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Nathanson, D.L. (1997). From Empathy to Community. Ann. Psychoanal., 25:125-143.

(1997). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 25:125-143

From Empathy to Community

Donald L. Nathanson, M.D.

In an issue of this annual devoted to the memory of Michael Franz Basch, it seems only reasonable to show how one of his contributions has helped expand the power and depth of interpretation while providing new therapeutic force for our field. Although trained as a classical psychoanalyst and brought up within the ethos of drive theory. Basch recognized immediately the validity of Kohut's (1971) observation that through some form of empathic attunement the mothering caregiver becomes aware of the infant's inner experience and uses this awareness to guide all attempts toward soothing the infant's roiling affects. The very existence of empathy strains drive theory to its core, and Basch took the phenomenology. mechanics, intrapsychic ramifications, and interpersonal aspects of empathy as his special pursuit.

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud (1921) acknowledged the common observation that wordless fear could mutualize throughout a herd or community of animals with great simplicity. Sullivan (1954) followed the lead of Scheler (1912) in calling this “contagion of emotion,” but, like Freud, offered no explanation for the casual ease with which emotion seemed to ignore the dielectric that insulates nearly everybody from the thoughts of others. Sullivan's interpersonal psychology depended on such transfer of emotion-related information, whereas Freud's concentration on the intrapsychic world allowed little attention to what might be going on in the “mind” of another. With his observation that self-object function included rapt attention to the inner world of the infant, the ability to mirror and thus experience the affective portion of that infantile experience, and the skill to modulate this raw outpouring of affect, Kohut unwittingly forced the development of bridges between those who see the individual as solitary within a crowd and those who see individual identity as the result of differentiation within a group matrix. With the wry humor that characterized so much of his work, Basch took the position that the interpersonal transmission of emotion required sensible and specific attention simply because it existed.

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