Comments on Keen: Universal Principles versus Uniformity

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Suzanne Keen is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on empathy and literature. As such, and also as a feminist and even as a human being aware of the world around her, she is deeply sensitive to the implausibility of claims that people’s empathic responses are all the same. In keeping with this, she is committed to arguing against claims that everyone reacts identically to situations of human suffering (see “Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Fiction?”). I completely agree with Keen in this. In the context of the Literary Universals Project, however, it is important to stress that the existence of literary universals in no way entails uniformity in individual response. Indeed, as universals are usually formulated, they are incompatible with such uniformity. Of course, Keen certainly recognizes this point. Nonetheless, it is important to make it clear for readers who may not be aware of the incompatibility.

More technically, the existence of universal principles in literature is most often inconsistent with uniformity of output in individual cases. This is true for two reasons. First, the universal principles bearing on persons often involve indexical features, features that change the output of the principles depending on the person to whom they are applied (see my “Possibility”). For example, it appears to be a universal principle that recipients (e.g., readers) are more likely to empathize with people or characters in their identity groups than people or characters outside their identity groups. Identity groups vary from person to person. In consequence, the output of the principle in any given case—that is, who a given person empathizes with—will vary. Greeks will be inclined to empathize with Greeks; Trojans, with Trojans. If, on the whole, Greeks tended to empathize with Greeks, not Trojans or any other enemy, while Trojans tended to empathize with Greeks or any other enemy, not Trojans, we would have a divergence in principle, not universality. Moreover, even among Greeks, there will be differences—due, for example, to sex category identity.

The second reason that universal principles do not predict individual uniformity is that, most often, there is not a single principle for any domain, but a range of alternative principles. For example, I take it that ethical evaluation is in part a matter of emotional response and in part a matter of emplotment. In both cases, several principles are available. One form of ethical response stresses pride and anger, particularly in-group pride and anger against antagonistic out-groups. This form tends to draw on heroic narrative structures which support the in-group in inter-group conflict. It celebrates group loyalty, bravery, and so on. Another form of ethical response stresses the alleviation of suffering, as shared empathically; another focuses on disgust and the purging of moral “contamination.” Thus, two recipients of a story are likely to have different ethical reactions to a situation insofar as those recipients differ in the emotions and story structures they favor. Faced with the same story, a reader whose ethical preferences involve empathy (e.g., with the misery of separated, same-sex lovers) will respond differently from a reader whose ethical preferences are connected with disgust (e.g., at homosexuality).

Thus, for the most part, universals bearing on empathy and literature would not predict uniformity of individual response. Rather, they would predict divergence of response, based on indexical features of outputs (e.g., in-group bias) and diversity of principles (e.g., ethical orientations toward empathy or toward empathy-inhibiting emotions, such as disgust or anger).

Given these conclusions, one might ask, where does this leave the topic of literary universals and empathy? One point worth noting is that different traditions often appear to stress something that may reasonably be characterized as empathy, understood as “an affective response that is more appropriate for another’s situation than one’s own” (in Hoffman’s definition [4]). When Aristotle refers to our éleos or compassion–for example at páthos or suffering (see, for example, Poetics XIV.4)–he seems to suggest some sharing of the hero’s anguish. When the Sanskrit literary theorist, Abhinavagupta, maintains that the crucial rasa or “sentiment” of a work is a function of the memory traces activated in the recipient, he is connecting the audience’s feelings with experiences parallel to those of the characters, thus presumably pointing toward what we would call an empathic connection (see Abhinavagupta’s Locana [81, 117, and 182] and his Aesthetic Experience [96-97 and 112]; for discussion, see chapter two of my The Mind). When the Arabic theorists stress the importance of developing raḥmah or compassion, following exemplary literary characters, they seem to be suggesting that we should share feelings with the compassionate character and have a parallel feeling for the target of that character’s compassion–thus a feeling that is more relevant to that target’s situation than to our own (on the Arabic theorists, see my “Stories”).

Outside theoretical reflections, it seems clear that various literary traditions are filled with works that presumably affect readers in ways that are far more consistently empathic than we would expect from mere chance. Every reader may not share Lǐ Qīngzhào’s grief over her husband’s death in “聲聲慢” (“Shēng Shēng Màn” [Late Sounds]). Indeed, in the “co-creation” of the poem stressed by Keen, some readers may make it into a poem about something completely different than her husband’s death. (I once had a star basketball player in my class who found the poem hilariously funny; I hope she “co-created” the poem in a way that made it treat some very different topic.) But it seems unlikely that the status enjoyed by the poem for centuries has resulted only from formal features (e.g., rhyme). In other words, it hardly seems plausible that readers’ emotional responses would vary randomly—sometimes contempt, disgust, hate, sexual arousal, rage, etc., and once in a great while empathic grief, just by chance—as the speaker sits at her window, recalling an earlier night, just like this one, waiting for her husband to return from a trip, and now realizing that he will never again appear across the courtyard, amid the clustered blossoms at its border, arriving home. (For a discussion of this poem, seem my “Affect Studies.”)

Thus, it seems likely that the experience of empathy is in fact an important feature of literary experience cross-culturally, even though individual response is not uniform. Moreover, it seems clear that, cross-culturally, literary works are often designed to foster empathy (whatever their actual effects). In connection with this, one might wish to investigate a range of further areas for possible universals as well.

