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Depression, empathy, and experiential difference

ERI 149
Wednesday 7 November 2018 (15:15-17:00)

Philosophy PGR Seminar Series 2018/19

  • Speaker: Alex Miller Tate
  • Title: Depression, empathy, and experiential difference

The Philosophy department's PGR seminar is an opportunity for postgraduate research students at Birmingham to present the material they are working on to the department's staff and other students. The seminar meets roughly on fortnightly Wednesdays from 15:15 to 17:00 in the ERI. All welcome!



In his book-length phenomenological study of depression, Matthew Ratcliffe makes a fascinating claim; that experiencing depressive psychopathology does not improve a depressed person’s ability to empathise with other depressed people’s experiences of depression (2015: 247-8). On the surface, this claim presents depression as being rather unlike other psychological similarities, which we have evidence to think generally aid (though, of course, do not guarantee) empathising with relevant aspects of a person’s experiences (Hoffman 2000; Eisenberg 2000; Chouliaraki 2006; Gutsell & Inzlich 2010). Call this perhaps surprising idea the Bad Similarity Claim (BSC). BSC also has significant and surprising consequences for how effective we should expect group therapy and peer support to be for Depression, what our view should be on the probable utility of collective advocacy amongst people with Depression, amongst other important issues.

In this paper I clarify, explain the ramifications of, and then critically analyse BSC. Firstly, I note that what I term the Mainstream View of empathy (Vignemont & Singer 2006) generally suggests that the inverse of BSC is true; depression is, when it comes to empathy, much the same as any other kind of interpersonal similarity. Secondly, I present and examine the argument that Ratcliffe himself makes for BSC, based on his own (idiosyncratic) Difference View of empathy. Even granting Ratcliffe the Difference View, I conclude that this argument fails, because Ratcliffe is insufficiently attentive to the kinds of openness to experiential difference that people with depression are most likely to retain. Finally, I propose a novel argument for BSC based on what I term the Imagination View of empathy, due to Amy Coplan (2011). I conclude that despite some initial promise, this argument also fails, suggesting that BSC is ill-supported by current empathy research, and should thus be rejected.

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