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A philosophical interlude

The paradox of empathy was going to be the title of yesterday’s post “the empathy trap”. Thankfully however before publishing Google revealed the true definition of a paradox.

Paradox:  “A statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true (or wrong at the same time)”.

For example: “Nobody goes to that restaurant because it is too crowded.”


Jane marries John and they take their honeymoon on the beautiful island of St Vincent. While they are sunbathing together a coconut drops from a great height killing John. Jane flies home early in floods of tears and is inconsolable.

Her close friend Jess, who is also widowed, tries to comfort her and tells her she knows how she feels. The presumption leaves Jane incandescent with rage. How could she know how she feels, what she is thinking? No one can no how anyone else feels.

Here’s the clever bit: If Jane claims that Jess cannot know how she feels, she is making an assertion about how she feels!

This story was adapted from an article by Ramsey McNabb in Philosophy Now. He adds that according to logical purists this is not quite a genuine paradox. But it still creates a serious question: How is empathy possible when every person’s experience is so unique?


McNabb also takes an extract from Chang Zu composed 4th-2nd century BC that deals with the same concept.

Chuang-Tzu and Hui Shih were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river. “Out swim the minnows, so free and easy,” said Chuang-tzu. “That’s how fish are happy.”
“You are not a fish. Whence do you know that the fish are happy?”
“You aren’t me, whence do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?”
“We’ll grant that not being you I don’t know about you. You’ll grant that you are not a fish, and that completes the case that you don’t know the fish are happy.”
“Let’s go back to where we started. When you said, ’Whence do you know that the fish are happy?’, you asked me the question already knowing that I knew. I knew from up above the Hao.”

(Chuang-tzu, chapter 17, translated by A.C.Graham)

Featured image Paradox Box Face accredited to Imagenerator

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