Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 97–116 | Cite as

A critical perspective on second-order empathy in understanding psychopathology: phenomenology and ethics

  • Mohammed Abouelleil RashedEmail author


The centenary of Karl Jaspers' General Psychopathology was recognised in 2013 with the publication of a volume of essays dedicated to his work (edited by Stanghellini and Fuchs). Leading phenomenological-psychopathologists and philosophers of psychiatry examined Jaspers notion of empathic understanding and his declaration that certain schizophrenic phenomena are ‘un-understandable’. The consensus reached by the authors was that Jaspers operated with a narrow conception of phenomenology and empathy and that schizophrenic phenomena can be understood through what they variously called second-order and radical empathy. This article offers a critical examination of the second-order empathic stance along phenomenological and ethical lines. It asks: (1) Is second-order empathy (phenomenologically) possible? (2) Is the second-order empathic stance an ethically acceptable attitude towards persons diagnosed with schizophrenia? I argue that second-order empathy is an incoherent method that cannot be realised. Further, the attitude promoted by this method is ethically problematic insofar as the emphasis placed on radical otherness disinvests persons diagnosed with schizophrenia from a fair chance to participate in the public construction of their identity and, hence, to redress traditional symbolic injustices.


Radical empathy Schizophrenia Phenomenological reduction Incomprehensibility Social justice Karl Jaspers Edmund Husserl 



This work is based on research supported by the National Research Foundation (UID: 91245).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Philosophy and Ethics of Mental HealthUniversity of PretoriaPretoriaSouth Africa

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