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Empathy, Intersubjectivity and Animal Philosophy

Elisa Aaltola
PhD, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy

Department of Social Sciences

University of Eastern Finland

PL 1627
70211 Kuopio, Finland


Empathy, Intersubjectivity and Animal Philosophy

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to investigate key works on empathy and intersubjectivity, and
to compare how they relate to non-human animals. It will be suggested that intersubjectivity
forms a powerful objection to scepticism concerning the minds of other animals, and lays the
grounds for normatively loaded empathic responses. It will also be argued that the core of
intersubjectivity takes place outside of propositional language, thus defying the linguocentric
stance often adopted in relation to other animals. Although descriptions of non- or pre-lingual
responses is challenging, the type of ‘attention’ brought forward by Simone Weil is offered as
one alternative way of understanding what it is to pay heed to animal others, and the work of
the ethologist Barbara Smuts is brought forward as an example of such attention.


‘Empathy’, ‘sympathy’, ‘compassion’, ‘intersubjectivity¨’ and ‘emotional contagion’ have gained

considerable renewed interest in recent years. Neuroscientists, social psychologists, cultural

theorists and philosophers alike have began to argue for the relevance of these loosely related,

often conflated terms. The aim of this paper is to map out the potential of this development for

animal philosophy. Emphasis will be placed particularly on empathy and intersubjectivity, as the

question goes: ‘What is it like to relate to a bat, pig or a cow?’

It is not surprising that empathy and its co-concepts have begun to garner attention. Reason in

its more detached form has been the target of increasing re-evaluation ever since Genevieve

Lloyd’s gender based critique of its role in Western philosophy (Lloyd 1984). In animal

philosophy, a similar re-evaluation has been endorsed by figures such as Mary Midgley (1983),

and has been perhaps best expressed by Cora Diamond, when she argues that reason can act as

a form of “deflection” from the obvious and tangible in front of us (Diamond 2004). This type of

criticism has been echoed by many past thinkers, such as Edmund Husserl and Hannah Arendt,

who both warned us of mathematizing the reality by using nothing but reasoned categories and

detached logics between thereof to explain what surrounds us. (Husserl 1970; Arendt 1968)

The main thesis behind all these claims is that with nothing but reason to guide us, we gain a

distorted view, which can easily be manipulated so as to allow us to ignore or even wilfully

cause the plight of others. It is this that has sparked many ecofeminists to defy the heightened

status of reason (Plumwood 1991), and which has served to at least partially question the type

of animal ethics that is furiously rationalistic.

It has to be noted that intersubjectivity and empathy have been explored in animal philosophy.

Continental authors have made intersubjectivity one central theme of their thinking on other

animals. This follows the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who famously maintained that the

“faces” of other human beings leave no room for skepticism. The face signals us that the other

being is an individual, and “convinces even ‘the people who do not wish to listen’” (Levinas

1961, p. 201). Although Levinas himself was critical of the mindedness of non-human creatures

(and thus the possibility of an ‘animal face’), Matthew Calarco has argued that his stance

applies to also other animals (Calarco 2008; see also Wolfe 2003). Here the other being is met

via an immediate, embodied encounter, and laid bare of all rigid conceptualizations (or

“totalisations”) – all of which brings us close to intersubjectivity. Moreover, echoing the

philosophy of Levinas, Jacques Derrida has maintained that shared vulnerability interrupts self-

endowed existence, and as such lays the path for an “interruptive encounter” with animals,

thus forcing us to respond to the animal condition (Derrida 2004). Again, a sense of

intersubjectivity is clearly present, as exemplified in Derrida’s famous cat narrative. Derrida

talked of ‘moments of madness’ (Calarco 2008) when suddenly seeing a cat (‘that cat’) gaze at

him. Words escaped and failed him, and as soon as they began to resurface, the moment –

during which the subjectivity of the cat had emerged crystal clear – was lost. (Derrida 2004) For

Derrida (and for Calarco), these moments defy Western metaphysics, which in his view partly

derives from the conceptual dualism between humans and all other animals. Suddenly, there is

no great Heideggerian abyss between myself and the pig or the hen, no unreachable dividing

line that forever distances humans from their kin – rather, one creature meets another, and

both recognise each other’s subjectivity. A further relevant theorist is Gilles Deleuze, who

talked of ‘becomings’ or ‘line of flight’ between humans and other animals. Rigid identities and

categories constructed around them lose meaning, and what is important is the process itself,

the becoming something, the movement in between. (Deleuze & Guattari 1988) Here, we are

pushed toward radical intersubjectivity, wherein even boundaries between self and other are

questioned. Similar continental themes, from the viewpoint of an embodied, somatic

compassion, have been elegantly explored by Ralph Acampora (2006). Yet, the precise nature

of intersubjectivity in the context of human-animal relations, laid bare of surrounding

metaphysical notions and critiques, requires further scrutiny. Hence, this paper hopes to add

to, or valorize, existing continental thinking by concentrating directly on the phenomenon of


Empathy, on the other hand, has been brought forward in the feminist care tradition. Resting

on Carol Gilligan’s notion of gendered ethics, care theorists have suggested that reason and

justice have been used to subjugate women, nature and other animals. Instead, what is

required is an emotive, contextual and relational take on ethics, linked to feminine identity.

Here, a wide variety of emotions related to the broad umbrella notion of “care” are brought

forward. Empathy stands as just one attitude amongst a plethora of emotion, and although it is

often referred to (Curtin 1991), and although common ways of avoiding it have been mapped

out (Adams 2007; Luke 1995), it remains seldom analysed in any greater detail. Two exceptions

emerge: Josephine Donovan, who has talked of the importance of listening to animal voices,

has offered historical analyses on empathy, with particular emphasis in Schopenhauer and

Scheler (Donovan 2007), and Lori Gruen has utilised empathy as a method of understanding

and respecting differences amongst beings. Yet, even in these accounts the precise nature of

empathy, and the criticism directed against it, are not a key emphasis. Therefore, it is hoped

that this paper will shed more light on what the often mentioned but rarely analysed

“empathy” is.

