In the fantastic article “Sympathy and Solidarity: On a Tightrope with Scheler” (1997) Sandra Bartky draws of Max Scheler’s work on sympathy (from 1913). He argues that there are four forms of fellow-feeling, or feeling-with. We tend to call these empathy today, though she argues they are sympathy. Those four forms are:
1) true fellow-feeling: shared feeling due to the same cause like the death of a child (though I would argue that even the same cause can lead to different feelings)
2) emotional infection: shared emotion through contagion, like mass hysteria
3) emotional identification: ‘psychic contagion’ where you are lost in the other and imagine you can see and feel with them
4) “genuine fellow-feeling”: where you react to the other’s feeling, but are aware of the distance between hers and yours. She feels, and you feel with her.
As you might imagine, Bartky and Scheler argue that it is the fourth that is most useful. I would call this walking with her, rather than in her shoes. Bartky argues that this is not a comparison of my feelings to hers, or a projection of my experience onto hers, and not a matter of imagining what if this happened to me. None of these allow us to really appreciate her life, to reach out, to go beyond our own experience. Bartky does see imagination as important, but without ourselves as the star of the show. You don’t have to imagine as it would happen to you, you can imagine it as happening to her. You don’t have to have felt it, or something like it, before yourself to imagine it (though I think it is of course easier to imagine those emotions, a matter she does not address). She does argue that it is easier to imagine when we get more details, not simply about the scene, but also the feelings of the teller. I certainly agree.
Bartky, S. L. “Sympathy and Solidarity: On a Tightrope with Scheler.” In Feminists Rethink the Self, edited by Diana Tietjens Meyers, 177–96. Westview Press, 1997.