


Empathy is the experience of the embodied mind of the other, an experience which, rather than eliminating the difference between self-experience and other-experience, takes the asymmetry to be a necessary and persisting existential fact. what is distinctive about empathy [is] ….that it is a distinct form of other-directed intentionality, which allows the other’s experiences to disclose themselves as other rather than as our own.


This is important – while these writers argue that we do have first-order access to other minds through this empathy, the contents of the other’s mind are experienced by us as “theirs” – in tone or colour different from the affects, feelings and desires that are ours. He writes, “To demand more, to claim that I would only have a real experience of the other if I experienced her feelings or thoughts in the same way as she herself does, is nonsensical, and fails to respect what is distinct and unique about the givenness of the other.” Of course, there are degrees of clarity and breadth: one will perceive more the more familiar one is with the other and her context.


When we empathise with one who empathises with us, as I suggest happens with Bobbit and me, then this exchange is bidirectional, with the transfer of thinking, feeling and desiring, impacting and altering the thoughts, feelings and desires of each participant in the interaction. Merleau Ponty describes self and other in these situations as "collaborators in perfect reciprocity".


Further Zahavi claims that “my own perspective on the world will be enriched through my empathic understanding of the other” – particularly, I would argue, when that other is a non-human other.


Until I read about these philosophers, I suffered from a hermeneutic lacuna: there were not words to describe what I experienced. It’s still not quite right. Maybe it never can be. And this is true of much in human and more-than-human interactions – and indeed it is true of being a thinking being: there are many more experiences, affects and types on consciousness than we have words for.


In fact, however detailed or shadowy the apperceived contents of the other mind, there is a something that is experienced directly by the empathiser. By which I mean, it feels like something to empathise. It also feels like something to be empathised with, to be “seen”. It is a phenomenological experience. There remain no words for this – but both experiences are familiar to me in the currents or the process of my becoming.

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Apr 26

It's at times like these that I wish I still had the closeness of a cat or a dog in my life so that I could explore the possibilities of two way conversations and empathy.

Apr 28
Replying to

Yes, bless the crows. Yes, it is a two way thing x

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