Identity and Agency

Sounds heavy doesn’t it?  You wouldn’t know, just by looking at the title, that this is going to be a critique of hyperindividualism. [1]

Let’s start with this exchange.

Empathetic Elder:

(EE) Thank you for sharing that account with me.  I know exactly how you feel.

Unimpressed Young Person

(UYP) You can’t possibly know how I feel.   You are not me.

Empathy as Identity

I want to come around, eventually, to a consideration of whether the Unimpressed Young Person (UYP) is correct, but let’s begin by looking at her standards, and particularly, what those standards are good for.  The general context of this interchange is “empathy,”  I started thinking about it this morning when I read Molly Worthen’s piece in the New York Times.

The UYP has a rejection of the EE in mind and I am sure what she said accomplished that, but considered as a standard for empathy, it doesn’t hold up very well.  “You will be able to know how I am feeling when you achieve complete identity with me—when you are me.  As long as you are only yourself, you will fail.”  That is the standard she is using.  It isn’t ridiculous.  Logical implications flow from it.  Behavior consistent with it can be predicted.  It is, however, completely useless.

“Being me” as the standard for “feeling what I feel” or even “knowing what I feel” is useless because it doesn’t help us understand anything.  But buried in that casual rejection of empathy is a lot of ideology—probably unconsidered ideology—that I would like to consider.

This young woman may think of herself as a glowing coal of consciousness, but she is, in fact, part of a category.  She is part of many overlapping sets of categories, every one of which has affected and is still affecting her experiences.  She could be a Uygher, an older sister, a talented athlete, and a suspicious solitary person with no friends.  That means that she shares the consciousness that is shared among all Uyghers, all older sisters, etc.  

In addition to that, she may be a teenager or a woman with two kids and two jobs, or have been twice-married and  twice divorced.  So she shares the consciousness that is common to all those settings.  And there are more ways of approaching it.

This establishes that “how I feel” can readily be interpreted as “how people in my situation” feel.  “How I feel” is, in that way of interpreting it, the common property of many other people in one or more of those settings.  

And beyond that, there are the cultural prescriptions that her culture has taught her about individuality and sociability.  Some people are taught to expect that their experiences are like those of others; others to expect all their experiences to be unique.  UYP is obviously one of those.  That explains her rebuke to EE, but it doesn’t bear at all on whether her experiences actually are unique.

There is, again, the question of what interpretation helps us understand our experiences so that “our” encompasses both the individual and the social experiences.  So if the “identity” standard is badly skewed to the “all experiences are unique experiences” side of the scale, anything like empathy is going to fail.  That seems like a great loss to me.

Empathy as Agency

There is, however, another way of looking at the kind of interpersonal contact of which empathy is an instance.  I have called that kind “agency.”  Agency is about what we do.

Here’s an example that I have run across recently.  It is from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.  The situation from which I have rescued this example is impossibly complex, but we don’t need very much of it to illustrate the kind of empathy I am talking about when I consider agency. [2]

Erasmus is in space, rescuing a small nuclear reactor which will be needed to supply the oxygen he and his friends will need to survive long enough to accomplish their mission.  Erasmus has had to go out of communication range [3] so deciding together what to do is no longer available.  At that point, what I am calling an empathy of action or agency, shows up.  Here is what it sounds like to Erasmus.

The key to it all: what were my friends thinking? What were they saying right now over that wireless…? I’d heard Arsibalt’s voice saying that the nuke was in the wrong plane. They’d probably watched me drifting away, with mounting anxiety, and debated whether to send out a rescue team.

But they hadn’t. Lio had given no such order. Not only that, they had fought off the temptation to switch on the long-range wireless. 

If it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have been able to read their minds, nor they mine. But my fraas [brothers] had been raised, trained, by Orolo. They had figured out—probably sooner than I had—that in forty-five minutes the nuke would reappear on the other side of Arbre. 

Just as important, they were relying on me—entrusting me with their lives—to figure out the same thing and to act accordingly.

There is no way place this clip into an adequate context—especially that they had been tutored in common by Orolo—but the bold lines show what I mean by agency and by empathy.  Erasmus’s friends have figured out a life-saving solution, but it won’t work unless they trust him to have figured it out as well.  They are going to do something that will work only if he figures it out and does the right thing.

Under other circumstances, Erasmus says, he “would not have been able to read their minds,” but these circumstances are special.  These young men are products of the same discipline, students of the same tutor, and lifelong colleagues.  Those are the circumstances that make cooperation without communication possible.


You might not know it from this account, but I believe both kinds of empathy are important.  Emotional empathy is possible—in fact, it is common—when we understand that we have had many common experiences and that “I know how you feel” is correct in that general sense.  It is only demanding that “understanding” means being the other person that it fails.  Unfortunately, that is more and more the standard that is used.

The empathy based on a common understanding of actions to be taken is even more common.  Every good work group knows how to anticipate how things will seem to others and to take that into account in choosing their own actions.  Every good sports team works the same way.  This kind of empathy is as necessary as the other.  It is the centripetal force that draws us together when otherwise, we would spin away as solitary entities.

[1]  You would know, probably, that it is an essay written by someone who prizes abstract nouns; probably by someone who has had a lot of education.  Why else would you prefer abstract nouns?

[2]  It is a shame that the adjective form, “agential” is not more familiar.  It would be so convenient to say that we were talking about emotional empathy and now we are talking about agential empathy.

[3]  They could reach him by long range communications, but that would signal to the enemy that they were there.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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