Empathy as Origins

Before exploring the precise meaning of “empathy”, it is good to note that, of course, interest

in empathy and its co- concepts is nothing new. Their famous advocates include Adam Smith

and David Hume, the latter of whom powerfully maintained that: ‘No quality of human nature

is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequence, than that propensity we have to

sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments,

however different from, or even contrary to our own’ (Hume 1975, p. 316).1 Sympathy emerges

as an extraordinary capacity, which acts as the doorway to the reality of others, and provides

the grounds for morality. Arthur Schopenhauer talks of ‘compassion’ (Mitleid) as the only true

motivator of moral actions. He summarizes: ‘Only insofar as an action has sprung from

compassion does it have moral value, and every action resulting from any other motives has

none’ (Schopenhauer 1998, p. 144). Edith Stein, Husserl’s brilliant student and one of the few

Western philosophers to dedicate a whole book on the notion of ‘empathy’ (Einfühlung), also

sought to draw links between empathy and morality. She argued that we have ‘value feelings’

(Stein 1989, p. 101) and that ‘the ability to love, evident in our loving, is rooted in another

depth from the ability to value morally’ (Stein 1989, p. 102). In the process, an important role is

played by empathy, for it enables deeper familiarity with others and therefore ultimately also

with morality: ‘Every comprehension of different persons can become the basis of an

understanding of value’ (Stein 1989, p. 116). Through perceiving others, we also come to

perceive morality.

For Hume, ‘in sympathy there is an evident conversion of an idea into an impression' with the use of imagination
(Hume 1975). External signs in others convey an idea of an emotion in us, which is again ‘converted into an
impression’, which can ‘become the very passion itself and produce an equal emotion, as any original affection’
(Hume 1975, p. 317). The emotions of others are felt so vividly that they seem like our own: ‘The sentiments of
others can never affect us, but by becoming, in some measure, our own: in which case they operate upon us…. In
the very same manner, as if they had been originally deriv’d from our own temper and disposition’ (Hume 1975, p.
593). Therefore, sympathy enables one to experience what others experience – albeit in a weaker degree.

Contemporary thinkers have made similar correlations. For instance, Michael Slote has asserted

that: ‘One can claim that actions are morally wrong and contrary to moral obligation if, and only

if, they reflect or exhibit or express an absence (or lack) of fully developed empathic concern for

(or caring about) others on the part of the agent’ (Slote 2007, p. 31). Famous for her takes in

neurophilosophy, Patricia Churchland argues that morality ‘originates in the neurobiology of

attachment and bonding’ (Churchland 2011, p. 7) and continues: ‘Kant’s conviction that

detachment from emotions is essential in characterizing moral obligation is strikingly at odds

with what we know about our biological nature’ (Churchland 2011, p. 175). 2 According to

Churchland, it is typical to social species that their neurobiology enables individuals to care also

for the interests of (some) others, and this care in its various manifestations (including

empathy) forms the foundations of morality. Renowned psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has

supported the correlation by exploring the effects that lack of empathy has. Discussing various

familiar personality disorders (such as psychopathic tendencies and narcissism), which are

characterised by the inability to empathise, Baron-Cohen concludes that lack of moral concern

or awareness can often be reduced to empathy disability. The key ingredient is objectification

of others, which walks hand in hand with lack of empathy: ‘When you treat someone as an

object, your empathy has been turned off’ (Baron-Cohen 2011, p. 7). Here, Martin Buber’s

suggestion that one must remain in an ‘I-you’ mode of thinking, instead of transgressing into an

‘I-it’ mode, is important. According to Baron-Cohen, it is the latter mode that accompanies

Primatologist Frans de Waal argues in a similar vein: ‘Aid to others in need would never be internalized as a duty
without the fellow-feeling that drives people to take an interest in one another. Moral sentiments came first;
moral principles second’ (de Waal 1996, p. 87).

‘empathy erosion’, and enables one to treat others as objects instead of subjects, as points of

manipulation instead of valuable beings.

This relation between empathy and origins of morality has clear relevance for animal

philosophy. Ever since Diamond brought forward the term ‘deflection’, it has appeared as if

standard, reason-prioritising animal ethics (until now the most substantial segment of animal

philosophy) has been in trouble. This is not so much because it fails to recognise the crucial role

of shared meanings (Diamond’s hypothesis), but because it is at times altogether ignorant of

the very factor that quite possibly motivates and directs moral thinking. You may offer me a

perfectly reasoned depiction of why the Argument from marginal cases (which lays down

analogies between the treatment of animals and human beings of equal cognitive level) applies,

but if I empathise more with disabled people and babies than I do with non-human animals, I

may quickly ignore your argument as if I had never heard it. Animal ethics is yet to meet the

human animal in her entirety – her moral phenomenology – and it may be because of this that

many have been left un-persuaded by the so-called ‘Singer-Regan’ arguments.

Paying attention to empathy is important also for another reason. It would appear that most

societies and far too many individual people suffer from empathy erosion, and even

psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies, in their relations to non-human animals. In Buber’s

terminology, they treat other animals as an ‘it’ to be rendered into an object of manipulation.

One could say that modern animal industries are the extreme manifestation of manipulation,

within which even the most tangible of sufferings gains little relevance. The non-human animal

of the industrial farm has become the ultimate object, whose experiences count for little or

nothing. Arguably, it is precisely the unwillingness to empathise with other animals that has led

to the current climate of ‘mechanomorphia’ (Crist 1999) or ‘anthropodenial’ (deWaal 2006),

within which animals are wrongly depicted as machine-like creatures poor or wholly lacking in

mental content and ability. Hence, in order to change this epistemic relation to other animals,

within which pigs and cows are approached as ‘its’, empathy is required. In other words,

empathy acts as a catalyst into perceiving animals as something more than objects of

manipulation. Following suit, it may be only by adopting empathy that the practical demands

brought forward in animal ethics can be achieved.

