Thomas Szanto, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CFS, has just started his research project
After two wonderful and productive years as a Postdoc at the CFS, where I have worked within the framework of the VELUX-Foundation project “Empathy and Interpersonal Understanding”, I am absolutely delighted that I could extend my stay at this excellent research environment—and, not least, in this truly amazing city that has become so dear to me!—for another two years. I have just started my new Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship project SHARE: “Shared Emotions, Group Membership, and Empathy“. Let me briefly explain what SHARE is about:
Shared emotions are not only a fundamental building block of human sociality. Emotional sharing can also negatively affect social encounters and, indeed, often is a major source of divide and prejudice. Arguably, shared emotions lie at the very formation and maintenance of many small- and large-scale groups, ranging from grieving families, to cheering fan clubs and religious sects, or, to mention a notorious example, ‘shocked nations’. And yet, emotional sharing, if too uniform or cohesive, may distort or even impede interpersonal and intergroup understanding.
To be sure, this paradox at the heart of our social fabric is rather familiar and has been well studied in social identification theory. However, recent years have witnessed significant controversy among social philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists on whether affective or emotional sharing is necessary for empathy, i.e., our ability to experience and understand the mental life of others. Similarly, there is a growing number of philosophers investigating whether a collective of individuals can properly speaking ‘share’ any emotions in the first place.
Against this background, in the project, I will particularly focus on the following three core issues: (i) What is the relation between empathy, i.e., our ability to experience and understand others, and emotional sharing? (ii) How do shared emotions and group membership affect or bias empathy? And, finally, (iii) can groups collectively perform, or be targets of, empathy?
As the first multi-level approach to the topic, SHARE will address this set of questions in relation to one another. It will try to integrate hitherto unrelated philosophical traditions, research strands and methods (phenomenology and social ontology, as well as social cognition research and social neuropsychology).
With SHARE, I aim not only at a better understanding of the role of emotions in interpersonal and intergroup encounters. Moreover, the project’s philosophical take will, I hope, allow for a systematic re-assessment of empirical data from the social neurosciences, and yield conceptual adjustments that challenge standard literature. Regarding its yet broader socio-cultural impact, the project may also contribute to research on group membership induced negative biases, such as research on racism, intercultural differences in emotional behaviour, or ‘emotional dialects’, and the ‘politics’ of identity-building.
I will keep you regularly posted on the result and outcomes of this project and will also post informations about a series of related future events (workshops, conferences, research stays, etc.) that my colleagues at CFS and I are already planning.