Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 259–268 | Cite as

The genesis of empathy in human development: a phenomenological reconstruction

  • Jonna BornemarkEmail author
Scientific Contribution


In phenomenology, theories of empathy are intimately connected with the question of how it is possible to have insight into the mind of the other person. In this article, the author wants to show why it is self-evident for us that the other person is having experiences. In order to do so, it is not enough to discuss the phenomenon of empathy with a starting point in the already constituted adult person; instead the article presents a genetic approach to human development. The author thus contrasts Edith Stein’s discussion of Einfühlung (empathy), which takes its starting point in the experience of the grown-up, with Max Scheler’s discussion of Einsfühlung (feeling of oneness), where the relation between mother and infant is taken as one example. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the world of the infant is read as one way of developing Scheler’s theory of intersubjectivity and of Einsfühlung. This genetic approach is developed further into a phenomenological analysis of the experience of the fetus and of birth. The author argues that the analysis of the fetus highlights the distinction between knowing that another person is having experiences, and knowing the specific content of the other person’s experiences. The fetus does not experience different persons, but has a pre-subjective experience of life that includes what is later experienced as belonging to “another.” Later in life, the experience of empathy, as an experience of a specific content, can be developed from this experience. In this way empathy and Einsfühlung can be understood as complementary rather than as competing phenomena.


Empathy Phenomenology Fetus Feeling of oneness Theory of intersubjectivity Edith Stein Max Scheler Maurice Merleau-Ponty Edmund Husserl 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Culture and Learning, Center for Practical KnowledgeSödertörn UniversityHuddingeSweden

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