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Reverse empathy, psychoanalysis on the upside

Sophie Mendelsohn
Traduction de Emmanuelle Casse-Castric
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’empathie à l’envers, la psychanalyse à l’endroit [fr]


For a long time, psychoanalysis has strived to reverse empathy in order to show its downside, cruelty, notably through humour. On the upside, it made cruelty stand out as a kind of link to the other, one that would confront the conflictual part necessarily underlying it. Racism, examined as a form of jouissance by Lévi-Strauss and Lacan, is presented here as a proper setting to acknowledge that.

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1The subtle attraction of empathy, as far as psychoanalysis is concerned, undoubtedly stems in part from the way this concept has gained access to this field: through the backdoor, so to speak, via humour, but a kind of humour immediately coloured with a note of cruelty. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud notices that the involuntary comical effect produced by an ingenuous remark, a nonsense significant in spite of itself, or a particularly relevant blunder, is due to the activation of what he terms “the process of empathy.” He thus designates firstly the fact that in such a situation, we tend to make a comparison between our state of mind and that of the other, and secondly the satisfaction we experiment when we notice that the other has put themselves in a bad situation, where their failure (to decency or to intelligence) is exposed, whereas we would not have allowed ourselves to do that or in any case that we would have done everything to avoid it. When someone appears ridiculous, it is always in comparison to us, and he goes on saying “our laugh expresses a pleasant feeling of superiority.” In the further few mentions of empathy he makes, Freud remains true to the inspiration found in the works of Munich psychologist Theodor Lipps (1904): empathy is primarily a means of intellectual exploration that is distinct from a simple emotional proximity infused by unconscious dynamics; it plays a paradoxical clinical role in the handling of transference, even if secondary, to prevent the analyst from identifying more radically with their patients, which would imply being possibly overwhelmed by their affects. With Freud, empathy is cold because it is essentially a conscious process, reduced to being an exploratory tool to access knowledge by inference. Empathy allows us to know there is psychic activity outside our own.

2Assuming that the other is endowed with a psychic life might, of course, seem to be the minimum prerequisite in order to be a psychoanalyst, but as we have noticed, things become immediately more complex, because empathy brings out a form of cruelty pertaining to the fact that there is no relation of knowledge free from power dynamics. This is apparent even in the simple action of laughing at someone’s stupidity when I identify it as such. What the psychoanalytic theory of knowledge brings to light at once is that knowledge produces asymmetry, inequality, non-reciprocity, and turns empathy against itself! The psychoanalysts who have given maximum influence to this concept of empathy are precisely those who refuse to acknowledge the obscure part of the unconscious, its negativity, notably in the form of cruelty, so as to promote the predominance of inter-subjectivity, where all the violence of psychic life would ideally be abolished. This concerns mainly the American school of psychology, whose horizon is rather classically humanistic. On the contrary, empathy is no longer in the picture for those who have built a critical theory of the unconscious, deliberately anti-psychological (first and foremost Lacan) and who have largely enriched our understanding of the different aspects cruelty can take.

3It is precisely this point that the philosopher Jacques Derrida, as an adept of psychoanalysis, chose to put in the limelight at the 2000 Symposium on psychoanalysis (États généraux de la psychanalyse). He offered two propositions: first “psychoanalysis is the name of that which, without alibi -theological or other-, turns towards what is most inherent to psychic cruelty.” Secondly, “no other field of knowledge would take any interest in something like cruelty—except what we call psychoanalysis” (Derrida, 2000, p. 12-13). In fact, this somewhat mysterious statement echoes a Freudian expression about empathy, which illustrates all its complexity, at a time when he was revising his first theory of the psychic apparatus, in 1921 in Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego: Freud emphasizes that “the process which psychology calls ‘empathy [Einfühlung]’ and which plays the largest part in our understanding of what is inherently foreign to our ego in other people” (Freud, 1981, translation by James Strachey). There are several ways of understanding this formula—“what is foreign to the ego in other people”: it can simply be what is not us, what happens in the other and to which I do not have access, but it can also be, in a more interesting way, what, both in me and in the other, remains foreign to the self, because it resists symbolization, and meaning. In this case, empathy would allow us, against all expectations, to approach what remains impossible to integrate to the ego—an approach of cruelty from the outside.

