What Can a 250-year-old Philosopher Tell Us About Empathy?

Jeremy Sharp, PhD DBT Leave a Comment

It might come as a surprise to learn that one of the major therapeutic approaches used by psychologists today has its theoretical roots in a theory of logical reasoning and historical progress. That approach is “Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT),” which was developed by psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan to help therapists empathize and work with patients that are not motivated to achieve therapeutic change under the traditional approach of the late 20th century. 

The approach borrows its name from the concept of ‘Dialectics,’ which have a long history in philosophy, but those explored in DBT come from the 18th century philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. If you look up a summary of Hegel’s dialectical model you will likely see a three-step process which consists of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis. However, this model leaves out some important steps and since Hegel warned against summarizing his method it is more helpful to understand some of the broader points he raises. On the surface, Hegel’s philosophy may seem like an odd choice for a therapy technique given that it has more to do with discourse and history than psychology, so to get a better a view of these theories, here are 3 ways Hegel’s ideas can teach us about empathy:  

  1. Recognition

Our identity always exists with reference to others. For Hegel, whether we identify with our cultural heritage, nationality, community, or familial ties our understanding of ourselves are always informed by our relation to people around us. In this vein Hegel argues that humans crave recognition in one another and that, in order to validate and understand our own identity and thoughts we need to understand and validate the thoughts and identities of others.   

Discussion 

With this understanding of identity, we can start to get an idea of how Hegel viewed the way new ideas are generated through the flow of a discussion. In the same way that our identities are linked to those around us, our ideas and world views are also linked to our interactions with others. Hegel shows us, that our process for thinking about the world relies on a confrontation between our own views and the views of others, as in an everyday conversation. For example, if Jane says, “My partner is incredibly lazy and their laziness makes them neglectful toward me and a bad person,” their friend John might respond, “I think that your partner is usually very caring toward you and I do not think they are a necessarily bad person.” The next part of this exchange could go on and on, but in order for Jane and John to arrive at a place of mutual understanding and recognition of each other’s views they will need to undergo a process of what Hegel calls “sublation.”

Sublation

In order to understand where Jane’s accusations and John’s criticisms come from, the two will need to recognize the truth in both of their statements. After talking for some time let us that the two explain their reasoning a bit deeper: Jane explains that her partner rarely cleans up after themselves, does not help with cooking, and is instead usually more fixated on reading. While John says he usually sees Jane’s partner complimenting her, offering her sentimental gifts, and admiring her talents. Together, they might come to the following conclusion about Jane’s partner: They do often ignore their general responsibilities around the house which invalidates Jane’s time spent laboring which making her feel neglected, however, they are not neglectful in their more intimate partner rolls in the relationship. They also conclude that Jane’s partner is not fully a ‘bad person,’ but that they contribute in both helpful and harmful ways in their relationship. In Jane and John’s conclusion there has been a recovery of the valid points that each person made in their original claim, this is the “sublation” of John’s criticism with Jane’s original point.  

In truth, this is a process that is present in almost all forms of therapy used today. Therapy can help, but you do not have to be a therapist to apply the theories of Dr. Linehan and Hegel. These are concepts that most of us employ every day, they are a key part of how we empathize and grow with one another.  

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