The Dichotomy of Sight vs Touch: The Harm of the Primacy of Sight for Empathy

By Betty Stoneman


The historical dichotomy of “man versus woman” assigns reason, the mind, human beings and sight to the category of “man” and assigns emotion, the body, non-human animals and touch to the category of “woman.” The category of “man” is perceived as irreconcilably opposed to the category of “woman.” In this paper I examine how this ideological dichotomy has shaped western thought by denigrating to the point of subjugation or elimination all that is considered “woman,” which ultimately includes embodied touch. I argue there is strong evidence to suggest that embodied touch is important for empathy. I argue that if embodied touch is important for empathy, then the ideological primacy of sight over touch is detrimental for fostering empathy between humans as well as between humans and non-human animals.


A substantial amount of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship challenges the historical dichotomy of “man versus woman”(1). Within the “man versus woman” dichotomy, “man” has been positively associated with reason, the mind and humans. Conversely and irreparably opposed to “man,” “woman” has been negatively associated with emotion, the body and the non-human animal. In this paper, I offer a synopsis and synthesis of several feminist and phenomenological perspectives regarding sight and touch within the context of the “man versus woman” dichotomy in order to explore the consequences of such an ideology for empathy.

I argue that if embodied touch is important for empathy, then the ideological primacy of sight over touch is detrimental for fostering empathy for three interrelated reasons: First, sight has been ideologically associated with the category of man and touch has been ideologically associated with the category of woman. The ideological primacy of sight precipitates the denigration to the point of subjugation, or elimination, of touch and emotion. Second, sight is disembodying and touch is embodying. While sight helps distinguish oneself from others, which is necessary for empathy, the primacy of sight precipitates objectification and what I call ‘debeingization,’ both of which are detrimental for empathy. Third, when sight is present, empathy incorporates sight, touch, reason, and emotion into the empathetic process. I argue there is strong evidence to suggest that embodied touch is important for empathy. I take “empathy” to mean an individual having an emotional or physical experience of their own, yet this experience is linked to witnessing a similar state in another (2).

My examination traces the equation of man with reason, the mind and the human, and of woman with emotion, the body and the non-human animal. I begin with how sight has been ideologically associated with the category of man while touch has been ideologically associated with the category of woman since the time of Ancient Greece.  I draw upon feminist research to examine how sight has been given ideological primacy over touch in correlation with the primacy of the category of “man” over the category of “woman.” I then examine how the phenomenology of sight serves to abstract the body from lived experiences and creates clear and distinct boundaries between self and other, which allows us to conceive of ourselves as individuals. Conversely, touch serves to blur the boundaries between the self, the world and the other. Touch allows us to fully experience our embodiment and, thus, enables us to better relate our embodied lived experiences to those of others. Next, I examine how the primacy of sight over touch precipitates the objectification and ‘debeingization’ of bodies, and how the objectification and ‘debeingization’ of bodies is detrimental for fostering empathy. For this paper I will use my own term ‘debeingization’ instead of ‘dehumanization’ in order to include the embodied existences of non-human animal beings while still encapsulating the lack of attribution of thought to a conscious being that is associated with the term ‘dehumanization.’ Finally, I utilize psychological and neuroscientific work to examine how sight and touch are integrated into the empathetic process when both are present. Therefore, by giving sight primacy over touch in our interactions with the world, we are harming our ability to empathize, both with each other and with non-human animals.

Man Vs Woman Dichotomies: Sight and Touch in Ancient Greece

To begin our examination of the first reason why the primacy of sight is detrimental for empathy, we need to go back to Ancient Greece. In many of Plato’s most widely discussed writings, such as Phaedo, woman is associated with emotion and man is associated with reason (2009). Moreover, reason ought to be strived for so that the soul will not cling to the bodily, material, world (ibid.). Reason provides objective truth of the divine, whereas the body only provides subjective illusions (ibid.). In Symposium, the lover must shed the pollution and mortality of the body in order to achieve immortal knowledge, and to do so the lover must shed bodily relationships with women in favor of intellectual relationships with men (Plato, 2013). Thus, woman is associated with ignorance, the body, and mortality (3).