4If there are certainly other epistemes than Freud’s construct that are apt to confront their outside, it is nevertheless the specificity of psychoanalysis to have given its subjective dimension to this intractable (intraitable), and to have given it its singular name of universal experience—cruelty. The epistemological situation of psychoanalysis would be the following: a knowledge facing its outside but also making of this outside the unexpected occasion of a re-engagement of the subject, instead of excluding or disqualifying it. What transpires from Derrida’s work here is that one of the elements of singularity of this knowledge consists in being able to take cruelty into account. And perhaps it is the only proper psychoanalytical meaning of empathy. In other words, it is a knowledge that does not try to shy from this “non-self” that renders it possible, contrary to the “innate” tendency of every symbolic system and every matrix generating knowledge. Correlatively, cruelty would find its “core”: the singular experience one can have of oneself as subject can only be attained insofar as one encounters in themselves this “non-self”, this impossible outside, generally in spite of oneself and painfully. It is precisely what produces symptoms in the psychoanalytic sense, that is to say, signs showing we have met the intractable. That would be the price to pay to reach the unconscious: cruelty. And there empathy could find a political destiny, against the tide of a mellow psychology of benevolence which seems to be its “natural” course, but on the right side of psychoanalysis.

Why consider the intractable (with Jean-François Lyotard)?

  • 1 And this is far from fortuitous: some historical-political conjunctures expose the intractable ba (...)

5Jean-François Lyotard sought to account for his own encounter with the issue of the intractable, as it was imposed on him by the colonial world,1 which he entered in Algeria while teaching philosophy at Constantine High School between 1950 and 1952. It is in this context that he invoked psychoanalysis in order to accomplish this complex process: tackle the intractable, allowing it to be and act without seeking to abolish what is irreducible within it.

6In a collection of his texts devoted to the Algerian War (Lyotard, 1989) and initially published in the journal Socialisme ou barbarie (Socialism or barbarity), Lyotard gives the name of “Algeria” to what he encountered there, this “intractable” that stunned him then, and which still persisted at the end of the 80s, according to him: a wrong of such magnitude that “an entire people, highly civilized, [remains] offended, humiliated, forbidden to itself” (Lyotard, 1989, p. 38). In the long introduction Mohamed Ramdani wrote for this collection, the wrongdoing is described as the annexation of Algeria itself, and “this wrong is said to be absolute because its aim was to destroy the identity and the culture of a people, to substitute the language of the colonized people by that of the colonizer, and to oust the colonized people, according to the expression by Albert Memmi, ‘out of history and out of society.’ […] The aim was for the native to be completely at loss, properly uprooted” (Lyotard, 1989, p. 10). This brought him to define the colonial system as an immense “oblivion camp.” We can consider this “oblivion camp” as the very effect of war, insofar as war was the means of annexation and, for this reason, lived on under different forms, sometimes diluted, sometimes reinforced, throughout the colonial era. Or we can see it as a manifestation that something from the war, something in the war cannot find a voice, a meaning or a representation. Then again we can consider that this unspoken item, this inarticulate language reveals the absence of a lexicon to express the terms of the wrongdoing. This situation is maybe best exposed in the commemorative ceremonies supposed to correct it:

The Algerian War has quickly become the name of a solid amnesia festering in the shadows of the blissful litanies people think are in order on the occasion of commemorative ceremonies, where banality rivals inconsistency. But there was even worse: the actual events, persons and times have been misrepresented, falsified and adulterated, rendering the anamnesis even more problematic. (Lyotard, 1989, p. 9)

