Sigrid Weigel Former Senior Fellow

Sigrid Weigel
April - September 2012

Research Project

My project examines fellow feeling (Mitgefühl) as one of the basic human traits and prerequisites for inter-subjective relations and, hence, for the constitution of any community. Over the last decade, this human trait has re-achieved a prominent place both in scholarship and in society in general, although it appears in the guise of different concepts. On the one hand, empathy has become a key term in neurosciences, psychology and evolutionary anthropology after the discovery of the ‘mirror neurons’. On the other hand, cultural debates question whether emotional responses induced by pictures of victims and sufferings may still be evaluated as ‘true’ compassion or just as a self-referential emotion. Even in the humanities, this phenomenon does not form a uni ed body but is based on diverse and contradicting conceptualisations (e.g. as an affect, a virtue, a capacity, an expression of emotion, pathosformula et al.). At the same time, the increasing visibility of rituals of public mourning and expressions of compassion in the streets of European cities present a reappearance of the Christian iconography of lamentation, this time incarnated in ordinary people. The project aims to situate empathy, an apparently tradition-less concept, within the broader horizon and the long history of related concepts such as sympathy, compassion, pity, and commiseration. From an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective, the project reconstructs the semantics and cultural meanings of the different concepts within their specific cultural and historical contexts from antiquity to the present. This includes textual and visual manifestations in the realms of religious, philosophical, and aesthetic knowledge as well as visual and performing arts, cultural practises and rituals. One of the central questions concerns the modes in which something as ephemeral as a shared emotion can function as a mediator for shaping a social body or community, or, to evoke a cultural icon: How can uids like tears be transformed into a corpus communis, - as in the medieval scenario of the Lamentation of Mary?