Plato asserts in Timaeus:  “Sight is the source of the greatest benefits to us” because sight initiates and makes possible knowledge that moves us closer to the divine (Synnott 1992, 620). It is with the “natural truth of reason” we become divine-like and move away from the “vagaries” of our bodies (ibid.). In Republic, Plato explains that to see clearly requires more than just vision and the visible, but the light from the sun which “causes our sight to see in the best way” and sight is the most “sun-like of our senses” (1992, 180-81). Plato’s Allegory of the Cave traces the philosopher’s path from blindness and shadows in a cave to sight and knowledge of the forms in the sun outside (ibid., 186-89). Plato metaphorically links sight with reason and affords sight a privileged place in initiating reason, though he also advocates one must move beyond the visual realm to achieve true insight. Following the opposition Plato establishes in Symposium, if man is of knowledge and the divine, and sight is of knowledge and the divine, then man is of sight and sight is of man, at the very least metaphorically.

Aristotle’s Politics (2009) makes it clear that woman is inferior to man and thus must be ruled by man because woman essentially lacks the highest form of reason that is required for knowledge. In Metaphysics, Aristotle (2009) asserts: “All men by nature desire to know.” Sight is loved more than the other senses because it “makes us know and brings to light many differences between things” (ibid.; Synnott 1992, 620). As with Plato, Aristotle equates sight with knowledge and both sight and knowledge with man.

Feminist Perspectives on Man Vs Woman Dichotomies: The Elimination of Touch

In the previous section, I examined how Plato and Aristotle equated man with reason, the mind, the divine and immortality, and how they linked all of this to sight. I now examine how such an ideology has been carried over into the subjugation and elimination of all that is considered ‘woman,’ which ultimately includes touch.

Woman has been ideologically associated with non-human animals and vice versa throughout history and across cultures. Elizabeth Spelman (1982, 119-120) argues that Plato associates woman and non-human animals with each other by placing both in the category of members who are ruled by the appetitive part of the soul, the part most associated with the body. Thomas Taylor (Singer 1986, 149) famously associated women with non-human animals in response to Mary Wollstonecraft (ibid.; Wollstonecraft 1982) by arguing that if women were to be given rights then animals would have to be given rights, implying both are absurd because women and non-human animals are unable to reason. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1969, 32-36) demonstrates how in several cultures throughout history women have been equated with food, specifically with meat. Both women and meat are seen as scarce and valuable commodities (ibid.). Thus, women and meat were subject to collective intervention, interchangeably traded for one another and distributed as commodities (ibid.). Sigmund Freud (1995, 263-64) asserts a child’s first introduction to pleasure is through the mother in that the child experiences pleasure in breastfeeding. The mother is the object of food for the child (ibid.). Carol J. Adams (2013, 55-58) describes how traditionally meat eating in western culture has been associated with masculinity, virility, strength, and intelligence, while women have been primarily associated with eating breads, pastries and vegetables. At the core of Adams’ argument is the idea that men eat meat, and women are meat.

There is an interesting ideological link between on the one hand the equation of woman with non-human animals, food and sex, and on the other hand the objectification or debeingization of bodies and the denigration of touch. To objectify a being is to perceive or treat the being as an unthinking and unfeeling object, while to ‘debeingize’ a being is to grant the being instincts, physical perception and emotion, but not to grant them the ability to think (4). The ideological link begins in Catharine MacKinnon’s (2004) argument that women’s oppression has been achieved partly due to identifying woman’s sexuality with her body and equating her body with nature, specifically animality. MacKinnon (ibid., 266) points out how “[a]nimality is attached to women’s sexuality; the most common animal insults for women are sexual insults,” insults which are “always drawing on the assumption that animals are lower than humans.”

The common objectification of woman and non-human animal is also inferred from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. De Beauvoir (1989, 143) argues that for man, woman is nature, and “[m]an expects something other than the assuagement of instinctive cravings from the possession of a woman: she is the privileged object through which he subdues nature.” Woman represents nature, including non-human animals, and all that is nature must be subdued by man. De Beauvoir (ibid.) writes of the opposition between “sex vs. brain, the expression of man’s duality,” reminiscent of Plato’s opposition between the body and the mind. De Beauvoir (ibid., 156) states, man, “As subject, he poses the world, and remaining outside this posed universe, he makes himself ruler of it; if he views himself as flesh, as sex, he is no longer an independent consciousness, a clear, free being: he is involved with the world, he is a limited and perishable object.”