7What Ramdani is pointing out here is the exact opposite of what French Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot recently said, precisely in the context of commemorative escalation: on December 10, 2021, she announced that she was opening “with 15 years’ advance the archives of the judicial investigations led by police and gendarmerie, in relation to the Algerian War. I want us to be able to face this issue directly—which is troubling, irritating and subject to the falsification of history. We cannot write a national story on a lie,”2 she argued in a remarkable example of denial. Recent historiography has shown to what extent the “resolution” of the Algerian War was based on problematic legal and political manipulations, intended by the State (Sheppard, 1962). “It is falsification that leads to erring, discord and hatred. Once the facts are on the table, once they are recognized, once they are analyzed, it is from that moment on that we can build another history, a reconciliation,” the minister continued.

8But for Lyotard, the whole point is precisely to expose the intractable without, however, inscribing it in the horizon of a necessary future reconciliation, by counting on the power of transformation inherent to cruelty which is its matrix. To understand this, it is useful to define as precisely as possible what is the structural condition of the intractable. Lyotard endeavors to do this in his introductory note to the second publication of his Algerian articles:

A system can be as saturated as can be in information, memory, mechanisms of anticipation and defense, and even in permissiveness to eventsthe idea that guided “Socialisme ou barbarie” was basically, although expressed in other terms, that there is something in it that cannot be processed, in principle. That it is essential to its nature as a system to ignore it. And that if history, modern history in particular, is not only the fable of a development, the result of an automatic selection process by trial and error, it is because some intractable is withdrawn and remains lodged in the secret crags of all that gets organized as a system, and that it cannot fail to become an event there. (Lyotard, 1989, p. 35)

9What the philosopher maintains here cannot fail to evoke us how Lacan initiated the detachment from the primacy of the symbolic, at the beginning of the 60s, with the elaboration of object a, an object which is cause of desire, first associated with his theory of anguish, and above all the real starting point for a fantasy that decomposes the symbolic and makes it a significant system with no possible totalizing. Moreover, Lyotard himself refers explicitly to psychoanalysis, and even to analytical practice. By evoking the group “Socialisme ou barbarie,” whose aim was to make the intractable that underlies the “différend” (the disagreement) exist as the very place of (communist) politics, against the Stalinist version which deflates its power thanks to an authoritarian administration, he implies, even if in a roundabout manner, that the intractable cannot be tackled without psychoanalysis (and in this view he shows affinities with Derrida’s aforementioned preoccupations):

As there is an ethic of psychoanalysis, the group respected the ethic of the political anamnesis. […] The agitation of an interminable scramble began, where the past of the revolutionary tradition played out, but among the daily tearing of modern life. […] but this work was nothing if it was not guided by free listening, floating listening, to burning contemporary struggles, where the intractable keeps signalling. There was no shortage of “work,” similar to the patient undergoing analysis who does not lack work. (Lyotard, 1989, p. 35)

10Lyotard asks himself how to remain faithful to the intractable in a situation where the political thing was no longer (or would soon cease to be) the privileged venue for the manifestation of the intractable. In other words, a context that he terms himself de-politicisation (and which intersects with what he elsewhere described as “post-modernity”), of which recent commemorative ceremonies linked to the Algerian War give a fairly good idea: they can in no way be considered as political events, since they play the memory card against politics insofar as their only function is to prompt a hypothetical reconciliation that has no other stake than to make people forget the wrongdoing, and to avert any acknowledgment of the intractable.

11At the end of the 80s, Lyotard invites us to observe that “there is indeed some intractable part that obstinately remains in the present system, but its expressions or signs cannot be located and supported in the same areas of the community and with the same tools as half a century ago” (Lyotard, 1989, p. 38). Hence the remaining task which falls to us consists in elaborating a conception and a practice of the intractable different from those inspired by “classic” modernity, namely that which was structured by the political thought inherited from the Enlightenment. How can we consider the intractable for what it is: impossible to tackle, but not to be ignored, since it is the expression of the political in every one of us? Lyotard offers a perspective implying to recode the intractable into a disagreement (différend), that is to say to make it a space for a conflict valid in itself, without opening on a resolution, because the disagreement becomes in itself the condition for the coexistence of languages in all their irreducible differences, so much so as to become the condition for the invention of new expressions:

There is something in the disagreement (différend) that “demands” to be put into sentences, and suffers from not being able to do so immediately. Humans who thought they were using language as an instrument of communication learn through that sense of pain that comes with silence (and the pleasure that goes along the invention of a new expression), that they are required by language, and not to increase to their own benefit the amount of communicable information in existing idioms, but to recognize that what there is to express exceeds what they can phrase at present, and that they must allow the creation of expressions that do not yet exist. (Lyotard, 1983, p. 30)

How to bear the “différend” (disagreement) (with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan)?

12One of the burning contemporary issues that psychoanalysts hear about is the struggle of young racialized people, for whom this condition is the starting point of a politicization enabling an irreconcilable voice to be heard, insofar as the forms of creativity from which the productive face of disagreement can appear depend on that voice. The fact that racism can be the privileged starting point for its implementation is better noticed in that it is subjected to regular attempts at conciliation, if not reconciliation. Claude Lévi-Strauss's complicated relations with UNESCO are a particularly good illustration of this, and worth of close attention for this reason, as they clearly point out what the clinical and social function of psychoanalysis can be when it meets with burning contemporary struggles.

13Founded in 1945, the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), in accordance with the doctrine of international cooperation, communion of people and lasting peace that presided over its institution, took an early interest in the issues of racism. While a first, unsatisfactory statement on race was made in 1950, Lévi-Strauss was invited to discuss the issue in 1951 as part of a symposium entitled “La question raciale devant la science modern” (The racial question in the face of modern science), which led to the publication of Race et histoire (Race and history) (1961) in 1952. The anthropologist points out a blind corner in the anti-racism line of UNESCO, mainly based on recusing any biological grounding backing up racism. This invalidation is of little consequence if inequality resurfaces in its cultural dimension, if societies remain hierarchically organized according to their respective contributions to a common heritage of civilization, evaluated according to criteria established by the “world civilization” the Western world has become. To get away from this dead-end, Lévi-Strauss makes in this text a double proposal: replacing biology by culture can have a critical and political impact if and only if it is accompanied by asserting cultural relativism; and the hegemonic status of Western civilization, which was constituted as a universal culture, with a homogenizing vocation, is dismissed by the elaboration of another idea of progress: it is no longer the strongest which imposes its criteria on other cultures, but progress comes from the capacity of each culture to be able to exchange with others according to a set of possible configurations, while preserving its own singularity. The coalition of cultures that is aimed at must therefore encourage what Lévi-Strauss designates as an optimum, a point of equilibrium enabling to avoid both cultural isolation and the absorption of a culture by another. So formulated, this perspective met the concerns of UNESCO, which was then promoting its own doctrine of cooperation, boosted by the optimism characteristic of the post-war and reconstruction period.

14When Lévi-Strauss was called again 20 years later to give the keynote lecture to the 1971 “International Year of the Fight against Racism,” the tone used and its reception were very different, to the point that the anthropologist would later say that he stirred up “quite a scandal,” because of his choice to attack head-on what he was later to call in his preface to The View From Afar, the “catechism” of UNESCO. There is no longer any trace of the apparent optimism of the beginnings, the more radical potentialities of his initial proposition now emerging from an uncompromising thought, where the differences, and the disagreement (différend), are at the center of the proceedings. Noting that the fight against racism has proven quite ineffective, he accuses directly the UNESCO policy, explicitly doubting the beliefthat “disseminating knowledge and developing communication between individuals will one day succeed in making them live in harmony, accepting and respecting their diversities” (Lévi-Strauss, 1983, p. 46). If such progress cannot breed hope, it is because the diagnosis on which this approach is based is wrong: the racial aspect social antagonism has taken is not linked to bias about race. According to him, the egalitarian anti-racist discourse finds its limits here: even if we strongly believe that cultures can cooperate in a common historical process, they nevertheless continue to claim their differences—otherwise they simply disappear. In this tension, Lévi-Strauss sees the fundamental contradiction at work in the process of civilization, and which builds up into a disagreement, that is to say a conflict impossible to resolve and precisely defined by this cruelty: the civilizing process must produce differences while integrating them in a game which can only homogenize them. In that respect, we could consider racism as the translation of the effect on cultures of the civilizing process. This is what led Lévi-Strauss to be accused of racism after this second conference, whereas the first had been considered the most advanced theorizing of UNESCO's anti-racist doctrine.

