In conversation with a good friend this morning we discussed the fundamental importance of empathy in the life of the mind, in proper, coherent, generous and Christian thinking.
I argued that empathy—the capacity to inhabit another person's moral and intellectual horizons—is not mere dressing to life of the mind. The ability to hear someone out, understand their perspective, stretch your own moral and intellectual fiber to accommodate another is the first step.
I reflected at a talk recently on spiritual narcissism, a kind of intellectual and existential malaise which reacts violently out of the insecurity of our selves, our identities and beliefs which lacks the capacity to accommodate. In that context opposite opinion, different belief and disagreement become heresy.
Contra this I believe firmly in empathy, and in what Scott Thomas calls a rooted cosmopolitanism (the topic of future posts, and forthcoming dissertation chapters). But the important point I want to make—and hear response to—is this: empathy is the first step in the academic process. For me, this comes out of the fear of the LORD, and a grounded theology of common grace.
We've all met fearsome academics capable of spinning intricate logical webs—but who lack the capacity for empathy, to hear their interlocutor, and so have porcupine intellects: the quills are always out for an errant idea. I want to suggest these are not merely unpleasant people, they are bad academics, and a true, fruitful life of the mind—which draws us deeply into love of God and of our neighbour—begins with the "woolly" enterprise of feeling, and of empathy.