Man subdues non-human animal, woman, and the natural in himself in order to assert his independence from the natural outcome of his existence, namely death. On this point, de Beauvoir and Plato coincide in that both conceive of man as seeking reason, and thus denigrating the body, for the sake of immortality. If we equate non-human animal with woman and food with sex, reminiscent of Lévi-Strauss and Freud, we find that man subdues the non-human animal in order to, as de Beauvoir states, not “view himself as flesh,” as “a limited and perishable object” (ibid.). Man subdues two of the referents for his nature; he subdues woman as an object of sex, and non-human animals as objects of food, in an attempt to assert his independence from nature.

Woman and non-human animal are also equated with danger and inanimate objects. MacKinnon (2004, 263-64) points out there are three interrelated dichotomous value hierarchies that justify inequality due to the perceived “innate inferiority” of the latter part of each: animate versus inanimate, human versus non-human animal and man versus woman. MacKinnon seems to agree with de Beauvoir, and also incorporates non-human animal into the analysis, when she asserts “[b]oth women and animals are seen as needing to be subdued and controlled” because they “are imagined as dangerously powerful” (ibid.). MacKinnon (ibid., 266), again in agreement with de Beauvoir, argues the perceived threat of woman and non-human animal, along with their object status, justifies that they “be kept powerless” through violence if need be.

In a review of feminist theories, Josephine Donovan (1990) utilizes Marilyn French’s work to suggest how a culture based on the primacy of man and rationality has sought to annihilate woman and non-human animals. Donovan (ibid., 369) details a patriarchal ideology that is reminiscent of Plato, where “man is distinct from the animal and superior to it” due to “man’s contact with a higher power/knowledge called god, reason, or control.” Man must “shed all animal residue and realize fully his ‘divine’ nature, the part that seems unlike any part owned by animals – mind, spirit, or control” (ibid.). Donovan (ibid.) further explains how French sees “sadomasochism” in this “cultural impulse to mutilate or kill off the animal/feminine in the self” and in how our culture “has reached the point of wishing to annihilate all that is ‘feminine’ in our world.”

MacKinnon, de Beauvoir, and Donovan all point out that the ideology that justifies the subjugation or elimination of woman and non-human animal also justifies the subjugation or elimination in man of what is perceived to be woman and animal in himself. Subjugation is a form of oppressive control, where the being is subdued and submissive to a higher power, whereas elimination is complete annihilation. If man perceives the need to subjugate or eliminate what is of woman, and touch is of woman, then man perceives the need to subjugate or eliminate touch. Eliminating touch in this sense would be to cognitively disassociate oneself from one’s body, or in other words, to objectify one’s body. Under such an ideology, all that is equated with woman becomes denigrated, objectified, and debeingized; bodies, emotion, and touch become denigrated to the point of subjugation or elimination, because all possess a dangerous and threatening power.

Phenomenology of Sight and Touch: Primacy of Sight and the Denigration of the Body

Now let us examine the second reason why the primacy of sight is detrimental for empathy. In This Sex which is Not One, Luce Irigaray (1985, 24) challenges the primacy afforded to sight by the Ancient Greeks. Irigaray asserts the biological sexual difference between man and woman is that woman is always touching herself whereas man is able to see himself. Irigaray asserts the different morphologies of man and woman’s bodies psychologically shape the way each thinks and linguistically describes their experiences (Lennon 2014). She states that woman’s embodied experience has “been submerged by the logic that has dominated the West since the time of the Greeks” and that “[w]ithin this logic, the predominance of the visual, and of the discrimination and the individualization of form” that is foreign to woman’s embodied experience is valued as ideal (Irigaray 1985, 25). The body viewed through “one of form, of the individual, of the (male) sexual organ, of the proper name, of the proper meaning…supplants, while separating the dividing that contact of at least two (lips) which keeps woman in touch with herself, but without any possibility of distinguishing what is touching from what is being touched” (ibid., 26).

