Élodie Boublil, ed. Vulnérabilité et empathie: Approches phénoménologiques. Paris: Hermann, 2018; 340 pages. ISBN: 978-2705697457.

Reviewed by Antonio Calcagno, King’s University College at Western University.

Research on empathy and the discussion of empathy have received much scholarly attention over the last twenty five years. The phenomenological account of empathy has occupied a central place in recent scholarship. Broadly understood, empathy is described as unique act of mind, which permits one to grasp the mind of another by comparing one’s own experience with that of another: one places oneself in the experience of the other in order to try to grasp what the other is experiencing. Edith Stein says that in empathy, we bring the mind of the other into relief with our own. Philosophers, be they analytic or Continental, largely view empathy in a cognitive framework. Élodie Boublil resets this cognitive framework by focusing on the question of vulnerability in relation to empathy, thereby extending the traditional knowledge-oriented view of empathy to include notions of deep auto-affection, affectivity, and vulnerability, all of which lay the ground for ethical phenomena like justice and the heart. Boublil’s collected volume Vulnérabilité et empathie: Approches phénoménologiques takes empathy into new and unthought places, bringing to light often unspoken, unseen and/or tacit aspects of the phenomenon—for example, the unequal or disproportionate relation that exists between two persons.

The volume consists of twelve chapters that focus on different thinkers and aspects of the relation between empathy and vulnerability. The volume opens with Boublil’s introduction, which not only gives the phenomenological background behind the concept of empathy in Husserl and Stein, but also introduces the various chapters in the volume. Boublil presents the guiding thesis that empathy presupposes vulnerability in order to function: empathy can only work if one becomes vulnerable to the other, the world, and the situation in which we find ourselves. (23) The editor makes her readers aware that this fundamental openness contains within it certain ethical, social and political, and metaphysical possibilities that connect with phenomena like the heart, freedom, justice, and responsibility.

Part One, “Vulnerability and the World(s) of Life,” consists of four chapters. Renaud Barbaras’ “Finitude and Vulnerability” explores the sense or meaning of vulnerability by highlighting two important meanings of the term: to be wounded and to be helpless or without defences. Mining these basic senses, Barbaras presents a layered account of vulnerability, claiming that vulnerability consists of three important levels: empirical, essential or existential, and ontological. The empirical level deals with the fact of vulnerability, of being wounded or hurt in some way or another, of being defenceless. The existential refers to a deeper sense of vulnerability, an essential sense, in which one’s existence becomes jeopardized by some existential threat: when vulnerable, one is essentially alienated from oneself. Finally, ontological vulnerability is set within the framework of an event and marks a rupture with the world itself (61). Barbaras claims that the ontological form of vulnerability is a condition for the possibility of phenomenology itself, for powerlessness not only allows or makes the subject appear but also phenomenality itself. (62)

Chapter Two, “The Vulnerability of the Animal: Ontology and the Situated Condition,” is by Florence Burgat. Exploring the phenomenon of animal life, Burgat shows that vulnerability is not only a human capacity but also arises in finding oneself at a certain place, in specific situations, and in objective conditions. The author’s discussion of plant and animal life shows how circumstances and the surrounding world also bespeak vulnerability. (81) In my view, the value of this chapter lies in the de-anthropomorphizing of vulnerability, showing its worldly and situated objectivity. Nicolas De Warren’s “Trust in the World” forms the third chapter of the volume. The focus here is the relation between vulnerability and trust. Mining texts by Luhmann, Améry, and Shakespeare, De Warren maintains that vulnerability, on one hand, marks a rupture or breakdown of one’s trust in and of the lifeworld on account of violence but, on the other hand, being vulnerable can elicit the trust and confidence of others to call for and make ethical decisions. Vulnerability also opens the possibility of forgiveness: we transform a wound into a possibility of a new relation, we give new sense to our vulnerability in an act of pardon.

