The rhetoric of empathy. A cognitive-narratological model (317)

Principal Investigator:

How do readers empathize with characters in narrative fiction? How can a reader vicariously feel the emotions of a literary character? In literary criticism “reading with empathy” has not yet been described systematically.

It is a common experience that we can "feel into" fictional characters and vicariously "feel" their emotions. Many people read just to get "lost in a book" or "share" characters’ emotions.

In psychology, vicarious emotions such as the ones produced in a reader are called "empathy". In literary criticism, "empathic" reading of fictional narratives have not yet been studied in depth. On the contrary, empathic (i.e. “identificatory”) reading is regarded as an inferior kind of reading due to its supposed "naivety".

The projects aims at formulating a systematic theory of narrative empathy. It draws on empirical studies of reading and discourse processing in cognitive psychology. These theories are integrated into a cognitive theory of narrative. The project therefore participates in the "cognitive turn" in literary criticism (cf. "cognitive narratology" and "cognitive poetics"). Since rhetoric is to a large extent concerned with the "emotional" impact of discourse upon humans, the project is entitled "rhetoric of empathy".