Rethinking…* what it Means to “Know Thyself” ~ Cognitive Empathy as the Great Art Form of the Age of Outrospection

“I think we need to think about bringing empathy into our every day lives in a very sort of habitual way. Socrates said that the way we live a wise and good life was to know thyself. And we’ve generally thought of that as being about being self-reflective, looking in at ourselves. It’s been about introspection. But I think, in the 21st century, we need to recognize that to know thyself is something that can also be achieved by stepping outside yourself, by discovering other people’s lives. And I think empathy is the way to revolutionize our own philosophies of life, to become more outrospective and to create the revolution of human relationships that I think we so desperately need.”

In this RSA Animate video, philosopher Roman Krznaric urges us to rethink…* our definition of “knowing thyself” by shifting our frame of reference from the 20th century notion of introspection to one of outrospection: “the idea of discovering who you are and what do to with your life by stepping outside yourself, discovering the lives of other people, other civilizations.” Krznaric identifies cognitive empathy–perspective taking, which is about understanding somebody else’s worldview, their beliefs, their fears, the experiences that shape how they look at the world and how they look at themselves–as the great art form of outrospection and the catalyst for revolutions of human relationships. The video walks you through the concept of outrospection while providing ideas on how to develop your own empathic capacity (hint: nurture your curiosity!) and how to live one’s life as a great empathic adventurer. The video is a mere ten minutes long and worth every second, but in case you don’t have time to view it just yet, I’ve transcribed my favorite quotes from it, which should give you a good general idea of what outrsopection is and how it can help us rethink…* and enhace our lives and relationships.

 theRSAorg on YouTube, published December 3, 2012

Instead of the age of introspection, we need to shift to the age of outrospection. And by outrospection I mean the idea of discovering who you are and what do to with your life by stepping outside yourself, discovering the lives of other people, other civilizations. And the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection is empathy.

[…] empathy can be part of the art of living; a philosophy of life. Empathy isn’t just something that expands your moral universe, empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, can create the human bonds that make life worth living. But more than that, empathy is also about social change, radical social change.

A lot of people think of empathy as a sort of nice, soft, fluffy concept. I think it’s anything but that. I think it’s actually quite dangerous because empathy can create revolution. Not one of those old-fashioned revolutions of new states, policy, governments, laws, but something much more viral and dangerous, which is a revolution of human relationships.

Cognitive empathy, which is about perspective taking, about stepping into somebody else’s world—almost like an actor looking through the eyes of their character. It’s about understanding somebody else’s worldview, their beliefs, their fears, the experiences that shape how they look at the world and how they look at themselves.

We make assumptions about people; we have prejudices about people, which block us from seeing their uniqueness, their individuality. We use labels and highly empathic people get beyond that, or get beyond those labels, by nurturing their curiosity about others.

Highly empathic people tend to be very sensitive listeners; they’re very good at understanding what somebody else’s need are. They tend to also be people who, in conversation, share parts of their own lives, make conversations two-way dialogues, make themselves vulnerable.

Now, we normally think of empathy as something that happens between individuals. But I also believe it can be a collective force, it can happen on a mass scale. When I think of history, I think not of the rise and fall of civilizations and religions or political systems; I think of the rise and fall of empathy: moments of mass empathic flowering and also, of course, of empathic collapse.

I think we need new social institutions, we need, for example, empathy museums—a place, which is not about dusty exhibits, not like and old Victorian museum, but an experiential and conversational public space where you might walk in and in the first room there is a human library, where you can borrow people for conversations. You walk into the next room and there are twenty sewing machines and there are former Vietnamese sweatshop workers there who will teach you how to make a T-shirt, like the one you’re probably wearing, under sweatshop labor conditions and you’ll be paid five pence at the end of it so you understand the labor behind the label. You may well go into the café and scan in your food and discover the working conditions of those who picked the coffee beans in the drink that you’re drinking. You may see a video of them talking about their lives, trying to make a connection across time and space into realms that you don’t know about.

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