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Empathy and Perspective-taking: Egocentric to Transpersonal

Empathy and perspective-taking begin in early infancy, a time when we’re reliant on others to fulfil our basic needs. We don’t yet have the mental machinery required for even basic 2nd-person perspectives, meaning we’re essentially stuck in egocentrism.

Empathy and perspective-taking are behind how we see ourselves as individuals, how we see others, who we consider worthy of our attention, and what we are aware of. They develop through conventional modes all the way to post-conventional modes – where we can take post-societal views – and into transpersonal forms.

The fundamental levels of empathy and perspective-taking detailed here have all been discovered through observation and deduction. We mainly draw on the work of Susanne Cook-Greuter and Lawrence Kohlberg in this article.

A key insight is that empathy only really comes online once we’ve developed the machinery required for it. What’s more, empathy isn’t a one-dimensional, it’s multi-faceted, multi-layered. More on this to come.

Table of Contents

    The Importance of Empathy and Perspective-Taking

    Just to clarify: we’re not so interested in the “contents” of our empathy and perspective-taking. We’re looking at the fundamental structures underlying our them.

    You’ll see for yourself that these structures are not bound to particular belief systems or claims to truth, nor to particular cultures or people. They are structures of thought that run throughout the history of humanity and are visible in all cultures. To go one step further, it’s our hunch that they are behind all claims to truth that have ever existed.

    And they provide us with the fundamental building blocks of the human journey from egocentrism to ever higher embrace, all the way to self-transcendence.

    Cook-Greuter beautifully expresses the importance of empathy and perspective-taking in her “nine levels” paper:

    I will use [perspective-taking] as one of the most salient markers by which to gage (sic) a person’s level of consciousness. Knowing what order of perspective a person can take, helps to anticipate what a (sic) they can see and process regarding both their internal and external reality.

    Susanne cook-greuter

    This concept underlies all structural developmental theories, from Kohlberg to Piaget to Fowler. One key marker of many stages detailed in models such as these is precisely the level of empathy and perspective-taking we access.

    And thus whenever we face ethical issues, moral issues, value conflicts, or any similar issue, the levels each party can access likely play a key role. It may mean they are simply incapable of empathy as we usually conceive it.

    Five Key Principles of Empathy and Perspective-Taking

    Before we look at the ten basic structures of empathy and perspective-taking, let’s have a look at five key principles behind them.

    It’s crucial to realise that while later levels are more complex and enable us to see more, it doesn’t mean they’re always better.

    In fact, if we remember key principle #3, we understand that earlier views are almost like Lego blocks of later ones. We ideally want to download all these perspectives and be able to embody them all when necessary.

    Key principle #5 is also crucial. Since perspective-taking underlies vertical development, it functions in much the same way. For example, we can get stuck in a certain level, never advancing beyond it. We also can’t truly understand those above the highest one we have access to – they’re “over our head”. And the major altitudes of development each have a corresponding perspective structure, which we’ll identify in each case.

    Also bear in mind that while these levels were discovered by studying individuals, groups often exhibit features of certain perspectives. For example, the scientific community as a whole typically embodies the expanded 3rd-person perspective in its truth-finding exploits.

    Let’s now take a look at ten fundamental perspective structures available to humans.

    The Ten Fundamental Levels of Empathy and Perspective-Taking

    Please note that the colours for each level are from Wilber’s altitudes of development and denote the altitude corresponding to each level of perspective-taking.

    1st-person – Undifferentiated: Infrared/Magenta

    At the most basic level of empathy and perspective taking, we are, in a sense, aperspectival. Our experience is fluid, undifferentiated, free of boundaries. This is the stage we inhabit during the first few months of life, perhaps during our final moments, and if we suffer very serious illness.

    The child psychology literature is laden with information on this stage. We don’t have a sense of self, and we don’t see others to be different from us. Since we experience ourselves, others and the world as one constant unified flow, we can’t take any perspectives on any of it.

    That’s not to say we’re necessary evil or wildly selfish, simply that we’ve yet to develop the capacities (cognitive capacities, for example) required to take perspectives. Empathy is non-existent.

    Expanded 1st-person – Egocentrism: Magenta/Red

    The journey of differentiation begins here. Here we have developed enough of a sense of self to perform rudimentary, physical self-referencing.

    We have a beginning sense of self and other. We sense that others are different, that they’re separate. But we view them as being here to gratify what we need. We can’t yet see them as separate people with their own inner world, needs,, emotions and intentions.

    Hence the “expanded 1st-person” label. We can’t quite form the perspective of others yet, so still aren’t capable of empathy.

    2nd-person: Elementary Other – Amber

    Being able to adopt a 2nd-person perspective is a watershed moment in human development.

    Whereas before we couldn’t fathom that others have their own inner world and persepctives, now we can, to some degree. Through an increased separation between ourselves and others, we now grasp that other people are their own people with their own subjective world. This is the beginning of true empathy.

    We’re now lightly differentiated from theirs. In earlier stages, our desires are their desires; our needs are their needs. This new differentiation makes elementary comparison of perspectives and feedback possible.

    However, this simple perspective-taking can make things confusing – all these other people have their own perspective? Which are right and which aren’t?