Kathleen Lennon (2014) explains that for Irigaray, “western rationality is marked by principles of identity, non-contradiction, binarism, assuming the possibility of individuating, and distinguishing one thing clearly from another” which represents the phallocentricism of man’s body. Irigaray “suggests an ambiguity of individuation, a fluidity and mobility, a rejection of stable forms” that is more representative of woman’s embodied experiences (ibid.)(5). For Irigaray, the way we conceive of our bodies is not simply psychological, it is also social (ibid.). The social representation of our bodies feeds back onto the psychological imaginary of our embodied experiences and vice versa (ibid.). The social representation and psychological imaginary of woman’s embodied experiences have been deemed inferior to that of man’s embodied experiences. Thus, the experience of touch has been deemed inferior to the experience of sight. Sight categorizes through individuation and distinguishing boundaries; touch makes boundaries less distinguishable. Thus, the psychological and social imaginary that has been given primacy is of a world of distinct, separate, boundaries (6).

While Plato and Aristotle denigrated the embodied experience and favored sight over touch, phenomenologist Matthew Ratcliffe (2008, 319) argues “conceiving of the body solely as a perceptual object is an abstraction […] which extricates the perceiving body from a context of relatedness and misconstrues connectedness as estrangement.” Sight creates boundaries between oneself and the world. Ratcliffe (ibid., 300) asserts, reminiscent of Plato, that “vision offers a view of the world that is seemingly uncorrupted by the body.” Sight appears as disengaged from the body. In this way, “The subject looks out upon a world of objects and views them in a way that is uncorrupted by bodily feeling” (ibid.). Ratcliffe utilizes the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to draw a phenomenal distinction between sight and touch. He states, “a crisp distinction between perception of self and perception of non-self does not characterize tactile experience. In touch, perception of the body and perception of things outside of it are much more closely tied together” (ibid.). He continues, while “a description of world-experience that takes its lead from vision might emphasize the distinction between perception of self and perception of world, a description that takes its lead from touch draws attention to the relatedness between the two” (ibid.). Touch makes the boundaries between the subject and the other less distinguishable, so that who is touching and who is touched become connected, exactly as indicated by Irigaray. Conversely, sight seeks to differentiate into separate, distinct, fragmented parts defined by clear boundaries.

Moreover, Ratcliffe (ibid., 308) asserts “the body, during the course of tactile exploration, is not felt in an object-like way.” When the subject touches or is touched, the body is perceived not as an inanimate object, but as a source of live sensation. One is brought back into the embodied world through touch; one’s body is de-objectified; boundaries between oneself and the world become less distinguishable. To suggest how this occurs, Ratcliffe (ibid., 312-13) offers examples such as a tennis racket, a cane or the clothes one is wearing at a given moment. Each of these examples suggest how, when the subject becomes “habituated to tactile contact,” the object that the subject touches becomes a tactile extension of the subject through which the boundaries between the subject and the object become less distinguishable (ibid., 313).

Ratcliffe draws our attention to the subjectivity of the body through phenomenal touch, but sight and touch are not dichotomously opposed, they are intermingled. Ratcliffe, quoting Merleau-Ponty, points out: “We see textures and the like. Objects, presented visually, incorporate a sense of salient tactile possibilities; ‘any object presented to one sense calls upon itself the concordant operation of all the others’” (ibid., 319). When both sight and touch are present, the two utilize each other so that one can see texture and feel objects in the world.

As Irigaray and Ratcliffe point out, touch brings awareness back to the body and makes boundaries between oneself and what is touched less distinguishable; as such, touch is de-objectifying. However, what about objectifying forms of touch? One question is: Would not some types of touch be detrimental to fostering empathy? Violent touch, for example. But objectifying forms of touch suggest that a breakdown in empathy has already occurred. To understand when or how to touch requires understanding that the other can think and feel. Moreover, it requires understanding that when and how one touches the other impacts upon the other. Objectifying touch suggests that one has lost understanding of the physical and cognitive effects and emotional affects of touch. Thus, engaging with others through an empathy which is guided by touch means knowing when and how not to touch.

Lori Gruen’s (2011) concept of “entangled empathy” complements the idea I am proposing here. For Gruen entangled empathy is a complete process involving “both affect and cognition” (ibid., 228); the empathizer moves from a “pre-cognitive reaction” to the other’s experience, to “reflectively imagin[ing] ourselves in the position of the other”, and then to making “judgment[s] about how the conditions that she finds herself in may contribute to her perceptions or state of mind and impact her interests” (ibid.). The empathizer must cognitively embrace a first person point of view of the experience along with a third person point of view in order to assess the other’s situation from the other’s perspective. The empathizer must be “attentive to both similarities and differences between herself and her situation and that of the fellow creature with whom she is empathizing” (ibid.). This requires that the empathizer “accurately characterize” the other being, by reflecting on the other being’s “perspectives, values, beliefs, and attitudes” instead of narcissistically projecting the empathizer’s own perspectives, values, beliefs, and attitudes onto the other being (ibid.).

