16. april 2015

Not only paying lip service to interdisciplinarity

By Pernille Munch Toldam


The faculty’s Center for Subjectivity Research is to phenomenologists what FC Barcelona is to most football players: the team you wish to play for. Humanist has talked to Thomas Szanto, who is Postdoc at the center, about an upcoming conference on empathy, about interdisciplinarity and about what it’s like to work at a center that is world-famous within its field.

You're organizing a conference on empathy. Can you tell us more about it?

- The conference is part of a research project on “Empathy and Interper­sonal Understanding” which deals with the issue of how to conceptualize empathy. The best way to think of empathy is to see it as our primary access to the mental, psychological and emotional life of others, or, to what others think, feel and want. Empathy should be properly distinguished from related but different phenomena, such as feeling sorrow for or with someone. Martin Luther King once said, “Pity is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is feeling sorry with someone”, and though empathy is not necessarily a feeling or a feeling with, or an act of sympathy, I think he is on the right track in pointing out these differences.

- The specific question that our conference aims to tackle concerns the socio-cultural and socio-psychological background of empathy as well as empathy’s role in joint action and collaboration: Does empathy enable sharing emotions? For example, do I have to first empathically grasp your grieving in order to partake in it? And more importantly maybe: Are we really worse in grasping not only the meaning but even the quality of an emotion of those with whom we either do not socio-culturally identify with, or who do not belong to the same ethnic or social group as ourselves? Social neuroscientists have recently suggested that this is indeed the case, but it is very little understood why this is so.

What do you expect to gain from the conference?

- Clearly, understanding the nature and especially the socio-cultural bia­ses and modulation in empathizing has not only direct impact concerning our social relations, but also for societal issues at large. Think for example of philanthropy: It is not at all clear why and how the mentioned biases have effects on our pro-social behavior. Consider that we seem more prone to charity if we can identify with the emotional back­ground and situation of the beneficiaries, but this is certainly not always so and it is not clear why this is the case.

- Moreover, a clear understanding of how and why empathy is biased along socio-cultural, or in-group/out-group distinctions, ‘us’ against ‘them’, is crucial for conflict-resolution but also educational purposes. For example, we want to know whether early exposure to different ways of expressing emotions will enhance our empathic abilities, or whether the right way to go would be rather to make differences less salient. This is not something psychologists or neuroscientists will be able to decide alone, we also need the right normative and conceptual framework for the analysis of such phenomena, and this is where philo­sophers enter the picture.

What do you otherwise do at Center for Subjectivity Research (CFS)?

- I’m a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CFS, and – just as my colleagues, including, notably, five PhD students – engaged in very different activi­ties that a typical human science researcher today has to master: that is, we are not only reading the latest journal articles and books in philoso­phy of mind, psychology and the cognitive sciences and writing articles, editing journal special issues and books on selected topics; we also organize and participate in the numerous workshops and larger conferences hosted by the CFS, such as the conference on empathy, and also at number of international conferences abroad. Moreover, I’m also involved in refereeing papers for peer-review journals, or writing third-party funded research applications. I am also supervising two MA the­ses, and in the next term, I am going to teach an MA course, with the Director of CFS, Professor Dan Zahavi, within CFS’s international MA programme in “Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind”.

- What is quite distinctive about doing research at CFS is the way we collaborate on a daily basis. For example, at the moment I am co-authoring three papers with three different colleagues. Ideas are exchanged on a daily basis between colleagues here, be it in workshops, reading groups, research seminars, even at the regular CFS Film Club, or, not to mention least, at the lunch that we all enjoy together every day, a certainly non-negligible asset in the daily business of doing and discussing research – and I’m really not saying this ironically!

How do you feel about working at CFS?

- Somewhat curiously indeed I believe that not everybody at KU Humanities is aware of having such a world-famous center here as arguably the CFS is. CFS is not only paying lip service to interdisciplinarity, we actually practice it in our daily research. It is a genuinely multi-disciplinary research center, investigating the complex interrelation between subjectivity, selfhood, self-consciousness, mental self-disorders such as schizophrenia and autism and the social relation between self and others. In short, we investigate the interrelation between ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’. What is really unique about CFS is not only that it integrates research and researchers, including dozens of visiting researchers from all over the world, from philosophy, the social sciences and also cutting-edge natural sciences; moreover, it is also a place where there is a deep understanding of the importance that the historical roots and influences of our key ideas have. There are very few places to do philosophy, I dare say worldwide, that engage in such a genuinely pluralistic approach.

- What is certainly also distinctive about the center is the way MA and PhD students are trained and mentored here. I come from a rather dif­ferent academic background in which PhD supervision is often seen by professors as a duty, or even an imposition, rather than as a unique opportunity to attract and work together with young scholars who are probably at their most dynamic phase in their career, full of eagerness and ambition to participate in scientific life. At CFS, the young scientists are taken just as seriously as the most senior researchers, and we also have equal opportunities to present our work at conferences and work­shops.  Moreover, CFS organizes one of the largest international sum­mer schools in philosophy, specifically aimed at MA and PhD students, with some 100 students visiting the Center each year.

Why did you want to work at CFS? And how long are you staying in Denmark?

- I will stay three more years in Denmark, and, hopefully, there will be some opportunity to stay even longer, as I’m very happy with having moved here. I have already moved around quite a bit in Europe: I was born in Budapest, Hungary, I moved with my family then to Vienna, Austria, where I attended school, studied and did my PhD, I spent also a wonderful Erasmus-year in Paris, and, recently, a year as a Postdoc in Dublin. But I always wanted to experience both the famous Scandinavian quality of life and the well-known research done here. UCPH has a very good reputation from where I come from, and now that I’m working here, I can see why. Ultimately, the reason to come to Copenhagen, however, was the position I was offered at the CFS, a place I wanted to come ever since the beginning of my PhD ten years ago. Why? Simply because it’s a really unique place for doing the most exciting philosophical research in direct exchange with the empirical sciences and in a pluralistic spirit. So I didn’t have to think long when I was offered the opportunity to work in the CFS team.

- I’ve recently received the Marie Curie Individual European Fellowship, which is all the more fortunate as it is not only one of the most compe­titive fellowships for Postdocs; it affords me also with a very good fra­mework for research, 2-years of full funding, including funding for international mobility, conference organization, and other research network activities.