  • 3 This is particularly apparent in the phrase: “Race is a function of culture among other functions (...)
  • 4 The doctrine of UNESCO had then changed towards a patrimonialization of indigenous cultures, cons (...)

15How, then, envision that the anthropologist could still be in an anti-racist perspective, even in an unexpected way, by not aiming at the eradication of racism, since such an aim would in fact risk canceling out cultural diversity itself?3 In 1971, Lévi-Strauss’s contribution seemed so paradoxical as to be unacceptable. Yet in 2005, it had become perfectly acceptable when he was invited again to speak for the 60th anniversary of the institution.4 And he had not changed his mind since 1951 and 1971. His approach consisted in seeking the point of equilibrium, which was inevitably fragile, between maximum human diversity and peaceful coexistence of all societies. So in order to tackle racism, the theoretician of structuralism took unexpectedly the defense of idiosyncrasies, and of the disagreement that they feed structurallywise:

We should not feel guilty to place one way of living and thinking above all others, and to be less than attracted to people whose lifestyle, however respectable in itself, is too far from the lifestyle we are traditionally attached to. This relative incommunicability is certainly no reason to oppress or destroy the values we reject or their representatives, but, within limits, it is not revolting. It can even be the price to pay for the value systems of each spiritual family or each community to keep going and to find within themselves the resources necessary to their renewal. [Human societies] do not ignore each other, they borrow from each other on occasion, but, in order to stay alive, a certain impermeability must persist between them in other respects. (Lévi-Strauss, 1983, p. 15)

16The point of view deriving from this reflection strangely echoes the position of Lacan at the same time: “Because I cannot at the same time blend myself in the other’s jouissance, identify with him, and remain different. Integral, fully successful communication with the other condemns, sooner or later, the originality of his creation and of mine” (Lévi-Strauss, 1983, p. 14).

17Some time before Lévi-Strauss’s controversial address, Lacan had begun to look into the issue of segregation in its entanglements with the constitution of what the anthropologist called a “world civilization,” of which he underlined the self-destructive character in a melancholy expression easily subject to conservative interpretations:

The fight against all forms of discrimination is part of the same movement that is leading humanity towards a world civilization bound to destroy those old idiosyncrasies to which we owe the honour of creating the aesthetic and spiritual values that give life its price. (Lévi-Strauss, 1983, p. 47)

18As for Lacan, he pinpointed the same problem, but the other way round: “Our future of common markets will find balance in an increasingly harsh extension of the segregation processes” (Lacan, 2003, p. 257). In an unorthodox deciphering, disenchanted even I would say, the psychoanalyst joins the anthropologist in making racism a structuring component of social life in these times of economic and cultural globalization, to the point of delivering a cutting but prophetic phrase to conclude his 1971-1972 seminar: “Racism does have a future.” Some time later in a television program, he commented on this sentence: “Yes… I say that because it is no laughing matter, and yet… it is better to know what to expect.” It is indeed all the better because it is not only what can be expected, but what is inevitable: “It is necessary because of what I try to make perceptible, because of the misdirection of our jouissance (pleasure).” This structural misguidance, which enslaves us to its uncertain satisfaction, is exacerbated by the population movements induced by globalization: “From the moment we are mixed like that, fantasies appear, novel fantasies that would otherwise never have existed” (Lacan, 1974/2003, p. 534). In his own way, Lacan was extending the crucial intuition that Fanon had expressed at the same time that Levi-Strauss's first lecture was published: “In order to understand the situation about race from a psychoanalytical point of view, conceived not globally but felt by singular psyches, we must attach great importance to sexual phenomena” (Fanon, 2011, p. 165).