    And we remain limited to perspectives with people we interact with face-to-face, unable to generalise beyond that into hypothetical situations and take on universal views applicable to all.

    Expanded 2nd-person: Absolutistic – Amber

    At this stage, we can coordinate perspectives enough to become aware that people share them and that they hold groups together. We come to view ourselves as part of a group which has certain beliefs, and we identify with that group and its members. We often confuse our own identity with that of the group.

    We’ve also develop enough self-awareness to notice when our thoughts and actions don’t allow with the norms of that group.

    What often occurs here is a rejection of views that contradict those of our group since we’re not able to incorporate them into our worldview. Therefore, we draw a strict line between people who are part of the group and not part of it. If they are, they’re allies; if not, they’re enemies.

    Let’s now look at the 3rd-person, which will reveal to us the limitations of 2nd-person.

    3rd-person Empathy and Perspective-Taking – Self and Other Selves: Amber/Orange

    After constructing and exploring many 2nd-person perspectives, which allows us to appreciate perspectives and views other than our own, the 3rd-person perspective may develop.

    Our ability to step into the shoes of others goes up a notch. Now we are able to identify people’s view on us as individuals – before, we couldn’t grasp that. We also realise, then, that we’re constructing a view of others too. This is called mutual interpersonal perspective-taking.

    With all this feedback and opinion available, we see the complexity of who we are and who others are. Our identity is now a cluster of external, conventional traits. We’re now beginning to see ourselves objectively. Beginning introspection now becomes possible as we reflect on our actions, how others’ opinions of us change, and how we can influence both of these.

    This also gives rise to the 3rd-person: one including our views, our opinions and our interpretations, but not limited to any of them. With us now aware of the plurality of views that individuals share, we no longer get trapped in the views of any one person or group, realising these are unique individuals.

    Loyalty to others becomes a concern in its own right: we want to live up to their expectations of us, seeing that they can form an opinion on us. We’re capable of greater, nuanced empathy.

    Expanded 3rd-person: Self in Society – Orange

    With enough experience with the 3rd-person, we can move beyond interpersonal modes. The 3rd-person world – laws, rights, authority, rights, rules – now has a life of its own, beyond the concern of one person or group of people.

    We view ourselves and others as agents within the cultural surround and identify with others in that same surround. True introspection becomes possible here as we’re now able to look backwards and forwards and identity what works and what doesn’t.

    With this expansion of the 3rd-person, the idea of objective truth grows arms and legs. We believe that our favoured 3rd-person systems of truth merely supply objective, universal knowledge. Science is a key example, with its criteria that findings must be repeated and reviewed before being accepted as fact.

    4th-Person: Prior to Society – Green

    We now come to levels of perspective-taking that most people cannot access.

    The critical ingredient in the 4th-person is relativism. For the first time, we can go beyond our cultural surround, beyond our society and beyond the groups we identify with in that society. This is why it’s called Prior-to-Society, and it represents yet another step in the development of empathy.

    We recognise that the law, customs and group experiences we had thought of as objective and universal are actually relative to their home society.

    This opens us up to identify with groups, classes and traditions other than our own. There is a recognition of multiple perspectives.

    We also now realise our own deception as we constructed meaning in what we thought was an objective manner. We don’t just simply observe what is true – we taint it with our own interpretations and history. This makes epistemology possible.

    We’re able to question societal expectations and legality. Their origin and development now become important considerations.

    Expanded 4th-Person: Universal – Teal

    The expanded 4th-person is a new stage of integration after the transcending, differentiating shift brought in by the 4th-person.

    We retain the ability to see the relativity our ‘home’ culture, while placing it in a historical context and among many other worldviews and contexts. And we see ourselves as participants and agents in many systems.

    Rather than merely recognising multiple perspectives, we’re now capable of prioritising among them and making judgements. Developmental thinking is now an aspect of cognition: we look back at our life history and become aware of all the development that we’ve gone through.

    The same goes for other people and whole societies, replacing the multicultural flattening common at 4th-person. We now seek universally valid principles applicable to all, regardless of their context.

    5th-person: Transcendent – Turquoise

    While the two 4th-person perspectives are quite rare, but represent the near future for humanity if we continue to develop vertically, the next two levels are almost unheard of. I have only limited experience of the 5th-person.

    The 5th-person represents a step towards the transcendence of meaning.

    Here we recognise our need for meaning making and how it influences our interaction with life. We become aware of the constructed nature of all previous levels. The limitations of language and symbols also become apparent.

    Meaning, perspective, language, symbols, are all human devices, tools we use to operate within life and describe it, but their necessarily human nature taints their validity.

    We are open to not-knowing and contradictory perspectives to a much higher degree than ever.

    Witnessing Perspective – 3rd-Tier

    Here comes a reintegration of all that has gone before, including the deconstruction from the 5th-person perspective. We accept our human identity and its need for meaning and coherence. We now inhabit a cosmic perspective, but recognise the perspective of our ego to be useful.

    With its built-in self-transcendence, this perspective underlies the first one or two 3rd-tier stages as Wilber describes them. He used Sri Aurobindo’s work in formalising the 3rd-tier stage descriptions.