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A Phenomenology of Compassion

Helmut J. Schneider

How Distant Can My Neighbor be?
Käte Hamburger’s Ethics of Mitleid and the Problem of Global Empathy – Summary

Published: 09.04.2018

DE

I

After a long life marked by discrimination both as Jew and woman, and finally having achieved international academic reputation with her book on The Logic of Poetry, Käte Hamburger, in her late eighties, turned to the philosophical problem of the ethics of empathy or compassion, in German (with a significantly different semantic ring), Mitleid. Her somewhat provocative thesis is that Mitleid is characterized by a “structure of distance”. This, she claims, has not been adequately recognized by the various theories from Aristotle to the 20th century, the reason for the many (self-) contradictions in which these theories became entangled. Specifically, it was the emphasis on the “feeling the other human’s pain” (prominent in the German word) that deprived this “other” human of his or her genuine otherness, potentially colonizing or even, consciously or unconsciously, degrading him. As negative proof of this the author points to the fact that in a loving (erotic) relationship we utterly reject being the recipient of “pity”. In contrast, Hamburger uses Wittgenstein’s definition of Mitleid as “the conviction of the suffering of another person” as a kind of clearheaded antidote against the pretense of emotional identification, be it Schopenhauser’s metaphysics of Mitleid, be it (as we may remember) Clinton’s famous “I feel your pain” or Angela Merkel’s “bleeding heart” vis-à-vis the plight of the Greek people. Hamburger concludes her deconstructive argument, that Mitleid has no intrinsical ethical value; it is an ethically neutral emotion possessing, as all emotions, an essentially ambivalent character.—However, this does not at all mean that Mitleid is insignificant for human interaction; on the contrary, Mitleid represents, as Hamburger had stated already at the outset of her examination, a “mode of behavior that concerns humans in their existential interaction with other humans like no other does”.

II

In order to characterize the positive function of Mitleid as “the simple fact of participation taken in itself”, Hamburger first distinguishes it from justice: While justice subsumes the interaction of individuals under general norms, Mitleid considers it under the aspect of its individual concreteness. Understanding between distinct individuals in their very individuality is made possible by the commonly shared human nature. In a second move of her argument, Hamburger refers to the Enlightenment notion of sympathy, particularly in David Hume’s version, which she claims is compatible with, even tied to the acknowledgment of the discreteness of the Other. For her, Hume represents...

After a long life marked by discrimination both as Jew and woman, and finally having achieved international academic reputation with her book on The Logic of Poetry, Käte Hamburger, in her late eighties, turned to the philosophical problem of the ethics of empathy or compassion, in German (with a significantly different semantic ring), Mitleid. Her somewhat provocative thesis is that Mitleid is characterized by a “structure of distance”. This, she claims, has not been adequately recognized by the various theories from Aristotle to the 20th century, the reason for the many (self-) contradictions in which these theories became entangled. Specifically, it was the emphasis on the “feeling the other human’s pain” (prominent in the German word) that deprived this “other” human of his or her genuine otherness, potentially colonizing or even, consciously or unconsciously, degrading him. As negative proof of this the author points to the fact that in a loving (erotic) relationship we utterly reject being the recipient of “pity”.

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Helmut J. Schneider

professor emeritus of German literature, University of Bonn. Previous positions at the University of California, Irvine and Davis. Numerous guest professorships (including Stanford University, University of Virginia, Harvard University, and Georgetown University). Publications on German and European literature of the 18th/19th/20th centuries.