Empathy as a Way of Knowing

There is considerable divergence when it comes to definitions of ‘empathy’. 3 Empathy and its

sister concepts are often used indiscriminately – particularly sympathy, compassion and

empathy tend to conflate. One often repeated distinction is that whereas sympathy and

compassion concern feeling for another being, empathy consists of feeling with (see Nilsson

2003). Yet, things are not so easy. Particularly compassion can also be viewed as a strong

feeling with another – so strong, that categories between ‘I’ and ‘other’ crumble down. Hence,

Schopenhauer brings compassion close to another sister concept, ‘emotional contagion’, since

References to ‘sympathy’ are very old, and can already be found in Aristotle’s philosophy. ‘Empathy’, on the
other hand, although also briefly mentioned by Aristotle, came as a translation from German ‘Einfuhlung’ (‘feeling
oneself into’) in the early 20th century. Theodor Lipps was one of the most popular advocates of this term, and
used it in relation to aesthetics.

within it ‘I suffer directly with him, I feel his woe just as I ordinarily feel only my own’

(Schopenhauer 1998, p. 143). Hume talks similarly of ‘sympathy’, thus proving the common

distinction lacking. An alternative way to distinguish empathy from its siblings is to peel off this

contagious element. Such a decision was made by Stein, who argued that ‘Empathy is a kind of

act of perceiving sui generis… Empathy… is the experience of foreign consciousness in general’

(Stein 1989, p. 11). What is important in this account is that empathy is representational, like

memory or fantasy, not “primordial”: it represents the experiences of others to us, but we do

not actually have to feel those experiences. Therefore, empathy is a quasi experience, rather

than a direct, lived experience, of the mental contents of another being. This means that

whereas sympathy and compassion blur the ‘I-other’ distinction, in empathy it remains intact

(hence, Stein criticized the stance – advocated by her contemporary Theodore Lipps –

according to which in empathy the boundaries between ‘I’ and ‘other’ disappear). When

looking at a fox trapped in a cage, I can perceive that she is in a state of fear and pain, without

needing to feel this fear and pain myself.4

Therefore, empathy is usually separated from emotional contagion: we do not need to share

another person’s mental state in order to have empathy with her. Consequently, it is

commonly argued that empathic experiences are ‘off-line’ (see Nilsson 2003; Goldman 1995).

But what does this quasi, off-line experience comprise of? According to some, imagination

takes center stage, as we try to imagine what the experiences of others are like, without

necessarily sharing those experiences. From this perspective, empathy is like sketching, with

In a state of empathy, we do not actually feel the pain, fear or sadness of others, but rather engage in grief or
concern for what we perceive to be the unfortunate state of the other individual (Churchland 2011).

the help of imagination, the experiences of another creature. To use Peter Goldie’s words,

‘Empathy is a process or procedure by which a person centrally imagines the narrative (the

thoughts, feelings and emotions) of another person’ (Goldie 2000, p. 195). Yet, it would appear

Stein is after something more direct or immediate, as for her empathy is a form of intuition to

be separated from mental states we can doubt, such as perception or fantasy. Following suit,

we can loosely define empathy as an experienced insight into the experiences of others. When I

empathise, I grasp (or rather I feel that I grasp) in an embodied, affective sense the mental

states of another being – however, I do not need to feel those experiences as they originally

occurred, nor do I simply intentionally produce detached flights of fancy or inference. (In

contemporary neuropsychological literature, empathy is often divided into “affective” and

“cognitive” varieties – see Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright 2004. The definition used here forms a

broad combination of both.)

This definition goes some way of answering the age old question, which concerns the leap of

faith required in inter-species empathy. How can a human being cross the species boundary

and perceive the experiences of other animals? As Richard Holton and Rae Langton emphasise,

many other animals may simply be too different from human beings for empathy to produce

accurate readings. Thomas Nagel’s famous bat, together with species such as platypus, remain

overly singular for one to conceive of their experiences: ‘We have no idea what it is like to see

the world this way – and no amount of sharpening our sensitivities could ever help us find out’

(Holton & Langton 1998, p. 15). As a result, ‘the method of imaginative identification has

achieved nothing’ (Ibid).5

Fortunately, Stein’s approach offers a partial solution to this issue of other minds. Human

beings do not need to share the experiences of other animals and thereby claim to fully know

them, for all that suffices is that they seek – with whatever limited means are available – to

envision what those experiences might be. In other words, the species differences need not be

miraculously collapsed and the human morphed into the non-human mind, for the latter

remains her distinct, breathtakingly different and in many ways unknowable being even when

we experience empathy toward her. The catch is to perceive of insight as something other than

simulation or complete familiarity, and rather to understand it as a vision of something one

may be unable to explain or fully depict, but which nonetheless appears real, tangible, and

immediately present.

Stein maintains that empathy toward other animals is entirely possible, for even if their

physiologies are different or even alien in many ways, they are not so distinct as to disable all

identification – particularly when we position them in the context of lived experience. Stein

argues: ‘Should I perhaps consider a dog’s paw in comparison with my hand, I do not have a

mere physical body, either, but a sensitive limb of a living body. And here a degree of projection

is possible, too. For example, I may sense-in pain when the animal is injured’ (Stein 1989, p. 59).