Another important question is: Why do objectifying or debeingizing forms of touch occur? I want to argue that objectifying or debeingizing forms of touch occur due to the primacy of sight that allows the toucher to view their own body and the body of the touched as objects, or allows for the dismissal of empathetic consideration to the feeling body because the sensations of the body are conceived as not connected to a thinking mind (7). Regarding the objectification of the other, Adams (2013, 66-67) points out how both women and non-human animals have become objectified through a linguistic process that replaces their subjective phenomenal experiences and existences with absent referents.  Adams (ibid.) asserts that the physical process of turning animals into meat corresponds to the linguistic process of turning non-human animals’ subjective existences into metaphorical absent referents. We disguise meat with terms which hide the fact that we are eating dead non-human animals. Women also become absent referents through sexual violence and pornography (ibid.). Oppression occurs through a literal and metaphorical process of “objectification, fragmentation, and consumption” where the other is objectified, then fragmented into parts to be used, then consumed for use (ibid., 71-73).

Adams suggests how the fragmentation of distinct and individuated parts occurs due to metaphorical language precipitated by visual consumption. Both women and animals are fragmented by being visually and metaphorically reduced to separate parts: legs, rump, breasts, etc. (ibid., 87). Adams and Irigaray agree that oppression occurs due to fragmentation, i.e. individuation, precipitated by sight-based language. At the level of the individual, for Irigaray, fragmentation occurs to the body of man when man identifies himself as a singularity, a unity of fragmented parts, through sight. Woman would not be fragmented if the body of woman is identified as plurality through touch. However, man fragments woman by imposing the singularity of sight upon her body. Incorporating Adams into this thought, the visually precipitated fragmentation of woman and non-human animal into singular parts fits with a phallocentric conception of singularity. The fragmented singularity perceived as the body of man shapes the way man thinks and linguistically describes his social relations (8).

Psychology and Neuroscience of Empathy: Sight and Touch in Embodied Existence

The central question is: If embodiment is important for empathy, then would the primacy of sight be detrimental for empathy? (9). In the previous sections, I examined the ideological primacy of sight and how the primacy of sight precipitates the denigration of touch along with how it precipitates objectification and debeingization. In this section, I will provide further evidence to support the claim that the primacy of sight precipitates objectification and debeingization. I will also provide evidence that supports the claim that removing touch and emotion from the empathetic process is detrimental for that process (10).

Numerous studies by psychologists and neuroscientists indirectly support the claim that objectification and debeingization hinder the ability to relate to the other empathetically. A recent study for example found that people who are perceived as being more bodily are associated with being more emotional and more attuned to physical sensation, and disassociated from being rational and having moral agency (Gray et al. 2011, 1209-11). Conversely, people who are perceived as being more rational are associated with having moral agency and self-control and disassociated from being emotional and attuned to physical sensation (ibid.). The authors suggest that people seem to be psychologically operating under something very much like a Platonic conception of the soul and such a conception may have moral implications (ibid., 1218-20). Moreover, the study argues that individuals perceived as bodily were de-objectified in the sense that they were attributed emotions and the ability to feel pleasure and pain, but they were still not attributed full moral agency, they were dehumanized, due to a perceived lack of rational ability (ibid.). Such evidence lends support to the claim that debeingization occurs due to a dichotomization of the mind, perceived as reason, and the body, perceived as emotion.

In another study (Harris and Fiske 2006, 847-853), areas of the brain associated with “social cognition tasks in which participants form an impression of a person rather than an object,” “reactions involving interpersonal affect,” “theory-of-mind tasks,” making “individuating or dispositional inferences to a person rather than an object,” “think[ing] about themselves,” and making “personal (vs. impersonal) moral judgments”, were activated when participants viewed images of people whom they perceived as warm and competent. These brain areas were not activated when the participants viewed images of others whom they perceived as cold or incompetent, nor when they viewed images of objects (ibid.). These same areas of the brain, namely the medial prefrontal cortex areas, are the same areas that show heightened activation linked to the cognitive reasoning aspects of empathy (Seitz et al. 2006, 743-751).

