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Empathy and the Limits of Knowledge in Ancient Didactic Poetry

Mark Payne

Recent work at the intersection of philosophy and the life sciences has pointed to a “naturalistic turn in the human image” as the neural mechanisms of cognition are identified (Metzinger 2009: 3, 214-17, 233-40). Empathy has been redescribed in light of the discovery of the mirror neuron system as a “mandatory, automatic, nonconscious, prerational, nonintrospectionist process” (Gallese in Metzinger 2009: 176), rather than an inferential reconstruction of intentions in a two-stage process of observation and reflection. The displacement of the paradigm of observer and observed that grounded the understanding of empathy since Adam Smith is not limited to human agents. Bidirectional acknowledgment of common purpose occurs between organisms that share a repertory of gestures in what has been called a “shared manifold” of mutual understanding (Gallese 2001).

The naturalistic turn in the theorization of empathy offers a new way to approach the representation of nonhuman life in the didactic poetry of antiquity. The profession-oriented poems of Nicander and Oppian eschew the pursuit of epistemic totality that characterizes the speculative epic of Empedocles and Lucretius, and focus instead on episodes of professional engagement with nonhuman life. These episodes assume a “shared manifold” of mutual understanding as the site in which interspecies encounters originate, but isolate moments of cognitive intensity in the practice of technical life that are not easily assimilated into a sustainable first person perspective. The poems point beyond the “shared manifold” to moments of heightened consciousness at which they gesture but do not allow their readers to inhabit. They stage the drama of an immanent poetic mind encountering the limits of its capacity to know in singular interspecies events that cannot be modeled as continuous narrative cognition. 

Session/Panel Title

The Ancient Non-Human

Session/Paper Number

81.3

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