Kelly James Clark, Ibn Haldun University

Art as a Window into Empathy & Justice

What if the arts can bridge our deepest divides?

What if music is a shortcut to greater empathy?

What if art’s empathic power requires our participation?

Grant Title
Art, Empathy and Justice: an exploration of cognitive aesthetics
Legal Organization
Ibn Haldun University
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 30 November 2023
Grant Amount

Empathy is in short supply these days. And that’s cause for concern.

Empathetic people are sensitive to the emotions and suffering of others. They’re more likely to show understanding and compassion than vilification and judgment. They foster positive relationships and build healthy communities. They’re motivated to make the world a better place – and not just for themselves. 

A strong case can be made that empathy is at the essence of what it means to be fully human and live a meaningful life.

However, in places throughout the world, empathy and equality are being crowded out – even among cultures, countries, and religions that claim to value them. Instead, we sometimes see mean-spiritedness, hostility, aggression, dehumanization, and injustice. This is particularly true in religiously troubled areas.

I don't think anything touches our souls as deeply as music.
Kelly James Clark

There are plenty of ideas about why this is so. Many people say the bullhorn of social media is to blame. Others say fears about increasing diversity and economic inequality among populations are stoking tribalism to the extreme. Yet others claim that religions and education have lost their way, becoming increasingly partisan instead of nurturing values related to our shared humanity.

Across such deep divides, how can empathy and justice be cultivated? How can we begin to chip away at the walls of insularity?

These are compelling questions for Kelly James Clark, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Ibn Haldun University in Turkey. Based in the United States, his international career has focused on exploring the interface between philosophy and the brain. With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s launched an exploratory project to investigate the arts as a tool to extend empathy and justice across faiths and nationalities.

We want to see how the arts can rehumanize us.
Kelly James Clark

“Different strands of neuroscientific research show there is a strong overlap between the neural networks that are engaged in art, religion, spirituality, and social behavior,” he reports. “These findings give insight into art’s capacity to offer humans a window through which to reflect on the complex interactions between the world around us and the worlds inside our heads. They also indicate that experiences with art are likely to have the capacity to influence social phenomena such as empathy, justice, and perceptions of ‘the other.’ As such, they warrant further study.”

“Empathy’s affective reactions—its shared ‘fellow feeling’—may include emotional contagion, emotion recognition, and shared pain,” he continues. “Empathy’s cognitive reaction may include the capacity to understand and even adopt another person’s psychological point of view. In combination, empathy’s cognitive and affective aspects can motivate love’s right actions. Indeed, empathy may make one cognitively aware of both the insistence of love and the demands of justice.”

Crossing Boundaries

Research into art’s effects on cognition is still in its infancy. So far, empirical studies are mostly done by scientists without the benefit of theologians’ and philosophers’ insights or the advantages they bring to increase the uptake of study findings. What’s more, the bulk of this research has been done in Western World countries where the Christian heritage still dominates.

To address these limitations, Clark is conducting an 18-month, interdisciplinary, multi-faith, multi-culture, and multi-country project. The goal is to examine how the cognitive influence of the arts on empathy and justice can be understood and applied across social, cultural, political, and religious differences.

The project brings together a diversity of philosophers, theologians, psychologists, artists, and neuroscientists to co-develop richer empirical studies. Participants include Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the United States, Turkey, and Israel.

Although Clark’s research interests span the arts, he’s focused this preliminary study on music, for two reasons. First, compared to visual arts, its cognitive effects are understudied. Second, music seems to have uniquely powerful effects.

“I don’t think anything touches our souls as deeply as music,” he explains. “And when you put music to words, those words have a way of getting into our hearts in ways that I think nothing else does. And I think humans have known this for hundreds of thousands  of years.”

Learning from Each Other

After a series of monthly Zoom meetings, the group convened in person in Istanbul. Together, they discussed ideas, shared perspectives, and ultimately jointly developed empirically testable hypotheses and experiments.

As important, the agenda also prompted participants to explore empathy firsthand.

“I designed our time together so that we would do the things we talked about,” Clark explains. “We were people from Turkey, Israel, and the United States. We were Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics. We were people of different colors, different backgrounds, people that like different kinds of music. I wanted us to see if what we developed works. So, we spent four days together, taking meals together, listening to music together, walking together, moving together, talking together, trying to see what works to cultivate empathy in people across difference.”

Rehumanizing Our Humanity

More than just topics for scholarly inquiry, the need for greater empathy and justice is growing by the day.

“While the study of art, empathy, and justice is valuable in its own right, recent turns toward tribalism, nationalism, parochialism, and isolationism lend an existential urgency,” he says. “We need to find the most effective and scientifically informed ways to build bridges of empathy and justice, within and between traditions and beliefs.”

At the same time, the greater the distances and differences, the more challenging empathy becomes. And sometimes it may seem impossible. But, even in the absence of empathy, we still have obligations to each other.

“When we can’t feel empathy for people who are different from us, we still are obligated to treat them justly and fairly and with respect, dignity, and honor,” Clark emphasizes. “We want to see how the arts can rehumanize others, how they can help us see that. And so that’s the aim of this project. We know empathy works sometimes. But we don’t yet know why. And we don’t know how.”


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