The fourth and final chapter of Part One is written by Michel Dupuis and titled “Empathy, Care and Clinical Anthropology: Binswanger and Kohut.” This essay brings phenomenology together with psychology—in particular, existential analysis and psychoanalysis. The relationship between psychology and philosophy is long and deep, and to include a discussion of psychology in the volume was a wise choice on the part of the editor. Dupuis shows that an understanding of empathy as an act of mind also requires an understanding of a sense of who and what we are, a critical anthropology—something that Stein understood well and developed throughout her philosophical corpus. (115) To acquire a deeper sense of this critical anthropology, Dupuis maintains that mining the riches of psychology can help us to better grasp not only psychic suffering but also the phenomenon of empathy itself. For the author, Binswanger shows how empathy helps in building a richer sense of the self, but it also shows the limits of such an undertaking as evidenced by our own narcissism: the ego that is so fundamental for phenomenological investigation, in its purity never seems vulnerable to its own narcissism, which psychology sees as originary to ego life. Kohut is positioned as detailing a collective view of psychic life that is not fundamentally grounded in self-interest. Kohut takes the discussion of the self we find in Binswanger and adds a layer of “we” life and experience that, on one hand, weakens the self or makes it vulnerable, yet, on the other hand, provides in and through such vulnerability, richer collective possibilities.

Part Two of the volume also contains four chapters and is called “Vulnerability and the Phenomenology of Care: The Test of Empathy.” Gaëlle Fiasse’s “The Act of Loving: Tensions Between Capacity, Passivity, and Activity” focuses on the absence of a capacity for loving in Paul Ricoeur’s ethics, despite his discussion of friendship. The author notes that such an absence, especially when brought into dialogue with the work of Aristotle and Martha Nussbaum, reveals a profound vulnerability that situates love somewhere between passivity and activity. Agata Zielinski’s “Empathy At the Limits of Resemblance” examines two poignant and meaningful limit situations, namely, patients suffering with Alzheimer’s disease and dying persons in the last stages of life. Empathy requires that one be able to compare oneself with another. The similarity between individuals is vital. In the limit situations mentioned above, the resemblance between the living and healthy contrasts significantly with that of the sick and dying. Yet, though the likeness between ego and alter ego is severely compromised in these limit situations, what they make us realise is the existence of our shared fragility, vulnerability, and humanity (170–71), a humanity that is primordial and that forms part of a “primordial history.” Raphaël Gély’s essay, “The Theatricality of the Body and Alterity: Reflections on Merleau-Ponty,” explores the idea of the lived body as an image that manifests its sense or meaning not only to others but also to oneself. Drawing from Merleau-Ponty’s work on the lived body, the author maintains that in becoming an image, the body plays and shows itself as a kind of performance or spectacle. The body, in this sense, can be understood as having its own theatricality. The author explores the relations between patient and care-taker in order to prove his understanding of the force of the image and theatricality of the lived body.

Chapter Eight is the last essay in Part Two. Élodie Boublil’s “Reliefs of Vulnerability and the Revelation of Freedom” investigates the Merleau-Ponty’s description of the other as “relief” in his The Visible and the Invisible. She argues that the image of relief reveals three things about the vulnerability of the subject (201–3): the subject is existentially vulnerable to the world; the subject has his or her own vulnerability insofar as s/he can be hurt, injured, or wounded by others and the self; the subject’s manner of being and resentment also reveal the vulnerability and precarity of the subject vis-à-vis others. Boublil’s essay resonates well with Barbaras’ essay and, taken together, the two articles give us a rich phenomenological discussion of the different layers or aspects of vulnerability as a phenomenon in its own right. The author also notes, because vulnerability is intimately linked to the life of a subject, that vulnerability must also be set within a framework of freedom: subjects in their interpersonal relations with one another can choose to violate the vulnerability of another, and one can choose to respond to this injury and one’s own vulnerability in potentially meaningful ways, always motivated by one’s own personal freedom. The discussion of the relations between freedom and vulnerability astutely shows the passive and active layers of the phenomenon of vulnerability within its interpersonal framework.

