Send to

Choose Destination
BMC Med Educ. 2018 Apr 5;18(1):69. doi: 10.1186/s12909-018-1161-y.

Empathy is proprioceptive: the bodily fundament of empathy - a philosophical contribution to medical education.

Author information

Institute for Philosophy, and University Program for Psychotherapeutic Propedeutics, Postgraduate Center, University of Vienna, Vienna, AT, Austria.
Department for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, University Program for Psychotherapy Research, Teaching Center, Medical University of Vienna, Postgraduate Center, University Vienna, Währingerstraße 18-20, 1090, Vienna, Austria.



The current philosophical debate on empathy entails accounts of theory of mind and simulation as well as a phenomenological opposition. The first focuses on a detached observation of others from a 3rd person perspective and formulates the common claim that there is no direct access to the mental and emotional life of others, only simulation or analogy can grant access to the emotions and behaviour of others. The philosophical respectively phenomenological account of Fuchs instead opposes by focusing personal interaction within a 1st or 2nd person perspective claiming that the emotions of others are experienceable through bodily expression and bodily resonance. Fuchs offers an account of embodied affectivity that emphasizes the role of the (subjective) body for emotion and empathy. By experiencing the bodily expressed emotions of a vis-à-vis with and through the own body empathy and social understanding are bodily grounded. Following this core thesis Fuchs differentiates a primary, bodily empathy and an extended empathy that focuses on putting myself in the shoes of others (perspective taking).


By comparison of different forms of social understanding as discussed in the phenomenological tradition - like contagion, sharing and empathy - it can be shown that extended empathy has an egocentric character. By putting myself in the shoes of others I miss a person's otherness that transcends my capacity of imagination respectively the personal frame of my experience. Further Fuchs' disregards that a bodily based empathy is co-structured by higher level form of understanding like contextual biographic knowledge.


The philosophical discussion offers fertile impulses for Medical Education (ME) and the training of empathic communication skills. The account of Fuchs highlights the role of bodily perception (proprioception) as a resource of understanding others. Thus proprioceptive skills of a physician can support the empathic understanding of the physician. The objection against the egocentric trait of perspective taking admonishes not to generalize the own perspective as decisive for empathy and to adopt an attitude that remains open to the otherness of a patient and its experiences.


Empathy; Interaction; Medical education; Phenomenology of emotions; Philosophy; Simulation; Thomas Fuchs; Training

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for BioMed Central Icon for PubMed Central
Loading ...
Support Center