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Genuine empathy with inanimate objects


How do we enter into empathic relations with inanimate objects (IO)? Do we indirectly infer that they possess mental states, or directly perceive them as mental things? In recent years these questions have been addressed by a number of authors. Some argue in favor of an indirect approach that involves mediatory procedures; others defend a direct approach that postulates no intermediate. In this paper I argue on the side of the latter. I show that Simulation Theory (ST), one of the most elaborated versions of the indirect approach, does not have the capacity to account for our empathy with IO. Investigating ST paves the way for criticizing a special kind of indirect theory, namely Imaginative Perception, which is tailored specifically to fit the problem. Both of these indirect theories face more or less similar problems. Motor Imagining is another indirect approach that must be considered, but in spite of its capacity to overcome some of the aforementioned problems, it suffers from over-inclusiveness. In contrast with these indirect approaches, I develop a phenomenologically inspired framework for empathy, according to which the scope of objects with which we can enter into empathic relations is broadened to include IO. I argue that this direct framework is a more promising way of addressing the problem of empathic engagement with IO.

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  1. The original Japanese word for the horizontal dimension is Shinwankan and has various translations in English

    (Złotowski et al. 2018, p. 165). “Human likeness” is the most frequent translation

  2. As it will become clearer in the next section, the reason why the absolute certainty that no mental state exists leads to inability to pretend or inability to simple assuming is the belief-based nature of pretending or assuming.

  3. I owe this distinction to one of the commentators.

  4. It is a general objection that Gallagher raises against Goldman’s minimal definition of ST (Gallagher 2007, p. 361). It appears that this objection becomes more evident in case of IOs.

  5. It may be objected that there is a priming effect from earlier instances of the shoe/face hybrid. Regarding the random order of stimulus presentation in this experiment, additional and more exact details are needed to reject / accept this objection. However, there are many other experiments that support the possibility of recognizing emotional expressions without categorizing the containing object as face (Seirafi et al. 2013). I am grateful to one of the unknown reviewers for this objection.

  6. I am grateful of an anonymous reviewer for this clarifying objection.

  7. Merleau-Ponty famously has distinguished phenomenal (lived) body from objective body and emphasizes that the latter is no more than an “impoverished image” of the former (2005, p. 501) (for a comprehensive review of this distinction see (Gallagher 1986). Here, body is objective body and therefore even Heider and Simmel’s geometrical shapes have body in this weak sense.

  8. This is exactly the same idea that Merleau-Ponty proposes in Phenomenology of Perception when he compares the wholeness of my body and the other’s with the integrity of various parts of body with each other and admits that they are “…two sides of one and the same phenomenon” (2005, p. 412).


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I would like to thank anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful comments and suggestions. Also I thank Dr. Azadegan for his help and support.

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Correspondence to Abootaleb Safdari Sharabiani.

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Safdari Sharabiani, A. Genuine empathy with inanimate objects. Phenom Cogn Sci 20, 831–846 (2021).

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  • Empathy
  • Inanimate objects
  • Indirect approaches
  • Direct perception
  • Expression
  • Co-presentation