Empathy springs from an awareness of how bodies very different from each other still

It has to be noted that a similar problem concerns also other human beings, who are always different from
ourselves, and thus possibly beyond empathetic projection.

encompass key points of affinity, such as sentience and life, through which one can seek to

envision the lived experiences of others, even if often only faintly and only for a moment. Stein

argues: “This individual is not given as a physical body, but as a sensitive, living body belonging

to an ‘I’, an ‘I’ that senses, thinks, feels and wills. The living body of this ‘I’ not only fits into my

phenomenal world but is itself the centre of orientation of such phenomenal world. It faces this

world and communicates with me.” (Stein 1989, p. 5) Body parts and sensory systems that

appear alien can perform similar experienced functions or phenomenalities for their subjects,

and these experiences are communicable. Therefore, the worlds of bats and platypuses may

not be wholly beyond our reach, even if they include much that a human being can never

completely fathom let alone experience. A whale in the deep blue may experience fear or joy,

despite the obvious physiological and environmental differences. The key here is to look at

behavior, and follow its lead: if the behavior of the whale paves the way for insights or

perceptions of fear, no further reasons may be required. Perhaps in an effort to portray this line

of thinking, Stein maintains that understanding foreign expressions is equal to comprehending

other animals: ‘thus, too, I can understand the tail wagging of a dog as an expression of joy if its

appearance and its behavior otherwise disclose such feelings and its situation warrants them’

(Stein 1989, p. 86).6

But how, exactly, can empathy allow for the difference of those animals, who are far removed from human
beings? Some further advice is found from Smith, who argued in his Theory of Moral Sentiments for a contextual
take on sympathy: ‘Sympathy does not in general arise from an idea of another person’s passion, but rather from
an idea of the situation in which the other finds himself’ (Nilsson, p. 47). Smith asserts that: ‘I consider what I
should suffer if I was really you, and I not only change circumstances with you, but I change persons and
characters’ (TMS It would appear such contextuality is crucial if empathy with other animals is to hold
relevance. What is needed is thorough attention on the situation of the animal – not only her physiology, but also
her history, sensory world, surroundings, evolution, etc.

Indeed, Stein emphasises that it is possible to entertain experiences one has little familiarity

with: ‘He who has never looked a danger in the face himself can still experience himself as

brave or cowardly in the empathic representation of another’s situation’ (Stein 1989, p. 115).

Perhaps similarly, she who has never known what it is like to be confined to a space hardly the

size of one’s body or (more positively) what it is like to swirl through waves can imagine the

anxiety or joy of doing so. Again, it is behavior that serves as the reference point, and

constructs empathetic insights: the sorry gait, the barren look, or the playful flicks of the tail. Of

course, there likely exists a varied plethora of experiences wholly unknown to human beings.

This is the little talked of aspect of the mental lives of other animals: the types of mental

contents that are wholly specific to them. Here, it is perhaps only imagination, a flight of fancy,

that can serve as a proximate – and easily mislead – guide. Yet, it would be an overestimation

to suggest that all non-human experience falls into this category, and that therefore none of it

will ever be a legitimate point of call for empathy.

The obvious question still remains: How can one ever know for certain? Even if human beings

need not share the experiences of other animals, the issue of accuracy stays seemingly

relevant. Are these insights not mere projection, for surely behaviour too can be

misinterpreted? Yet for Stein, such a question makes no sense. According to her, empathy is

‘inner intuition’ (Stein 1989, p. 34), a form of immediate knowledge that offers certainty, a

beyond-doubt grasp of the experiences of other beings. The accuracy of empathy cannot

sensibly be questioned: “The world in which we live is not only a world of physical bodies but

also of experiencing subjects external to us, of whose experiences we know. This knowledge is

indubitable.” (Stein 1989, p. 5) This point must be emphasized. For Stein, empathy cannot be

questioned, for it is the very method through which we can comprehend that the world and

even our own experiences exist: it is only by understanding that we and our surroundings are

there for others to witness and experience that we do not fall into the desperate abyss of

solipsism and beyond. In fact, search for evidence is absurd, as Stein continues to claim that

through the viewpoint of “inference of analogy”, “we see nothing around us but physical

soulless and lifeless bodies” (Stein 1989, p. 26). For her, this is “odium of complete absurdity”.

In our everyday dealings with others, it is empathy rather than inference that offers certainty

by being a platform which it makes no sense to question (or makes sense only for those, who

have not come to grips with what is at stake). Without empathy, we not only live in a world of

pure physicality, but will have to question even this world’s existence: ‘Empathy as the basis of

intersubjective experience becomes the condition of possible knowledge of the existing outer

world’ (Stein 1989, p. 64). What is more, comprehending one’s own individuality is dependent

on grasping the individuality of others: ‘Our own individual… occurs on the basis of the

perception of foreign physical bodies in which we come upon a conscious life by the mediation

of empathy. We first actually consider ourselves as an individual, as “one ‘I’ amongst many”,

when we have learned to consider ourselves by “analogy” with another’ (Stein 1989, p. 64).7

Husserl offers a similar argument. When we perceive the world, we are already assuming that

others have their own viewpoints to it, that it is shared and interpreted via perhaps innumerous

In a similar vein, Evan Thompson states that self-knowledge requires empathy: ‘One’s awareness of oneself as an
embodied individual embedded in the world depends on empathy’ (Thompson 2001, p. 14). Patricia Churchland
offers this view scientific credential as she argues that self-attribution and other-attribution develop in relation to
one another (Churchland 2011).

phenomenalities: ‘And each subject can at the same time recognize, in virtue of mutual

understanding, that what is given to him and what is given to his companions is one and the

same thing’ (Husserl 1989, p. 208). It is only by abandoning skepticism and affirming

intersubjectivity that we can calmly trust that the world and its contents exist and are not just a

Cartesian, demonic play with our imagination. In short, the world must exist, because I am not

alone in perceiving it. Therefore, empathy exists beyond doubt, because it gives us the world.

To question its validity is nonsensical. Objectively, it may well be that empathy is coloured by

presumptions, but this type of a skeptical analyses has no place in its context. A point of

reference used by the phenomenologists is sight: it may well be subjective and only offer us

partial readings, or even hallucinations, but we trust it nonetheless. This is because we have to

trust it – to doubt sight would lead into a state of chaotic disbelief that paralyzed our everyday

lives. Empathy can be viewed in a similar light. Equally, as when I see a tree, I do not doubt its

existence or my own perception of it, I do not doubt my own empathy, for otherwise I lose the

world. Therefore, empathy emerges as a bridge to the experiences of others, a clear insight –

like a light suddenly illuminating a dark landscape – into what it is to be the other creature.

Theoretically, it can be doubted and indeed its contents may be utterly misconceived, yet to

raise doubt may be absurd.

