Empathy and Intersubjectivity

Empathy and Intersubjectivity

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, perspective, and emotions of another person.”

I have often seen empathy as a bridge reaching out from one person to another, like the Manhattan Bridge under construction in 1909, pictured at the top of this blog.

But of course empathy has its limits. Empathy starts off when I am aware of another person, receptive, responsive; it then involves me reaching out to that other person; empathy opens up spaces for our emotional sharing; but empathy runs into obstacles when that other person has experience, self-knowledge and a vision of the world which strike me as unfamiliar.

Empathy and intersubjectivity go together. I enjoy reading the two greatest advocates of intersubjectivity – the French phenomenologists Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricoeur – yet I am struck how their introspection leads them along the tortuous path of self-referential ideas, like getting lost in a Hall of Mirrors. Whereas reality is not that complicated.

Like a Hall of Mirrors

In a recent article in Études canadiennes, a scholarly journal published in Paris, I mentioned that I sought to apply the principle of intersubjectivity while making my film The Blinding Sea. I wrote the article in French. Here is the relevant passage translated into English:

“In seeking to be intersubjective, there is always the danger of resorting to analogical thinking, believing that you are actually building bridges between cultures and people, assuming you can understand and can even effectively recommunicate what you hear from the other person.

“For example, as a journalist in the 1980s and 1990s, I covered the forced relocations (deportations) of Inuit communities and the harrowing experience of an Inuit woman who survived a Quebec residential school, at a time when Canadian mass media were reluctant to report on the cultural genocide of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. Fortunately, BBC Radio agreed to broadcast my work on this subject.

“I also reported on the land claims process in the 1980s, the rise and fall of industrial projects in Canada’s Far North, and the extraordinary momentum towards the creation of Nunavut Territory in 1999, which gave Inuit economic and political power over their own destiny.

“And yet… I ask myself: how could I really apply the principle of intersubjectivity when conducting interviews for BBC Radio, whereas I had so little understanding of the unspoken and subjective experience of the Inuit inner world? Similarly, what common ground did I establish with the Inuit interviewed for The Blinding Sea, when their vision of Nature includes a whole universe of presences, values and spiritual references which they rarely share with visitors, let alone with strangers?”

Like the Manhattan Bridge pictured above, empathy and intersubjectivity remain works in progress and are never quite completed. The challenge of film-making is in reaching out to the experiential world of other people, and in making their experience come alive.

During a white-out on the ice near Baffin Island

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