Empathy is more than ‘emotion contagion’, that is, automatically mimicking the other’s physical or psychological state. It has been described as a process of understanding and sharing in the emotional state of the other (Decety and Cacioppo 2011, 552), of experiencing one’s own individuated emotional state similar to that of another, due to viewing or imagining the other’s state and knowing that, while one’s own state is distinct from the other’s, it is because of perceiving the other’s state that one is experiencing one’s own state (ibid.). A study addressing the self-other distinction suggests “that one of the defining features of human social bonding may be increasing levels of overlap between neural representations of self and other” (Beckes et al. 2013, 670). The blurring of the self and the other comes from a perception of familiarity and “familiarity involves the inclusion of the other into the self – that from the perspective of the brain, our friends and loved ones are indeed part of who we are” (ibid., 676). Neuroscientist Tania Singer (2013) states: “When assessing the world around us and our fellow humans, we use ourselves as a yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others” (see also, Singer and Lamm 2009). The perception of the boundaries between the individual subject and the other become less distinguishable from one another, but this perception relies on contextual factors such as familiarity and similarity (de Vignemont and Singer 2006, 435-40). Such evidence indirectly lends support to the claim that objectification and debeingization of others prevents cognitive perspective-taking because it obscures the similarity and familiarity between oneself and the other.

One can also objectify one’s own body. Individuals with Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder report feelings of disembodiment and “subjective emotional numbing, an inability to experience emotions and empathy” (Sedeño et al. 2014, 1). Impairments in interoception, i.e. cognizance of one’s internal bodily states, correlate with impairments in recognizing one’s own emotional states and others’ emotional states (ibid., 13-14). Patients with alexithymia also show impairments in interoception (ibid.). This is “a disorder in which patients have difficulty recognizing and expressing their emotions” (Fitzgibbon et al. 2010, 503-04). Studies on these individuals’ ability to empathize with pain have “shown decreased pain judgments, empathy scores and atypical neural activation compared to controls” (ibid.). Emotions are not just psychological states, they also have physical manifestations – they are embodied; hence this research lends support to the claim that objectification and debeingization of the other hinders the capacity to transfer one’s own embodied experience and emotions onto the other; objectification and debeingization removes the similarity and familiarity between self and other. Moreover, objectification of oneself disconnects oneself from one’s own embodied experiences and emotions.

Let us now examine the third interrelated reason why the primacy of sight is detrimental for empathy. When sight is present, sight, reason, touch and emotion are integrated in empathy, with particular importance being given to touch, emotion and reason. Both the perception of similarity and the perception of oneself as distinct from others are linked to reason. A child’s empathetic ability occurs “due to the increased cognitive ability to distinguish between self and other, and by becoming aware of the fact that others have mental states that are independent from its own” (Stueber 2013, online). Moreover, empathy is able to be modulated by the context of the situation, based not only on perceived similarity or familiarity with the other but also on whether the physical or mental state of the other is perceived as justified (de Vignemont and Singer 2006, 437). The modulation of empathy based on context suggests that empathy incorporates reason into the empathetic process. Furthermore, evidence suggests that empathy involves higher and lower cognitive processes in order for the subject to take perspective in the physical pain and emotions of a dissimilar other (Lamm et al. 2010, 374).

The link between emotion contagion and cognitive perspective-taking also suggests the link between emotion and reason in empathy. Despite emotion contagion and cognitive perspective-taking independently accessing different areas of the brain, “it is likely that every empathic response will evoke both components to some extent, depending on the social context” (Shamay-Tsoory 2011, 22). Emotion contagion “has been seen as an important precursor to empathy” (Decety and Cacioppo 2011, 552). Although emotion contagion and cognitive perspective-taking are distinct processes, “these different phenomena occur in concert,” in that “[g]enerally, a certain sequence is suggested, with emotion contagion being antecedent to empathy” (ibid., 553). Other evidence similarly suggests that sight and touch are integrated with reason and emotion in empathy. In explaining the method of combining visual and tactile stimulus for his study on empathy, neuroscientist Claus Lamm (Singer 2013) explains that “[i]t was important to combine the two stimuli. Without the tactile stimulus, the participants would only have evaluated the situation ‘with their heads’ and their feelings would have been excluded.” There is also evidence suggesting that individuals with alexithymia may have lower levels of empathy because they are unable to use reason to recognize that they have embodied emotional experiences (Moriguchi et al. 2007, 2228-32; Silani et al. 2008, 105-06). A further study supporting the claim that emotion/touch and reason/sight are integrated in empathy found that when a subject sees the other touched, areas of the subject’s brain associated with emotion and touch simulate the same brain processes the other experiences during the touch, which in turn may give the subject knowledge of the other’s phenomenal experience (Bolognini et al. 2013, 4204).

