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DAY 2 / March 17: *Connecting Body – Mind – Spirit – World*

Early and Pre-Career Voices II

PRESENTER: Elizabeth Marie Ashley Bolton, CTL
Talk Title: “Towards a Technology of Empathy: Inhabiting the Lived Experience of the Other via Conceptual Metaphor Use”


From left: Elizabeth, Yecid, Lynne

Towards a Technology of Empathy:

Inhabiting the Lived Experience of the Other via Conceptual Metaphor Use

Elizabeth Marie Ashley Bolton

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto


The Oxford English Dictionary[i] defines empathy as “the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings [or] experience”. We commonly refer to empathy metaphorically, as an act of putting ourselves “in someone else’s shoes.” But what does it mean to truly “wear the shoes” of another? If we are to truly empathize with another, is it sufficient to simply “understand and appreciate” their words, or must we actually interact with the lived experience of the other? How does a true, perception-shifting experience of empathy come about, and what is the process by which it occurs? This paper seeks to showcase evidence that moves us towards answers to these questions, and explores the role of language in the creation of space for empathy in a collaborative discussion between two readers of fairy tale. As co-constructors of meaning, the participant (given the pseudonym Hannah) and I discuss the personal significance of the fairy tale Peter Pan with regard to the notion of morality that has personal autonomy at its core. The choice to discuss the fairy tale genre comes from the work of Bruno Bettelheim[ii] that situated fairy tales as emotionally integrating literature. The genre was therefore chosen for discussion in order to increase the likelihood of emotional response, particularly in the case of two readers who enjoy the genre. Rather than using Bettelheim’s process of psychoanalysis in analyzing our co-constructed response, I instead approach the analysis using Charles Taylor’s[iii] modern framework, exploring the actions of the self as a fluid entity that positions itself constantly within a space of moral choices. Within this framework, I demonstrate how units of conceptual metaphor[iv] serve as linguistic evidence for thought processes grounded in our common, physical human experiences. Our co-constructed language use therefore creates a shared, experientially-based space for understanding the emotive, morally driven behavior of the other. As a result of inhabiting the same experiential space, we come to an empathetic understanding of what it feels like to live as the other, with respect to the emotional comfort we find in fairy tale literature. In this qualitative, reflexive project, I tell the story of how a common appreciation for literature can inspire empathy between two readers. Empirical evidence paints a picture of two readers coming to an understanding of the other using the very same techniques by which they have come to understand their individual selves. The project opens space for a consideration of the literature classroom as the setting for emotional education, particularly with regard to the development and practice of empathy among students and teachers.

Keywords: empathy, fairy tales, morality, conceptual metaphor theory

[i] OED Online, “empathy, n.” (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[ii] Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of

Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1975).

[iii] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1989).

[iv] George Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” in Metaphor and

Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).