This approach is commonly followed in relation to other human beings. We usually do not step

back and doubt our empathetic responses toward them, but instead accept these responses as

methods of knowledge. It appears unclear why the same should not apply to other animals. Yet,

many contemporary approaches to non-human animals begin with the sceptical assumption

that hens or sheep have no inner lives until we have definite proof for believing so. It is often

considered unscientific to rely on empathy, even if ever so slightly, and thus for instance many

welfare scientists (despite Bernard Rollin’s pleas) still use quotation marks when they discuss

animal consciousness or joy. It is precisely against this sceptical attitude that Stein’s way of

formulating empathy as a type of immediate knowledge, on par with sight, offers a poignant

challenge. The crucial point here is that there need not be certain evidence, nor certainty –

what suffices is that we have something which it makes little sense to doubt.

Here, we do not only ascertain, as Nagel did, that bats have inner lives, but also make claims

about the content of those lives. But do attributions of content not easily lead us astray?

Moreover, does Stein’s account really mean that ‘any empathy goes’, that even the most clearly

warped anthropomorphic conceptions are as valid as any other? Alternatively, does reliance on

empathy not mean that certain animals will unduly remain outside the sphere of recognition?

As already Hume pointed out, similarity and proximity render sympathy stronger, and the same

claim has been repeated time and again in contemporary social psychology, with obvious

implications for non-human animals. Thus, the dreaded consequence of empathy may be

anthropomorphism, which to some runs the risk of offering animals too much moral

significance, and which for others will eradicate the difference of animals, and as a result

render genuine moral respect toward them impossible (see Weil 2012) – moreover, on the

other side we run the risk of mechanomorphia. Thus, according to critics, empathy is unreliable,

and will yield us humanized or mechanomorphised animal forms empty of animal content.

This would suggest that something more than empathy is required. Now, for Hume the answer

was to be found from efforts of impartiality. Reflection could help one to steer away from

stubborn bias against those unlike oneself – simply giving up and conforming to existing biases

was not an option. Arguably, a similar commitment is required in relation to other animals:

empathy requires work in the form of reflection. But how, precisely, is this accomplished

without falling back into the type of skepticism rejected by Stein?

Here the philosophy of Simone Weil offers one enticing alternative. Weil’s philosophy includes

the notion of ‘attention’, which gains an aura of religious mysticism, but which can also be

understood in a more secular sense, as a moral imperative. Indeed, for Weil attention is the

core of all human activity, albeit it is seldom truly realized or noted. Attention enables one to

see clearly, to comprehend the obvious, and to thus escape prejudiced constructions. The key

element is that it escapes wants, expectations, efforts, and ultimately all egoistic factors: we

gain attention when we ignore, even if only for a moment, our own self-directed motivations.

Thus, Weil explains that in order to perceive truth: ‘attention alone – that attention which is so

full that the “I” disappears – is required of me’ (Weil 2002, p. 118, see also Weil 2005).

Now, Weil’s philosophy has been incorporated into some animal philosophy. Josephine

Donovan refers to “attentive love” in the context of ethical awareness (Donovan 2007), and

Anat Pick has used Weil as a guide to comprehend creaturely vulnerability (Pick 2011).

However, what has remained unexplored is whether attention per se has an epistemological

relation to empathy: could impartiality be achieved by Weilian attentiveness? The answer is

affirmative (indeed, Lori Gruen marks that: “empathy for different others requires

attentiveness to their experiences”, and Marti Kheel talks of empathy as a “culmination of

many small acts of attention”, see Gruen 2007, 339; Kheel 2008, 229). It may be only when the

demands, expectations and desires of the self are set aside that the other being appears, in all

her difference. Of course, such setting aside is difficult, and may never be fully achieved; in fact,

to wholly let go of it would be detrimental to personhood. Yet, seeking at least partial letting go

of the most obvious motivations of the self appears necessary in order for one to truly grasp

another being and to afford space for her particularity. It is in this type of attention that the

door to immediacy is found. In essence, it requires one to approach other animals without

expectation or demands, and to dive beyond or under readymade presumptions. In this way,

attention consists of meeting another animal outside the most obvious of prejudices, positive

or negative, to see the pig or the rat and to follow their lead. In this process, it is important that

one does not consciously try to understand the other being. In fact, it is by letting go of all

efforts that the other creature may surface. Weil continues: ‘Not to try to interpret them, but

to look at them till the light suddenly dawns’ (Weil 2002, p. 120).


For Buber, there is a way out from the objectifying ‘I-it’ mode, which is to be found from

forsaking categorical distinctions between ourselves and others and seeking for a state of

‘inbetweenness’ (Wallace 2001). Here, the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ cease to be two separate and

independent individuals, and rather constitute a new, joint way of being. It is here that we

meet the term ‘intersubjectivity’. Intersubjectivity goes beyond empathy, for rather than

approaching two creatures as separate, it views them as a continuum, a whole (Zahavi 2001).

Following suit, it is often defined as a coming together of two (or more) individuals to form

something more, something novel. One plus one is more than two. Stein describes

intersubjectivity as follows: ‘From the “I” and “you” arises the “we” as a subject of a higher

level’ (Stein 1989, p. 17), and ethologist Barbara Smuts argues that in intersubjectivity: ‘the

relationship creates for each individual a new subjective reality…. That transcends (without

negating) the individuality of the participants’ (Smuts 2001, p. 308). Like empathy,

intersubjectivity is familiar from phenomenology and has been gaining increasing

interdisciplinary attention in the past few years. What makes it significant in the context of

empathy is that it acts as the basis for the latter: it is via intersubjective openness toward

others that the type of empathy advocated here stems from.