Mirror theories of empathy strongly suggest that embodiment is important for empathy. Fitzgibbon et al. (2010, 504) explain that “mirror system activity,” “describes the activation of commonly recruited brain areas when a person observes an action, or experiences [of] an emotion or sensation and when a person executes the same action or personally experiences the same emotion or sensation.” According to Singer and Lamm (2011, 81), “Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion.” In other studies, mirror system activation has been linked to painful and non-painful touch, as well as both emotion and touch (Fitzgibbon et al. 2010, 504-05; Schaefer et al. 2012, 952-57). A lack of spontaneous mirror system activation has also been linked with the lack of empathy in psychopaths (Meffert et al. 2013, 2558-60; Fecteau et al. 2008; 141-42). Conversely, increased mirror system activation has been linked with touch synaesthetes who have a heightened receptivity to seen touch and emotional empathy (Fitzgibbon et al. 2010, 505; Banissy and Ward 2007, 815-16).

Decety and Cacioppo (2011, 561) argue that while mirror systems “may play a role in mimicry and perhaps in some aspects of emotion contagion and recognition, it seems unlikely that such a mechanism can explain emotion recognition, empathy and social cognition in general” (11). In light of this, mirror system activation may be simply ‘emotion contagion’, but emotion contagion has been seen as a precursor to empathy. One study for example discovered that identical neural processes were involved in understanding the psychological state of both one’s self and the other, which suggests that areas of the brain associated with “low-level embodied/simulative representations,” or ‘emotion contagion’, and “higher level inference-based mentalizing,” or cognitive perspective-taking, may likely be linked despite being separate processes (Lombardo et al. 2010, 1628-32). So mirror system activation may not account for the entire empathic process, but it certainly seems to be a part of the empathic process, at the very least through emotion contagion. If mirror system activation and embodiment are important for empathy, and if sight and touch along with reason and emotion are integrated in mirror system activation and embodiment, then there is strong evidence to suggest that the ideological primacy of sight that denigrates touch to the point of subjugation or elimination is detrimental for empathy.


Disembodying sight and reason have been given ideological primacy over embodying touch and emotion since at least the influence of Plato and Aristotle on Ancient Greek thought. Feminist theorists argue this primacy perpetuates a sadomasochist need to subjugate or eliminate touch and emotion in ourselves and our world. Evidence suggests that empathy incorporates self with other, reason with emotion, and sight with touch.  Such an integration of self with other, reason with emotion, and sight with touch offers many suggestive claims that seem to support the conclusion that the ideological primacy of sight, to the point of subjugating or eliminating touch, is detrimental for empathy. Reason’s role in empathy seems to be that of perspective-taking the experiences of those whom one perceives as similar to oneself in sufficiently relevant ways. For others who are dissimilar, reason seems to make the cognitive leap to understand the other’s capacities for physical pain and emotion despite differences.

However, while reason is used to perspective-take, it seems also to be used to facilitate the understanding that one has a mind distinct from the other’s mind. Phenomenally, sight precipitates the process of distinguishing oneself from the other, but the primacy of sight in engaging with the world tends to abstract from embodied experiences. Touch, however, phenomenally makes the boundaries between self, other and world less distinguishable, grounding one in one’s body and creating an interconnection with others and the world. If embodiment and mirror system activation are important for empathy, then there is strong evidence to suggest that embodied experiences, which arise through touch, are needed as the foundation which reason utilizes to perspective-take others’ experiences. One cannot perspective-take another’s embodied experiences and emotions if one has subjugated or eliminated through objectification or debeingization their own or others’ embodied experiences and emotions.

