Thursday, December 23, 2010

Maureen O'Hara - Relational Empathy: Beyond Modernist Egocentricism to Postmodern Holistic Contextualism

Nice article (book chapter) from Maureen O'Hara of Center for Studies of the Person, La Jolla, California on the nature of relational empathy in moving away from an individualist perspective in psychotherapy.

Maureen O'Hara
Center for Studies of the Person, La Jolla, California

Considering empathy as both construct and human activity, the chapter contributes to the fast-growing discussion of the limits of the indigenous psychology of the Western world in addressing the relational needs of its members. In particular it examines the limits of Modernist individualism as a paradigm for understanding human experience, and on ways Western psychological descriptions and understandings of empathy in particular — whether Rogerian, psychoanalytic, existential or more generic — have obscured some of the important ways empathy functions in human relationships. Because of its position as a modernist, objectivist discourse, Western psychology has been slow to recognize how its own modes of enquiry and expression have limited our understanding of relational realities. The chapter extends understanding of empathy beyond its present role as the "royal road to understanding" of individuals by approaching it from within somewhat different frames of reference from those traditionally characteristic of psychological discussion. Empathy is then discussed in a more multi-levelled or holistic way as a way of being in, belonging to and knowing the relational contexts in which human beings find ourselves situated. Although the main arguments expand understanding of empathy as a therapeutic process the chapter concludes with a discussion of the social conditions of late twentieth century psychology. As our world undergoes what some consider to be the birth pangs of its first truly "global civilization", in which national, ethnic, religious, gender, class, boundaries are being shifted and erased on unprecedented scales, all of us, whether in formerly tribal or collectivist societies or in Western individualist ones, will need new postmodernist psychologies with which to navigate this new world.

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