Intersubjectivity is perhaps best explained by reference to two common ways of depicting

empathy. The first of these is ‘theory-theory’, which presumes that one has a theory of mind

concerning the other being before empathy can truly flourish. This is the chosen path of

skepticism, which via inference seeks to find evidence of the minds of others by applying a

theory to all those individuals it encounters. The other option is ‘simulation-theory’, according

to which ‘mind-reading depends not on the possession of a tacit psychological theory, but on

the ability to mentally “simulate” another person’ (Thompson 2001, p.11). According to this

approach, which touches on emotional contagion, as we simulate other beings, we come to see

them as minded creatures. Yet, some argue that neither of these options does justice to

empathy. Something remains lacking, some common ground which empathy requires as its

basis, and this ground is, according to Evan Thompson, intersubjectivity. The claim is that the

self must be ‘intersubjectively open’ before empathy can take place – one must have a ‘pre-

reflective experience of the other as an embodied being like oneself’ (Thompson 2001, p. 12).

Similarly, Shaun Gallagher criticizes both theory-theory and simulation-theory on the grounds

that: ‘I must already have an understanding of the other and their experience – including the

other as the subject of intentional action’ (Gallagher 2001, p. 86).

Therefore, intersubjectivity feeds empathy. It is the approach we have toward other beings: we

presume that others have minds, that there are experiences and other mental contents, with

which we can identify. It is precisely intersubjectivity that lends empathy its aura of immediacy,

for it presents the minds of others as accessible. In order to come to grips with empathy toward

other animals, it is crucial to map out what intersubjectivity in relation to them may mean.

One important feature of intersubjectivity is that it is intrinsically opposed to skepticism. Rather

than meeting others with theory or simulation, others are indeed approached as beings with

minds. This point was emphasized by Husserl, who argued that only by forsaking scepticism,

can one discover a route to the experiences of others. That is, after one accepts the stance,

according to which other beings are creatures with minds (rather than merely a stance,

according to which they might have minds), it becomes steadily easier to comprehend what

their mental contents are. The vital thing is the chosen approach. The most common example

of this is that we approach other human beings, not as potential zombies, but as minded

mortals – in fact, it makes no sense at all to adopt the skeptical stance in relation to them.

Husserl states that: ‘Now, as to the persons we encounter in society, their bodies are naturally

given to us in intuition just like the other objects of our environment, and consequently so are

they as persons, unified with the bodies. But we do not find there two things, entwined with

one another in an external way; bodies and persons. We find unitary human beings, who have

dealings with us’ (Husserl 1989, p. 246). Similarly, Wittgenstein famously stated: ‘My attitude

toward him is an attitude towards a soul: I am not of the opinion that he has a soul’

(Wittgenstein 1958, p. 178). Human beings do not have minds only after proof is offered, we do

not approach them primarily as bodies, but rather they are seen as creatures with embodied

minds – and this appears self-evident. It is here that we find the core of intersubjectivity.8

Intersubjectivity is argued to be a vital ingredient, not only in comprehending others, but also in

comprehending the world and ourselves. It is precisely here that we find the core root of Stein’s

argument against skepticism, mentioned above. Serious doubt, thoroughly felt skepticism,

would lead to an intellectual catastrophe, a reality devoid of meaning. The same sense of

intersubjective immediacy can apply to perceiving other animals. Thus, for instance Dale

Jamieson has argued that other animals ought to be approached via an ‘affective stance’. For

him, skepticism offers a misleading approach, and instead of it something akin to

intersubjectivity is to be favoured. (Jamieson 2002) Just as we do not assume other human

The term ‘affective’ is often used here. Thompson argues that instead of ‘an epistemic gulf that can be crossed
only by inference’, we need to underline ‘affective engagement’ (Thompson 2001, p. 13), within which the starting
premise is that other beings are their own subjects.

beings to be zombies and recognize their minds only after evidence has been offered, it strikes

as unfeasible to assume that other animals are pure instinct, nothing but biological

mechanisms. Instead, it would be wise to accept the type of intersubjective openness many of

us have toward other animals, but which many have learned to ignore or altogether reject. That

is, refusal of skepticism begins with intersubjectivity and its openness toward the mindedness

of other animals.

Perhaps the most obvious trait of anthropocentrism has been precisely the refusal to become

intersubjectively open to creatures different from human beings, partly because this has

enabled its narcissistic yet lonely dream of human solitude. In fact, it could be argued that

human epistemology has suffered a significant restriction in the shape of skepticism, as the

innumerous different takes on this world, odd, peculiar and surprising viewpoints of other

animals, have gone unnoted. As a result, human understanding of non-human animals, the

world, and the self may remain limited and obscured. That is, if indeed Stein and Husserl are

right in maintaining that we can only truly have a grasp of the world and ourselves if we accept

the mindedness of others, the worrying possibility is that not recognizing the minds of other

animals has rendered the world and the human self into grey, bland entities, devoid of the type

of richness animal oddity and difference can foster. As the ethologist Barbara Smuts argues:

‘Experience suggests that by opening more fully to the presence of “self” in others, including

animals, we further develop that presence in ourselves and thus become more fully alive and

awake participants in life’ (Smuts 2001, p. 308).

But where does intersubjectivity spring from? Thompson argues that social minds develop via a

‘dynamic co-determination of self and other’ (Thompson 2001, p. 3). Social animals are born

with this ability, they are ‘intrinsically “intersubjectively open”’ (Thompson 2001, p. 14). We

come to this world with the ability to relate to others as creatures with minds. This openness is

pre-lingual or non-lingual, and thus takes place on a much more fundamental level than theory-

theory: ‘An embodied practice of mind begins much earlier than the onset of theory or mind

capabilities… [which constitutes] a strong claim for primary intersubjectivity’ (Gallagher 2001, p.

