Expression and empathy part 4: The appeal to empathy

In the last post I defended the notion of authentic expression, arguing that it can be maintained even within an ecological framework. As for authenticity, so for empathy. Or so I will argue now.

We saw in part one that subjects are more likely to smile in solitude if another agent is made salient. Strikingly, one is more likely to smile while watching a film alone if told that a friend is watching the same film in another room. I would bet (though it would be harder to prove) that merely thinking of another person’s experience would have the same effect.

This finding provides evidence that physiognomic expression has its origins in communicative function. But just as this doesn’t make authenticity, or the inner life, irrelevant to expression, it doesn’t make feelings of empathy irrelevant either. It doesn’t tell us what salience is for the communicating subject. If we ask ourselves what it is, it seems highly plausible that for a subject to find another person salient involves an appeal to empathy.

That last claim is ambiguous, however, so we had better make a distinction. It could mean that I actively think of another person’s experience or point of view when I smile in solitude. This is a strong claim, and one which would need further empirical support. But in any case I think it’s implausible, and stronger than we need. The other possibility is that salience presupposes awareness of co-experiencing others. Just as we needn’t intend to communicate our genuine feelings in order to count as authentic, we need not be consciously thinking of another’s feelings in order to find them salient.

This helps us to make sense of Fridlund’s idea of an imaginary interlocutor. The awareness I just mentioned could consist in knowledge of another’s experience. Or it could consist in a capacity to imagine another. The solitary smiler need not be making any sort of mistake – they need not have any beliefs about co-experiencing others.

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