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Feiner, K. Kiersky, S. (1994). Empathy Is Perception and Interpretation (And Who Ever Said It Wasn't?): Reply to Ghent and Stern. Psychoanal. Dial., 4(3):487-497.

(1994). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 4(3):487-497

Empathy Is Perception and Interpretation (And Who Ever Said It Wasn't?): Reply to Ghent and Stern Related Papers

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

We would like to express appreciation to both discussants for their extremely thoughtful and challenging comments. Ghent's discussion contributes greatly to a sense of dialogue by extending our ideas and adding to them in his discussion of the conditions that make empathy possible. Space limitations, however, require us to respond primarily to Stern's discussion, which alerts us to aspects of our paper that are, apparently, insufficiently clear. We hope to clarify some central points, including how our position differs from Stern's as well as some areas of agreement that he may not fully appreciate. Throughout his discussion, Stern collapses the two stages of our model, which leads him to make a series of assumptions about our point of view that we do not endorse. With this in mind, it is worth restating our view.

Unlike Stern, who views empathy solely as an attitude toward observation, we see it as a mode of observation and understanding of another's experience from within his or her vantage point. For explanatory purposes, we divide the process into two stages. The first involves cross-modal perceptual processing, which gives a measure of direct access to aspects of another's inner state and usually includes some affective resonance. The second involves the attribution of meaning to the accessed state. Empathic understanding, in this model, is a helical process including both perceptual and interpretive activity. The qualities of experience that are accessed contribute, in important ways, to the generation of meaning, or what Stern calls interpretation. In this sense, we agree with Stern that empathy is the result of interpretation but maintain that some interpretations are more accurate than others.


© 1994 The Analytic Press

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