I wish we had a better word than “empathy” to denote intersubjective understanding.

Empathy overemphasizes the emotional dimension and underemphasizes the conceptual and logical dimension that rationalizes feelings, and equips us with the means to think critically about passions without denying their reality.

To have a passion is to obey it. Passions are, by their nature illiberal. This is why failure to distinguish empathy and sympathy is fatal to liberalism: in an attempt to “understand” the other one dives into illiberal passions and drowns in them.

It is not necessary to actually have an emotion to be able to respect it, speak to it and respond to it — and it is not helpful to do so. As the great Geertz said: “Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.” This has become one of the most important sentences I’ve ever read.

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