Bakhtin and Scheler: Toward a Theory of Active Empathy

Alina Wyman, University of Chicago

The notion of “vzhivanie” (literally “living into” another self), developed by Bakhtin in “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” and “Toward a Philosophy of the Act,” a profoundly active approach to empathy that highlights the productive outcome of penetrating another’s psyche without losing the value-producing “surplus” yielded by the external perspective, bears striking resemblance to Max Scheler’s concept of active compassion formulated in The Nature of Sympathy. As an alternative to passive, duplicating knowledge resulting from a merging with another consciousness, recommended by many of their philosophical contemporaries, the two thinkers propose a creative understanding of one’s fellow man, grounded in the empathizer’s sovereignty as an active subject, whose individuality is not dissolved in the process of empathizing. The remarkable intellectual and spiritual affinity between the two philosophers, which exceeds the bounds of simple influence, makes for a fruitful side-by-side analysis of the related concepts of empathy.

Both philosophers reacted to the Nietzschean critique of empathy as a secondary, re-active feeling, on the one hand, and to the early twentieth century theories of passive empathy, on the other. Both took an avid interest in religious themes and had modeled their depiction of the ideal inter-personal relationship on the notion of Christian love, agape. Both vehemently rejected depersonalizing theories of cognition: Scheler criticized formal ethics in Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values and, in Ressentiment, took issue with contemporary altruism as a depersonalizing love that replaces the “individual ineffable” with a generalized social image; Bakthin consistently opposed the formal method in literary scholarship. These shared philosophical concerns and their common intellectual environment may account for the points of contiguity that cannot be explained by direct influence.

The connection between Scheler and Bakhtin has not yet been adequately explored. The two major articles addressing the issue in some detail, Vladimir Nikiforov’s “First Philosophy as Philosophy of Individual Postupok” (2001), illuminating Bakhtin’s selection of the “Act” and not the “Person,” as was Scheler’s choice, as the foundation of his philosophy, and Brian Poole’s “From Phenomenology to Dialogue: Max Scheler’s Phenomenological Tradition and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Development” (2001), documenting Bakhtin’s familiarity with Scheler’s work on sympathy, shed some light on the intriguing dialogue between the two thinkers, but leave much unsaid about the complex relationship between the philosophers’ concepts of empathy. Now, that it has been documented, Bakhtin’s use of Scheler needs to be explored in more detail. I will argue against Poole’s interpretation of Bakhtin’s reception of Scheler as passive and explore the differences as well as similarities in their two distinctive brands of personalism on the basis of “Author and Hero,” “Toward a Philosophy of the Act,” The Nature of Sympathy and On the Eternal in Man. Analysis will center on the notion of “ontological gulf” between loving individuals, the role of active empathy in the revelation of value and the significance of incarnation as the original “dialogical” act, which serves as a model of loving understanding in both theories.