For example, in The Mind and Its Stories, I distinguished between what I called categorial and situational empathy. The distinction was between empathy based on shared identity categorization (“categorial empathy”) and empathy based on having been in a comparable situation (“situational empathy”). I would now say that all empathy is situational (i.e., there is no distinct type of empathy that is categorial). In other words, we have an experiential sense of what another person is feeling based on the activation of emotional memories from a similar situation (in keeping with Abhinavagupta). Identity categories make a difference. However, they make a difference to one’s interpersonal stance, the attitude one takes up toward the other person, an attitude of parallel or opposed emotion. We are inclined initially to adopt a parallel stance toward persons with whom we share an active identity category. Thus, we are inclined to empathize with them. In contrast, we are likely to adopt an opposed stance toward out-group members, perhaps feeling Schadenfreude at their suffering, rather than sharing that suffering. (For evidence bearing on this topic, see Gazzaniga 164, Keestra 237, Hain et al. 155, and Klimecki and Singer 542.)

In terms of this distinction, we would expect in-group empathy to be far more prominent than out-group empathy cross-culturally. Indeed, we might expect out-group empathy to be virtually absent. However, I have also argued that, as authors imagine the lives and experiences of out-group members in detail, they come to experience them as more fully human and to portray them in ways that manifest and are likely to foster empathy. This is a general, human propensity, and likely to be found in life as well as art. It is the sort of experience that leads Majnūn, in Niẓāmī’s renowned Persian poem, to share the feelings of both sides in a war, even though one side favors him and the other opposes him: “While each warrior thought of nothing but to kill the enemy and to defend himself, the poet was sharing the sufferings of both sides” (58). Indeed, I have argued that heroic stories often include remorse over the harm done to the enemy (see chapter four of The Mind). These points are all apparently statistical universals of literature and empathy. Moreover, they potentially open up other areas of study bearing on interpersonal stance, identity categories, and other factors that interact with empathic sensitivities cross-culturally.

Another area for possible research is Keen’s own division of empathic appeals into those aimed solely at the in-group, those aimed at out-groups, and those aimed at both out-groups and in-groups. It seems clear that dominant groups frequently write for their peers in support of in-group prerogatives. It is also clear that, in some places at some times, writers from oppressed groups have appealed to dominant out-groups. One might reasonably ask to what extent the latter has occurred cross-culturally. We certainly find works that appeal to a dominant group on behalf of dominated people. For example, a work such as Śūdraka’s Little Clay Cart contains at least suggestions of a challenge to the oppression of Śūdras (members of the servant caste). There are parts of the Mahābhārata that seem to present a non-orthodox view of gender (see chapter six of my Sexual), plays that rewrite the Rāmāyaṇa in ways that pose (limited) challenges to patriarchy (see chapter three of my Affective), and so on. In most of these cases, there appears to be at least some recruitment of empathy. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to say if the author was part of the dominated group, and it is often fairly clear that the author was not. In this way, these cases may not strictly fit Keen’s division. However, they manifest a related appeal for empathy across identity groups. As with all study of cross-cultural patterns, we may ask if such appeals occur widely or narrowly; if they occur in particular circumstances (suggesting implicational or typological universals); if they are an instance of some other pattern.

The preceding list of topics is far from exhausting the possibilities for the study of literary universals and empathy. My point here has not been to give anything like a definitive catalog of such possibilities. Rather, I have simply hoped to suggest that research on literary universals and empathy has hardly begun. It is important to recognize that there is not individual uniformity in empathic response (and that there are other non-universal aspects of literature, such as recently developed techniques that are sometimes claimed to bear on empathy), as Keen has discussed clearly and forcefully. But it is also important to recognize that literary universals are largely inconsistent with such uniformity. In short, the rejection of individual uniformity does not mark the end of research in literary universals and empathy—no more than the search for linguistic universals is cut short by the fact that we do not all say the same thing. The recognition of individual variability is, rather, a preliminary to research on cross-cultural patterns. Indeed, cross-cultural patterns are to a great extent patterns of individual variability that reoccur—in different proportions and with different specifications–across traditions.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. with a critical text by S. H. Butcher. London: Macmillan, 1895.

Armony, Jorge and Patrik Vuilleumier, eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Chang, E. C. “Analyzing Li Qingzhao’s Poem ‘Sheng Sheng Man.’” Bilingual Chinese Poetry and Prose. (accessed 22 February 2017).

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, 2011.

Hain, G., G. Silani, K. Preuschoff, C. D. Batson, and T. Singer. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (2010): 149-160.

Hoffman, Martin. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Affect Studies and Literary Criticism.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Ed. Paula Rabinowitz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Available at .

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “The Possibility of Aesthetics,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 34.4 (1994): 337-49. (Reprinted on Cogweb,

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Sexual Identities: A Cognitive Literary Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Stories and Morals: Emotion, Cognitive Exempla, and the Arabic Aristotelians.” The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, 31-50.

Keestra, Machiel. “Bounded Mirroring: Joint Action and Group Membership in Political Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience.” In Valk 222-248.

Klimecki, Olga and Tania Singer. “Empathy from the Perspective of Social Neuroscience.” In Armony and Vuilleumier 533-549.

Lǐ Qīngzhào (李清照). “聲聲慢.” In Chang.

Nizami. The Story of Layla and Majnun. Ed. and trans. Rudolf Gelpke in collaboration with E. Mattin and G. Hill. Final chapter trans. Zia Inayat Khan and Omid Safi. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1997.

Valk, Frank Vander, ed. Essays on Neuroscience and Political Theory: Thinking the Body Politic. New York: Routledge, 2012.