Embodied imagination: why we can’t just walk in someone else’s shoes

 Adriana Clavel-Vázquez is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. Her research is located at the intersection of aesthetics, the philosophy of mind, and ethics.

Adriana Clavel-Vázquez is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. Her research is located at the intersection of aesthetics, the philosophy of mind, and ethics.

A post by Adriana Clavel-Vázquez and María Jimena Clavel Vázquez.

It is commonplace to hear that meaningfully understanding each other requires us to walk in each other's shoes. But what does this mean? Presumably, when asking someone to walk in our shoes, we are asking her to inhabit our perspective: not simply to imagine the sort of circumstances I'm facing, but to imagine what it is like for me to face the sort of circumstances I'm facing. We can say that engaging with perspectives different from our own involves an exercise of imagination that goes beyond imagining that something is the case. Imaginatively engaging with different perspectives involves vividly imagining what it is like to inhabit a different perspective, it involves summoning the relevant affective responses to the circumstances others encounter. And this exercise of imagination is not trivial: it seems to be involved in empathizing with others, in moral imagination, and in our engagement with fiction.

 María Jimena Clavel Vázquez is a PhD candidate at the St Andrews/Stirling Philosophy Graduate Programme. She works on Philosophy of Mind, Phenomenology, and Philosophy of Cognitive Science. She is particularly interested in 4EA approaches to cognition.

María Jimena Clavel Vázquez is a PhD candidate at the St Andrews/Stirling Philosophy Graduate Programme. She works on Philosophy of Mind, Phenomenology, and Philosophy of Cognitive Science. She is particularly interested in 4EA approaches to cognition.

But to what extent is it possible to imaginatively inhabit a perspective different from our own? We think that these imaginative projects are necessarily embodied exercises of imagination. And as such, we think that our capacity to imaginatively inhabit different perspectives faces significant constraints.

We can identify at least two different ways in which we can imaginatively engage with someone else’s point of view. First, we have what Peter Goldie calls “in-her-shoes-imagining”: we can imagine ourselves facing and responding to circumstances different from our own. Second, we have what Goldie calls “empathetic imagining”: we can imagine ourselves being someone other who inhabits a perspective different from our own. In this second mode of engagement, we imagine ourselves being others who think, feel and respond differently, to circumstances that might be different from our own.

If we are really interested in walking someone else’s shoes, the first mode of imaginative engagement is problematic. If I simply imagine myself facing and responding to circumstances different from my own, it seems that I will be unable to truly inhabit and understand someone else’s perspective. The way in which I face and respond to these different circumstances will depend on my own beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. And how can I come to understand someone else’s point of view if I don’t momentarily renounce my own?[i]

If our aim is to meaningfully engage with someone else's perspective, it seems like the solution would be to engage in the second type of imaginative exercise: I should imagine not simply that I walk in someone else’s shoes, but that I am someone other walking in shoes different from my own. This would involve responding to the different set of circumstances as if we were a different subjectivity, with different thoughts, desires, and feelings.

However, we think that empathetic imagining cannot solve the problems posed by "in-her-shoes-imagining" because imagining ourselves being someone other is significantly constrained by our own embodiment. This means that we cannot really abandon our perspective to become fully immersed in an imaginative project that would allow us to imagine ourselves being someone other with the relevant affective responses. Our capacity for empathetic imagining is significantly constrained because this exercise of imagination is an embodied exercise of imagination.

There are two senses of embodiment from which these constraints emerge. On the one hand, imaginatively engaging with different perspectives is an embodied exercise because it is situated; on the other, it is embodied because this situation is, in part, embedded in affective bodily states.

This exercise of imagination is embodied in the first sense because it requires us to inhabit a point of view that is shaped by a specific social, historical and political context. The situated character of embodiment corresponds to a phenomenological observation that refers to the lack of neutrality of our engagement with the world which results from our social, historical, and political situation, and the social categories we inhabit (gender, class, race, etc.). This situation impacts how we interpret and interact with the world and with others. It shapes, in an important sense, what we expect from the world and how we respond to it.

One may worry that this notion of embodiment corresponds simply to a description of our background. However, as Linda Martin Alcoff notices, this situation is manifested in our body: in our gestures, mannerisms, posture, and practical dispositions.[ii] And, importantly, in our affective dispositions as well. If our situation shapes how we interpret and respond to the world, we cannot simply abandon our point of view to adopt a different one. Inhabiting a perspective involves being attuned to the world in a particular way, such that our situation colours our experiences.[iii]

However, this first sense of embodiment is not enough to account for the limitations of imaginatively engaging with different perspectives. We might still question why we cannot simply attune ourselves to a different situation. We think that this is due, in part, to our situation being embedded in specific affective dispositions. And this means that this exercise of imagination is embodied in a second sense: affective states are embodied.

Following Prinz (2004), we think that affective states are mental states that register bodily changes that represent organism-environment relations with respect to well-being, to the specific needs and interests of the organism. Affective states are embodied because they register bodily changes that prepare us to respond to our particular relationship with our situation.

However, drawing on current predictive approaches (e.g. Barret 2017; Miller & Clark 2018), we want to emphasize that these affective states are predictions that, based on previous knowledge and experience, are advanced to cope with our environment. Affective states are embodied not only because they register bodily changes that represent current organism-environment relations, but because these representations form predictions that shape our future interactions.

It is important to note that these two senses of embodiment are not two different things. What we suggest is that the second sense of embodiment can in part explain the lack of neutrality of situated embodiment: it is our very own personal history of interactions in a specific context that ultimately determines how we cope with our circumstances.

Why is this important? Because exercises of imagination that involve inhabiting perspectives different from our own would require us to be affectively attuned to a situation that might be, in an important sense, foreign for us. Our previous interactions have pre-tuned us to respond to future interactions. This imaginative exercise would require us to “disattune” ourselves to harmonize with a new situation. And this means that in a way, I cannot simply imagine myself inhabiting a different perspective by summoning the relevant affective responses, because the way I respond is determined by my history of interactions. Insofar as this exercise of imagination is embodied, our capacity for empathetic imagining is significantly constrained. If this is so, we might need to find another way to walk in someone else’s shoes.


[i] For example, Mackenzie and Scully (2007) argue that in-her-shoes imagining is problematic when understanding disability because it merely involves projecting my own perspective onto a different set of circumstances.

[ii] To formulate this, Alcoff (2000) draws on the tradition of feminist phenomenology.

[iii] For example, this is the basis of Ngo’s (2017) criticism of what she calls political tourism.


References

Alcoff, Linda Martin (2000). Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barret, Lisa Feldman (2017). “The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization.” In Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(1), pp. 1 – 23.

Goldie, Peter (2000). The Emotions. A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackenzie, Catriona and Scully, Jackie Leach (2007). “Moral Imagination, Disability and Embodiment.” In Journal of Applied Philosophy, 24(4), pp. 335 – 351.

Miller, Mark & Clark, Andy (2018). “Happily entangled: prediction, emotion, and the embodied mind.” In Synthese, 195, p. 2559 – 2575.

Ngo, Helen (2017). “Simulating the Lived Experience of Racism and Islamophobia: On ‘Embodied Empathy’ and Political Tourism.” In Australian Feminist Law Journal, 43(1), pp. 107 – 123.

Prinz, Jesse J. (2004). Gut Reactions. A Perceptual Theory of Emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.