Given the emotional connotations of the word “empathy” and my suspicion that few people have actually had firsthand experiences with empathy outside of merely emotional understanding I am going to re-adopt the term synesis.
Synesis is a greek word for understanding, and it literally means togetherness. It is a capacity to take-together otherwise chaotic data together-with other people. Synesis does tend to generate sympathy — similar feelings — but it also produces similar interpretations of data, suggesting similar practical responses. Where these intellectual, evaluative and practical responses differ, they appear to be the effects of subjectivity or taste — different but not altogether alien.
What is most important to know about synesis, and where it differs in connotation from empathy is synesis is social and learnable.
With empathy, we can respond to another person’s subjective experiences with emotions of our own, but we are permanently locked out of first-hand knowledge. We have our feelings about what the other experiences, and we can remember what they tell us and try to remember and relate it, but the other person’s experiences are theirs and they have privileged knowledge to these subjective truths. If we treat empathic knowledge as the goal of understanding others, true understanding is the insight that acquiring real knowledge of another person’s experience is impossible. This is true as far as it goes, but it artificially limits the possibilities of learning and gaining synesis.
With synesis, we can learn to make conceptual, moral and practical sense of the world in the way another does, and in fact the way groups understand other members of groups. The learning is never perfect, but it is far more adequate than those whose knowledge of otherness is limited to empathy, who tend to wax pious about the unknowability of the Other. As we develop synesis we get progressively better at anticipating how others will perceive things, how they will feel about them and what responses will seem advisable and acceptable, and we get better at speaking fluently, appealing persuasively and acting productively with them. We learn to make room for one another in our understanding.
This is crucial: synesis is the basis for all political alliance. Where it seems otherwise, look closer.