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Feiner, K. Kiersky, S. (1994). Empathy: A Common Ground. Psychoanal. Dial., 4(3):425-440.

(1994). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 4(3):425-440

Empathy: A Common Ground Related Papers

Kenneth Feiner, PSYD and Sandra Kiersky, Ph.D.

Though empathy remains a central concept in psychoanalysis, attempts to explain the operations and functions in the empathic process have been as divergent as the various meanings associated with the term itself. Any explanation of the mechanism of empathy must include how we have access to the inner experience of others or account for the link between the empathizer and the inner state of the object.

In this paper, the authors review different models (Freud, 1921; Kohut, 1959; Basch, 1983, 1988; Buie, 1981; Schafer, 1968; Klein, 1946, 1963) of empathic understanding and note that while these models rely on imitation, identification, merger, projection, or inference as the basis of empathic understanding, each implies only an indirect understanding of the states of others. The authors propose a two-phase model of empathy that differs from those models reviewed in that their position assumes that the perception of emotion in the other is immediately accessible through isomorphic psychological and physical processes that often result in an experience of resonance of the same emotion in the self (Beebe, 1990). According to this view, the empathic process consists of an initial perceptual phase that generates affective resonance and a second phase in which complex cognitive-affective operations contribute to the construction of meaning. We posit that empathic understanding affords the observer direct access to certain qualities of the other's experience. The model borrows from Wolfgang Köhler's


We wish to thank the following people for their help at various stages of our work: Beatrice Beebe, Ph.D., Dean Hadaks, and Cynthia Lindsey.

Dr. Feiner is adjunct professor in the New York University doctoral program in clinical psychology and is on the faculty at the Health Science Center in Brooklyn. He is in private practice in Manhattan.

Dr. Kiersky is faculty and supervisor, National Institute for the Psychotherapies. She is the coordinator of training, Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity and clinical associate, City University of New York, Ph.D. program in clinical psychology.

© 1994 The Analytic Press

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(1947) concept of isomorphism and Rudolph Arnheim's (1949) theory of the perception of expression.

Evidence for this model is presented from experimental psychology. A discussion of a case from an earlier paper on empathy by Beres and Arlow (1974) illustrates how the operations underlying empathy contribute to understanding a patient in a clinical setting. Finally, we conclude the paper with a brief discussion of some of the clinical implications of this model.

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