19One of the ways that has arisen to counter this accelerated misdirection of jouissance produced by a specific historical-political context (the end of colonial empires and the simultaneous extension of common markets) is pointed out by Lévi-Strauss, as we have seen: delighting in what makes the jouissance of the other by identifying with the other, which only reinforces the dominant Western model, implies to abandon one’s own model of jouissance, and its singularity. This abandonment can only revive racism in the long run, so racism takes the role of a bulwark against “de-individualization.” It is on this specific subject that psychoanalysis has a role to play, in the possibility it has to not recede in front of the disagreement positioned by Lyotard, where Derrida inscribed cruelty and where Lévi-Strauss noticed the fundamental contradiction of the civilizing process, which is based on the particularities that it homogenizes at the same time. Instead of using transference as a space for the identification of the patient with the analyst—which was explicitly proposed as a model for handling transference in the 50s-60s, but is still implicitly in use today—, instead of veiling the cruelty of this structuring contradiction by using identification as a defense strategy, or even as an alibi, psychoanalysis can endure disagreement by breeding its own difference: it is a practical knowledge of non-transparency to oneself and to the other. The fact that one does not know what one is saying when one speaks has for correlate that what is heard is something other than what was meant to be said. The language of transference functions as a new idiom, in Lyotard’s sense: it frames a space where speech, by missing itself and failing, paradoxically produces liberating effects that cannot be computed in advance, and which are only marginally due to a re-engaged understanding, but depend greatly on the way in which the two protagonists will, in their different manners, allow themselves to be affected by what is being said as well as by what cannot be said but nevertheless exists only where disagreement is possible. And to allow oneself to be affected, to be modified, to be transformed, is something quite different from seeking to identify oneself.

20Opening the space of clinic to questions of race and racism that can exist as such necessitates accepting the cruelty of something that is incompatible, irreconcilable: in concrete terms, as a white analyst, this implies that I give up believing that the lived experiences of racism that are told to me by a racialized patient would enable me to know what she lives, let alone to feel it. What transference allows is, in a way, to give a right to the singularity of a voice that will not be reduced as such by the necessity to protect oneself from its affecting potency by projecting the comforting, and undoubtedly empathetic, fantasy of a communion of feelings, if not of experience. In this impossibility of communion, where each of the two protagonists is confronted to a singularity to be experienced, and it is decisive, in a shared solitude, psychoanalysis is on its right side, where it can handle disagreement, by allowing differences to exist in the field of antagonistic forces where they develop, psychoanalysis is apt to meet burning contemporary struggles, finding there a way to renew its own episteme.

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1 And this is far from fortuitous: some historical-political conjunctures expose the intractable bare, making it unavoidable.

2 Refer to the full statement:

3 This is particularly apparent in the phrase: “Race is a function of culture among other functions” (Lévi-Strauss, 1983, p. 36)

4 The doctrine of UNESCO had then changed towards a patrimonialization of indigenous cultures, considered as being endangered. See:

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Sophie Mendelsohn, « Reverse empathy, psychoanalysis on the upside »Hybrid [En ligne], 10 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2023, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Sophie Mendelsohn

Sophie Mendelsohn is a psychoanalyst in Paris. She initiated the creation of the Pantin Collective ( which works on issues of race and racism with the tools of psychoanalysis. She is the co-author, with Livio Boni, of a book published in 2021 by La Découverte, La vie psychique du racisme (The Psychic Life of Racism), and she wrote numerous articles on how psychoanalysis is articulated to genres, arts and ways of thinking, in journals such as Critique, L'évolution psychiatrique, Savoirs et clinique, Psychanalyse, etc.

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