103). Here, we understand others via an ‘immediate, less theoretical (non-mentalistic) mode of

interaction’ (Gallagher 2001, p. 87). This claim is supported by recent neurostudies and

‘interpersonal neurobiology’, which define social beings as inherently intersubjective. From our

very first experiences, far before the development of propositional language, we want to relate

to others as a ‘you’ and to be treated as a ‘you’ by others – in fact, our psychological health

depends on the fulfillment of this tendency. (Siegel 2010)

Intersubjectivity is not pre- or non-lingual only in youth, but often also in adulthood. Although

the era of reason has made second-order thinking appear vital, and although it has fed the

notorious illusion that propositional language is our ‘prison’, outside of which there is no

experience, no meaning, and perhaps no reality at all, much of what we say and do is based on

– not propositional reflection – but something far more immediate. Often it is only when

immediacy offers conflicting responses, or no responses at all, that we seek to understand what

is happening by means of analysis and theory (Gallagher 2001). Intersubjectivity forms one of

these immediate ways of relating to one’s surroundings. Therefore, it is evolutionarily written

into the minds of social creatures, and manifested in their daily routines.

The important implication here is that by not allowing space for intersubjectivity with other

animals, we may be making a crucial mistake. If it really is the core of social comprehension, not

offering it space will render us socially inept. And if understanding the minds of others is

primarily a social phenomenon, something which depends on a capacity to relate to others in a

correct way, then those who block off intersubjectivity in their dealings with other animals will

lose the prospect of ever comprehending animal cognition. Intersubjectivity is the bridge to

grasping what happens in the minds of other animals, and ignoring it will yield to nothing but

mechanomorphia. In this way, the fundamental reason why skepticism is flawed stems from its

inability to recognize the importance of the social aspect of knowledge concerning other minds,

and the most elemental grounds for approaching other animals via intersubjectivity is that only

by doing so will their minds appear.

Merleau-Ponty famously asserted that instead of following psychological narratives of rational

development and intellectual cultivation, which require detachment from lived experience, it

would be more beneficial to seek the child in us, the pre-linguistic state of being, in which

immediacy is vividly present. (Merleau-Ponty 2002) Perhaps it is precisely this that is required

for eradicating the contemporary logics of detachment that tell us it is anthropomorphic,

sentimental or simply absurd to suggest that cows and pigs have inner mental lives. That is, less

attention needs to be placed on reasoned meta-analyses and propositional language, and more

emphasis channeled on immediacy and intersubjectivity. Arguably, if indeed intersubjectivity is

inherent to social beings, most of us have experienced it in relation to other animals. Yet,

cultural ramifications, our education into ‘being human’, may have laid obstacles on the way. It

is by eradicating these obstacles that the animal may begin to appear.

There are further solid grounds for doing so. Accentuating reason and propositional language

often (albeit not necessarily) entwines with anthropocentric hierarchies. That, which distances

us from intersubjectivity is also that, which is named as the guiding feature of humanity. As

infamously exemplified by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method, language and reason are

often celebrated as human qualities, which all other animals lack, and which imply unique

moral importance. Within this ramification, intersubjectivity with other animals is viewed as

something ‘less than human’ – the stuff of children, the mentally undeveloped, or (in the

misogynistic imagination) women. It may thus be necessary for a thorough criticism of

anthropocentrism that not only is the moral relevance of other animals manifested via reason,

or their reasoned capacities brought forward, but that also the very status of reason be

scrutinized critically. Offering reasoned arguments for animal ethics, whilst dismissing other-

than-reason, may be a self-defeating project.

Few have analysed intersubjectivity in great detail, and in fact, there seems to be something

quite indefinable about it – although it is so integral to us, it escapes clear conceptualizations.

Perhaps this capacity that comes before language is also intricately difficult to define with

language – words fail to thoroughly grasp something so fundamental, so immediate. What we

are left with are sketches that touch on its possible neurological origins or social psychological

manifestations, and carefully illuminated accounts of its presence. Because of its avoidance of

propositional language, it is not surprising that intersubjectivity is often described as something

rather mysterious: a primordial awareness beyond language, a ‘mysterious space’ between

beings (Wallace 2001). On the level of immediacy, it can be tangibly evident, but on the level of

propositional language, descriptions often appear hopelessly base and insufficient.

Perhaps the best place to search for inter-species intersubjectivity are the accounts of those,

who have spent considerable time with other animals, whilst carefully trying to comprehend

what their own relation to those animals is. One of the most eloquent or resonating accounts

comes from Barbara Smuts. An ethologist, who spent years in the company of wild baboons,

and who since has researched also dogs, has sought to understand the mysterious space that is

formed of and between humans and other animals. After spending a significant amount of time

with baboons, Smuts found that she was ‘learning a whole new way of being in the world – the

way of the baboon’ (Smuts 2001, p. 295). Expanding on the idea, Smuts writes: ‘The baboon’s

thorough acceptance of me, combined with my immersion in their daily lives, deeply affected

my identity. The shift I experienced is well described by millennia of mystics but rarely

acknowledged by scientists. Increasingly, my subjective consciousness seemed to merge with

the group-mind of the baboons’ (Smuts 2001, p. 299). Crucially, in this process, she ‘had gone

from thinking about the world analytically to experiencing the world directly and intuitively’

(Smuts 2001, p. 299).

Smuts’ account beautifully demonstrates that within intersubjectivity, one is guided toward a

non-lingual, non-analytical mode of being, compelling in its ability to reconfigure our

understanding of ourselves and others. Suddenly, these moments ‘just exist’, and with

breathtaking ease guide our actions toward new directions. A human being finds herself

immersed in the company of other animals, and witnesses in herself an ability to relate to a cat,

a cow, or a rat. The mysteriousness of these moments is accentuated by the way in which

human–animal interaction can defy the readily given categories of ‘human’ and ‘animal’, and

perhaps even question the validity of language itself. Here, the categories between ‘I’ and

‘other’ become unstable or fluctuating. Describing her relation with her rescue dog Safi, Smuts

states that: ‘Trust deepens, mutual attunement grows, and that elusive quality we call

consciousness seems to extend beyond the boundaries of a single mind’ (Smuts 2001, p. 305).

The two have formed a new way of being, a new space of intersubjectivity, with its own rules

and perspective. Smuts describes one particular moment when she found a very profound

connection with Safi: ‘Looking into her eyes, my body relaxed. Her face became the world, and I

seemed to fall into her being’ (Smuts 2001, p. 305). It is difficult to think what could more

concretely defy the standard dichotomy between humans and other animals.

