Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL
In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.
Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t? Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. From Einfühlung to Empathy
In 1909, Edward Titchener coined the English “empathy” while working on the psychology of perception at Cornell. “Empathy” was a translation of the German “Einfühlung,” and Titchener’s account of the term is quite convoluted. Einfühlung had been used since the second half of the 18th century to explain how spectators perceive aesthetic objects. The idea was that aesthetic perception involves projection of the spectator’s kinaesthetic experience into the object of perception. As in, as I approach a mountain, I experience sensations of rising and expansion, and project these feelings into the mountain.
The 19th century German psychologist Theodor Lipps provided the most thorough account of Einfühlung. Lipps was a translator and fan of the work of 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, which includes some of the most well known writing on sympathy in Western intellectual history. Although Lipps’ account of Einfühlung does not refer directly to Hume, it is hard to deny a connection. Lipps first used Einfühlung to theorize optical illusions, but extended the concept to interpersonal perception. For example, as I see you extend your arm, I might experience a sensation of forward movement, and project that feeling into you.
The concept of Einfühlung has influenced thought on a variety of intellectual problems, in a variety of contexts, but in most cases has not inspired the kind of grand claims we see in contemporary talk about empathy. Early 20th century phenomenologists invoked Einfühlung to address the philosophical problem of solipsism: How do I recognize that there are minds besides my own? Einfühlung also played a role in the development of the hermeneutic tradition in the human sciences. In these and other discursive contexts, Einfühlung has been a source of fruitful ideas, but has not generated grand claims.
Empathy’s Clinical Crossover
Grand aspirations for empathy seem tied to more recent developments in Anglo-American psychology. Freud greatly admired Lipps, and initially discussed Einfühlung to explain the psychology of jokes. Later, Freud viewed Einfühlung as central to rapport in clinical contexts. The idea of empathy as useful to psychotherapy developed importance, notably through Carl Rogers after the 1930s and Heinz Kohut after the 1960s. Both use the English “empathy” to describe a principle that facilitates helpful response to emotional suffering. However, for Rogers, empathy is tied to unconditional positive regard. Kohut, on the other hand, vehemently criticizes equation of empathy with kindness or love, arguing that, although empathy is the root of good, it can equally be used for ill.
We are now closer to the views of empathy in Brown, Obama, and Rifkin. In Anglo-American psychology and neuroscience of the past 60 years, we find the following:
- The idea of empathy as a general principle of positive relationships. From the 1960s onward, developmental psychologists have promoted the biologized psychoanalytic idea that the quality of infants’ interactions with caregivers predicts normal development. Positive quality includes perspective-taking and emotional attunement, now considered basic components of empathy.
- The idea of empathy as a principle of helping. From the 1980s onward, some social psychologists have defended the controversial theory that empathy makes altruistic motivation possible.
- The idea that empathy is brained-based. In the early 2000s, neuroscientists discovered the “mirror neuron,” and presented it as the basis of empathy. Although disputed within neuroscience, mirror neuron theory is widely endorsed in other academic domains and in popular culture.
Brown, Obama, and Rifkin rely on ideas that present empathy as a biological human capacity, associated with concern for distress, connection, and helping. But such ideas are neither ahistorical nor universal, and they do not reflect the entire conceptual history of empathy. What then are the contexts of contemporary Western assumptions around empathy, and how could they lead to grand claims and phrases like “empathy deficit” and “global empathic consciousness”? These questions seem appropriate to anthropology. As a discipline that hinges on things like attunement and perspective taking, I think we may have something valuable to add to these conversations.