Objectification or debeingization of the self and other occurs by subjugating or eliminating one’s own or the other’s embodied experiences and emotions. Objectification is precipitated by a primacy of sight that fragments bodies into usable parts. Reason and sight are both needed, but the ideological primacy afforded to sight tends to precipitate an engagement with the world on only one of the two levels at which reason works in empathy. The primacy of sight allows reason to distinguish oneself as an individual, but it does not allow for reason to transfer one’s own embodied experiences and emotions onto the other because one has objectified or debeingized one’s own or others’ bodies. If embodiment and mirror system activation theories hold, then the ability to use reason to transfer one’s own embodied experiences and emotions onto others is important for empathy. It follows that the ideological primacy of sight that denigrates touch to the point of subjugation or elimination is indeed detrimental for empathy (12).


(1)  My use of the terms “man” and “woman” is merely to convey what has been ideologically associated with the masculine and the feminine. It in no way discounts the fact that hierarchies allows for men to be oppressed and women to be oppressors.

(2) I am synthesizing several diverse definitions of empathy in order to focus on what is shared across all of the definitions. For a fuller analysis of empathy, see: Karsten Stueber, “Empathy.” See also: Nancy E. Snow, “Empathy” and Frederique de Vignemont and Tania Singer, “The Empathetic Brain: How, When and Why?”

(3) It could be argued that in the Republic, Plato saw women as being capable of becoming divine guardians. However, as Irigaray points out, it is only in so far as they are “the same as man.” See Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, especially 156-157. It could also be argued Socrates admires the wisdom of a woman, Diotima. For a response to this, see Luce Irigaray and Eleanor H. Kuykendall, “Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato’s Symposium, Diotima’s Speech” and Elizabeth Spelman, “Hairy Cobblers and Philosopher-Queens.”

(4) On the issue of objectification and dehumanization, see Evangelina Papadaki, “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification.”

(5)Irigaray seems to be making essentialist claims regarding the association of man with sight and woman with touch. For a response to this, see Lennon, “Feminist Perspectives on the Body.”

(6) For a sociological analysis of the primacy of sight vs touch, see: Synnott, “The Eye and I: A Sociology of Sight.”

(7) There is a substantial amount of discussion surrounding whether non-human animals can experience pain in any significant way because, it is argued, non-human animals do not have the cognitive capacities to reflect upon their pain. For a review of and response to this position, see Sahar Akhtar, “Animal Pain and Welfare: Can Pain Sometimes Be Worse for Them than for Us?”

(8) Regarding touch’s ability to bring awareness back to one’s embodied experiences and the harmful psychological and empathetic effects of touch deprivation, see Linda Holler, Erotic Morality: The Role of Touch in Moral Agency. Regarding the connections between objectifying, dehumanizing, images/sight based metaphors and violence, see Phillip Atiba Goff et al., “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences,” Debra Merskin, “The Construction of Arabs as Enemies: Post September 11 Discourse of George W. Bush,” and Catharine A. MacKinnon, “From Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech.”

(9) For a current review of the extensive debate regarding whether embodiment is important for empathy, see Nivedita Gangopadhyay, “Introduction: Embodiment and Empathy, Current Debates in Social Cognition” and Alvin Goldman and Frederique de Vignemont, “Is Social Cognition Embodied?” and Vittorio Gallese and Corrado Sinigaglia, “What is so Special about Embodied Simulation?”

(10) “Reason” is taken to mean theoretical, abstract thinking and/or executive functioning. “Thinking,” throughout this paper, is taken to mean practical, as in goal oriented and problem solving reasoning, or theoretical reasoning.

(11) For a critical analysis and review of mirror theories of empathy, see Jean Decety, Jean. “Dissecting the Neural Mechanisms Mediating Empathy,” and Claus Lamm et al., “Meta-Analytic Evidence for Common and Distinct Neural Networks Associated with Directly Experienced Pain and Empathy for Pain.”

(12) This paper has benefited greatly from the feedback and expertise of numerous scholars. I would like to extend my gratitude to Karen Mizell, Shannon Mussett, Michael Minch, Pierre Lamarche, Chris Weigel, Thi Nguyen, Jeffrey Pannekoek, Richie Nimmo, and the two anonymous reviewers of this paper for this journal.

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