Arguably, interaction with other animals constitutes often the type of a moment of madness

that Derrida discusses – mad, because propositional language and standard dichotomies fail to

do it justice. It is these moments that Smuts’ accounts exemplify. By simply entering into a

wordless world, where other animals are subjects just as surely as she is, Smuts gains

epiphanies which escape language, and which seem far more substantial than the constricted,

biased, and perhaps hopelessly narcissistic constructions offered by reasoned analysis. Her

accounts act as a perfect example of human-animal intersubjectivity, which defies reason,

language, categories, and ultimately anthropocentrism. Smuts also depicts Deleuzian

‘becomings’ or movement, which challenges stereotypes and strict categories built around

‘humans’ and ‘animals’. It is no longer important what species you are, but rather how you

relate to others, how you submerge into their world, and how each moment is marked by

creation of something new. Here, anthropocentric hierarchies and dualisms are questioned as

one plus one does, indeed, become more than two, and as the most crucial question becomes:

“How to approach others?”

Therefore, intersubjectivity marks a point of openness toward other animals, and Smut’s

account serves as its graceful manifestation. It acts as the basis on which to build empathy, and

also forms an alternative to the way in which the latter respects boundaries between ‘I’ and

‘other’. Intersubjectivity’s wordless, category defying nature can invite connotations of

mysticism, yet it would appear that it is also intrinsic to our animal being, and hence something

to also be acknowledged in the company of non-human creatures.

Outside Theory

It is not difficult to see why empathy and intersubjectivity form an attractive basis for animal

philosophy. First, they invite us to witness the experiences of other animals, and thereby to pay

heed to the animal herself. She becomes the primary point of interest, and arguably it is only

such prioritization that can do justice to other animals. We need to understand them better, to

try and ‘see’ them, before animal philosophy and ethics can gain validity. The animal needs to

be the reference of all inquiry, the constant point of attention, for one to be able to find or

construct norms and values that resonate more with what she is than with our own prejudices.

The second and related benefit is that empathy and intersubjectivity shield us from deflection.

The animal is not rendered into an abstract point of theoretical pondering, but remains a flesh

and blood creature, with her own very tangible and inherently specific viewpoint. In fact, there

are no generic “animals”, but only specific beings, with their own particular bodies, mental

characteristics, and histories. Empathy and intersubjectivity spring from the specificity and

concreteness at the root of the individual animal. Thus they by necessity resist generic

depictions and thereby ultimately also abstraction.

The third advantage is defiance against dualism. By questioning the rigidity of the boundaries

between humans and other animals, particularly intersubjectivity can, on a concrete level,

challenge this cornerstone of anthropocentric thinking. We no longer have ‘humans’ and

‘animals’ as rigid categories, but rather something new is formed of the two – a process that

takes place in countless of relations between beings.

The fourth advantage is that empathy and intersubjectivity remind us of the difference of other

animals. Although a common fear in relation to particularly empathy is that it leads to

‘sameness’ and forces all non-human animals to fit anthropomorphic illusions, thus creating

‘little people’ of pigs and sheep, a contrary argument is that intersubjectivity and empathy hold

the promise of underlining difference. Taken as efforts to question the priority of the ‘I’, and to

enter into a space of other-directedness, they can at best show us glimpses of what it is to a be

another, utterly different creature. As Smuts argues: ‘These moments reminded me how little

we really know about the “more-than-human world”’ (Smuts 2001, p. 301). Here Weil’s

“attention” in the form of holding back one’s own presumptions, even one’s own thoughts and

emotions, takes precedence. It is only then that the other being emerges, in all her tantalizing


Finally, it is important to note that empathy and intersubjectivity may perhaps never be

objective – in fact, they take flight from the subjective level – but this does not hinder their

potential to steer away from the types of warped biases installed in us. The promise that

empathy and intersubjectivity hold is not so much objectivity as immediacy. It is all that comes

in between beings – reasoned arguments, utilitarian manipulations, or sheer cultural myth –

that ought to be scrutinised, not subjectivity as such. By sweeping aside at least some of these

influences, and by facing the animal (even if on an inherently subjective level), can animal

philosophy take flight.


Empathy has been linked to the origins of moral awareness, and positioned even as the latter’s

necessary basis. Intersubjectivity, on the other hand, gives grounds for empathy. Together the

two offer a challenge against, not only anthropocentric modes of thought, but also more

abstract forms of animal philosophy.

Although many would argue that there is no cognition outside propositional language, a

tantalizing possibility – unduly discarded in much of modern philosophy – is that most of what

happens within and between beings is external to language. Here animal minds emerge as

fantastical terrains, striking in their resistance to anthropogenic conceptualizations. As Virginia

Woolf states in her book Flush about a dog: ”Not a single myriad sensation ever submitted itself

to the deformity of words”. Empathy and intersubjectivity are gateways to this type of non-

human immediacy. Allowing them to play more of a role will not only show us the plethora of

experience inaccessible to language, but will also be beneficial for the human animal. Smuts

follows Husserl and Stein when she suggests that the intersubjective mode of being offers the

prospect of building entirely new ways of understanding the world: ‘My awareness of the

individuality of all beings, and of the capacity of at least some beings to respond to the

individuality in me, transforms the world into a universe replete with opportunities to develop

personal relationships of all kinds’ (Smuts 2001, p. 301). With empathy and intersubjectivity,

the world may appear anew, filled with fresh perspectives, mutuality and awe.

Although this paper has concentrated on those creatures most obviously sentient, it should be

noted that empathy and particularly intersubjectivity can be expanded toward also those less

akin to mammals and birds (indeed some, such as Marti Kheel, expand empathy to natural

entities, see Kheel 2008). Arguably, our understanding concerning the capacities and

subjectivities found in the animal world is very limited, and it is a wise decision to remain open

toward minded engagement even with those creatures tiny, distant or bizarre, who at first

glance appear wholly out of subjective reach.


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