The direct-perception model of empathy: a critique

By Pierre Jacob.

Abstract: This paper assesses the so-called “direct-perception” model of empathy. This model draws much of its inspiration from the Phenomenological tradition: it is offered as an account free from the assumption that most, if not all, of another’s psychological states and experiences are unobservable and that one’s understanding of another’s psychological states and experiences are based on inferential processes. Advocates of this model also reject the simulation-based approach to empathy. I first argue that most of their criticisms miss their target because they are directed against the simulation-based approach to mindreading. Advocates of this model further subscribe to an expressivist conception of human behavior and assume that some of an individual’s psychological states (e.g. her goals and emotions, not her beliefs) can be directly perceived in the individual’s expressive behavior. I argue that advocates of the direct-perception model face the following dilemma: either they embrace behaviorism or else they must recognize that one could not understand another’s goal or emotion from her behavior alone without making contextual assumptions. Finally, advocates of the direct-perception model endorse the narrative competency hypothesis, according to which the ability to ascribe beliefs to another is grounded in the ability to understand narratives. I argue that this hypothesis is hard to reconcile with recent results in developmental psychology showing that preverbal human infants seem able to ascribe false beliefs to others.