Sunday, 5 June 2011

Scribblings on Sympathy

The difference between understanding something merely theoretically (vorhandenheit, occurence, presence-at-hand, observation) and practically (zuhandenheit, availableness, readiness-to-hand, participation) means that if one only understands something as a matter of facts and statistics (as in understanding global poverty merely in terms of the numbers of people in poverty and their spending power, etc.) and not in terms of how it reveals itself in lived participation then they miss a large aspect of that thing.

But we can usually understand at least something of what a person means when they tell us that so many people live in poverty and sometimes also live under tyrannical governments. We understand so much more than the mere facts when we hear something like this, we can understand that suffering is taking place, though we’re certainly not able to penetrate as far as to knowing how it feels to encounter it. We understand these facts already on the basis of their being about people. It is a wholly different thing to come across statistics regarding computer hardware failures, and statistics regarding how many people are starving.

People and objects are considerably different things. Objects are defined in their substantially and objective presence. They cannot understand the being of themselves, or other beings. We are beings which understand, and through understanding ourselves we can understand others. Not having enough food on the table is something which no mere occurent fact could lead one to understand. You must already have the capacity to understand the kind of being which we are, which feel, and for which things have meaning, for which things are sought out - things which we sometimes feel in their absence more than we do in their presence, like food.

The existential basis of sympathy is our being able to understand ourselves. These facts are intelligible on the basis of our knowing what it means to go without food, or to live under tyranny. So it is that through occurent facts (not restricted to statistics, “I lost my job”, “I won the lottery”, etc.) we can come to understand something of a person’s troubles. However, without lived participation one cannot come to truly understand the significance of a person’s encounters. You cannot know what it means for “a person” to win the lottery, because the meaning is determined by the lived context in which it is an interrelated part. It would mean something different for you than it would for me. For me it would mean I could do the things which satisfy my concerns, and which affect the way my affairs hang together (what would no more student loan mean to you? or having the money to pay off your mortgage?) and therefore too the possible ways I am able to be (I could buy a house and become a house owner, or invest in a business and become an investor).

Yet, the close and mutually engaged participation between people enables them to know something of the significance of the victories and failures of who they are close to. You can know that your friend’s parents are coming to visit at some point, and so understand how they may be concerned about the nature of the items strewn around the house. Or, having followed a football team for a season, you could find yourself able to go with the ebb and flow of the feelings of the community through games and official decisions. Yet standing on the periphery you can only understand so much.

I’ll have to sod off to dwell more on how this public understanding is originally possible…

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