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Cushman, P. (2009). Empathy—What One Hand Giveth, the Other Taketh Away: Commentary on Paper by Lynne Layton. Psychoanal. Dial., 19(2):121-137.

(2009). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19(2):121-137

Empathy—What One Hand Giveth, the Other Taketh Away: Commentary on Paper by Lynne Layton

Philip Cushman, Ph.D. and Psy.D.

In this commentary I support Layton's vision of psychotherapy as an unavoidably political practice. However, I caution against a belief in empathy as a primary means of motivating political activity. By sketching a brief history of the concept of empathy, I argue that it is a problematic concept that ultimately will not lead the profession to the type of progressive political practice Layton encourages it to undertake. Empathy preoccupies therapists and patients with inwardness, self-absorption, a modified but sometimes still present objectivism, and an apolitical vision trapped in the Cartesianism from which it originated. I suggest alternative terms to describe what therapists do when they believe they are acting empathically; offer philosophical, political, and socioeconomic reasons why therapists are reluctant to think in alternative terms; and make a link between those terms and a more effective, hermeneutic way of attending to the social realm. I conclude that empathy is not a natural, instinctive process that produces an automatic result and that what therapists mean by empathy is much more a culturally formed moral virtue than a technical skill; it is not a natural, instinctive process that produces an automatic result. Therapists, patients, and the society would be better served if we came to understand and appreciate the difference between virtues and skills, and confront the implications of that difference for both the politics of therapy and a therapeutic politics.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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