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Empathy and affect: what can empathied bodies do?


While there has been much interest in the apparent benefits of empathy in improving outcomes of medical care, there is continuing concern over the philosophical nature of empathy. We suggest that part of the difficulty in coming to terms with empathy is due to the modernist dichotomies that have structured Western medical discourse, such that doctor and patient, knower and known, cognitive and emotional, subject and object are situated in oppositional terms, with the result that such accounts cannot coherently encompass an emotional doctor, or a patient as knower, or empathy as other than a possession or a trait. This paper explores what, by contrast, a radical critique of the Cartesian world view, in the form of a Deleuzean theoretical framework, would open up in new perspectives on empathy. We extend the framework of emotional geography to ask what happens when people are affected by empathy. We suggest that doctors and patients might be more productively understood as embodied subjects that are configured in their capacities by how they are affected by singular ‘events’ of empathy. We sketch out how the Deleuzean framework would make sense of these contentions and identify some possible implications for medical education and practice.

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