Part Four of the volume, “Ethic(s) of Vulnerability: Phenomenological Perspectives,” focuses on ethics and the social and political. Paula Lorelle’s essay “The Possibility and Impossibility of Empathy: The Question of Alterity in volumes 13, 24, and 15 of the Husserliana Volumes on Intersubjectivity” investigates the rich volumes of Husserl’s unpublished writings on intersubjectivity, which inspired thinkers like Merleau-Ponty and Edith Stein. Lorelle focuses on the primacy of the capacity for sensation (Empfindbarkeit) and sensation (or sense impressions) (Empfindnisse). Drawing on Merleau-Ponty, she sees this primary sensation as announcing the French phenomenologist’s idea of flesh, understood as a primary intercorporeality. Intercorporeality makes empathy possible. And though this shared capacity for sensation allows one to receive the other as primordially joined to the ego, at the same time, it also reveals that the other is not reducible to my sensation or my ego, for the other is primordially given as a distinct other. The impossibilty of receiving the flesh of the other, of complete identification of ego and alter ego, as maintained in the Cartesian Meditations, means that empathy cannot fully present the other. The sphere of ownness of the other can never be fully absorbed by the ego: it is irreducible. (259) The impossibility of empathy, its limit or inability to capture the other, reveals a vulnerability in the very capacity of empathy itself to complete what it intends to do.

“Empathy and Sensuality: Sensual Intersubjectivity, With and Against Michel Henry” is Grégori Jean’s contribution to the volume. Jean notes that Henry never discusses empathy in his vast corpus, which may leave the impression that Henry never was concerned with the question of intersubjectivity, thereby affirming the traditional charge of monism that has plagued Henry’s reception in broader phenomenological circles. But Jean shows that Henry approaches the question of intersubjectivity in different ways, challenging the received notion of empathy. The author focuses on the force of sensory impressions and affectivity in Henry. Jean points out that prior to any act of empathy, the other is already received sensually and passively through the body. The other also affects me emotionally, especially in desire, prior to my phenomenological gaze making full sense of the desire itself. The other is already manifest in the passive life of affectivity, be it sensual or emotional/psychic. Délia Popa’s “The Imaginary of Social Vulnerability: From Guilt to Responsibility” shows how social imaginaries establish regimes of inclusion and exclusion; they render vulnerable those who are excluded by an established social imaginary. (301) Popa argues that we become responsible for those excluded by our dominant social imaginaries: we become responsible for the vulnerable of our social imaginaries. The last essay of the volume, François David Sebbah’s “Levinas: A Pitiless Ethics,” engages the work of Paul Audi and Emmanuel Levinas. Sebbah refutes Audi’s claim that Levinasian ethics is without compassion and is, therefore, pitiless. He shows that in Levinas’ thought, one finds room for ethical compassion, which is both demanding and difficult, for one must always have the good of the other first and foremost on one’s mind. (326–27) Sebbah reminds us that in our ruthless and often superficially compassionate world, a Levinasian ethics calls us to a profound responsibility for the other.

Taken together, the contributions of Boublil’s volume present varied and novel aspects of empathy and vulnerability. The book not only fulfills its promise to explore the relation between empathy and vulnerability, but it also brings to the fore important questions and insights about them, especially concerning ethics, and social and political philosophy, for example, the question of personal responsibility. There is a refreshing and complex use of the phenomenological tradition, from Husserl and Stein to Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Henry. The volume seamlessly makes use of these riches. From a phenomenological perspective, the work shows both the passive and active structures of empathy as well as how it both liberates and sometimes restricts persons. In the end, Boublil’s book makes a genuine contribution to the phenomenological understanding of vulnerability and empathy while uncovering a vast array of scholarly sources that inform our understanding of them.