Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

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.

Lindsay Bell

I am a sociocultural/linguistic anthropologist interested in the place of indigenous life and arctic environments in (inter)national public culture. My primary research examines indigenous-state relations and everyday experiences of extractive development (diamonds and oil) in circumpolar North America.

With artist/academic collaborators, Jesse C Jackson (UC Irvine) and Tori Foster (OCAD U), I am developing a set of moving and still images to tell the story of urban life north of the 60th parallel. This new work combines data visualization techniques with more standard anthropological methods.

When not north of 60, I have the pleasure of teaching ethnographic writing by way of anthropology at SUNY, Oswego where I am an assistant professor. I am the editor of the Society for the Anthropology of North America’s peer reviewed journal, North American Dialogue. You can find me on social media @drlibertybell

16 thoughts on “Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

  1. Steven Pinker has a long discussion of empathy in Better Angels of Our Nature, and while anthropologists seem to be allergic to Pinker, it is worth reading – chapter 9, ‘Better Angels’, discussion of empathy starts on page 571. He also says that OED lists a 1904 usage of ’empathy’ by Vernon Lee, so presumably Einfuehlung -> empathy was an obvious calque for German speakers.

  2. I’m familiar with the Lee attribution of first usage of “empathy,” but it is a bit unclear. Titchener certainly was more influential. As the post indicates, Einfühlung has been around since at least the latter half of the 18th century, but there it is not clear who exactly started it. Robert Vischer is often credited with giving an imortant articulation of Einfühlung in 1873, as an extension of his father’s work on the concept.

  3. Thanks Bree! I hadn’t seen this. I actually don’t work on empathy directly- it seems to just keep presenting itself to me so I am still sorting out how much I need to take on board. I will reveal my own ethnographic route to this struggle in my next post and hope you’ll chime in.

  4. Hi again. A few disparate thoughts:

    In the same way that the concept and value of ‘autonomy’ implies a particular cultural subject the concept of ‘empathy’ (as used in English) seems to imply a culturally specific notion of personhood (as you suggested in passing in your first post), being the individual, or independent concept/sense of self. This is not to deny that what we describe as ‘empathy’ is a universal human capacity, but to say that it is culturally framed in a very specific way, as we use it. The concept of empathy can’t be understood without reference to the broader emotion lexicon/template of morality of which it is a part. It would be an interesting exercise to search for equivalent terms/concepts in other languages among other cultural groups.

    I work with Yolŋu people, with the Gumatj dialect of Yolŋu-matha in which there is no near equivalent. Again, this is not to say that Yolŋu people don’t empathise, but that it is framed in a very different way. Yolŋu concepts of affect/emotion certainly implicate what we would refer to as the capacity for/exercising of empathy, but in an unmarked sense. I suspect this is also probably true in most places where an interdependent concept/sense of self prevails. All this is to say that I think ‘empathy’, as used in English, describes a universal human capacity but as refracted through the (culturally specific) prism of personhood (incl. /affect/emotion/morality.)

    There is something to be said here too about the degree to which studies of empathy are built upon research that examines only a narrow sample of human variation (mostly WEIRD subjects). Further reason anthropology seems particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy.

    A general point re: the contexts of renewed emphasis or focus on empathy and the ‘mini-boom’ in the worlds of counselling, education and social work – I think this says a great deal about how normalised and pervasive the experience of dissociation, alienation or estrangement has become. Given a significant portion of our socio-economic world is comprised of ‘impersonal’/‘professional’ relations in which affective experience is not generally a legitimate motivation for action (on it’s own at least) – it’s no wonder we’re having a crisis of empathy. We create a particular cultural subject and then wonder how/why it is so.

    As to Tory Government claims re: the London Riots were the result of a ‘lack of empathy’ – and Barack king-of-the-drones Obama claiming to be concerned about some empathy deficit – what I laff! Or perhaps they’re genuinely reconsidering the nature and effects of neoliberalism/State Capitalism?!

    Really enjoying your posts anyhow, and look forward to the next.


  5. I’ve just heard Tory Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove say that children need to learn more ’empathy’ in their history classes. This is ironic, given that he wants to turn history in British schools into a simple chronology of Britain, instead of a course that attempts to grapple with the complexity of the human world, and that he wants to basically ignore the history of anywhere that isn’t, well, white.

    Seems to me that ’empathy’ is just a figleaf and a word best avoided.

  6. Desn’t avoiding a word simply leave the issues it raises to others? Now that “empathy” has become a common and loaded term in popular, therapeutic, and political discourse, can we simply ignore it in discussing the state of contemporary society?

  7. An ethnographic note: The description of Einfülung offered above suggests that empathy is a matter of projecting our own feelings onto the other as we try to interpret their behavior. This usage is 180 degrees opposite to the description of empathy offered in explanations of non-directive, e.g., Rogerian, therapy, where projecting one’s own feelings onto the other is explicitly prohibited. Openness replaces projection. What the therapist must learn to do is to recognize her own feelings and put them aside, to be able to hear more clearly what the caller or client is saying.

  8. What the therapist must learn to do is to recognize her own feelings and put them aside, to be able to hear more clearly what the caller or client is saying.

    You should use everything available to you, including your own emotions and their own words, to make sense of the actions and emotions of others, just as you do in every other part of your life. Ethnographic and archaeological interpretation isn’t different in kind to interpreting the actions of people anywhere in any context, and in your normal life you use your emotions and thoughts as ways of interpreting the beliefs and actions of others. That doesn’t mean that meat eaters should assume that everyone enjoys eating meat or that pacifists should assume that everyone seeks to avoid violence. But you can’t listen to someone else without having some idea about the meaning of the words they use in your own head, and you can’t interpret someone’s emotions and actions without having some understanding of emotions and reasons.

    can we simply ignore it […]?

    We can say that it’s just a word, one that has been abused a great deal and diverged considerably in the course of just over a century. Everyone seems to be looking for great meaning in it, or some kind of astounding new moral principle, but it’s just a word. All of the shades of meaning and differences of intepretation of it seem to be seeing things that aren’t there. There’s general agreement that it’s a positive thing and that it probably involves some kind of taking into account of other people in some way, but beyond that there’s little agreement, which means that any use of it is fundamentally ambiguous. Avoid it or define it well before using it, but then accept that pillocks like Gove will take your nice word and use it shiftily.

    Again, I think Pinker has an excellent discussion of this, and I would advise reading it, even if you hate Pinker.

  9. This is my first encounter with the term Einfühlung, Lindsay, many thanks for this post!

    Do you have any idea if there is any sort of historical relationship in the development of Einfühlung and psychophysics? I am thinking, of course, of Boas’s intellectual background with the question.

  10. I don’t know a lot about psychophysics, but there is overlap between its development and significant moments in the development of Einfühlung. I think Fechner was one of the first psychophysics researchers, and he was involved in setting up psychology as a scientific discipline (separate from philosophy), in conjunction with Wundt’s setting up the first experimental psychology lab in Leipzig. Both Lipps and Titchener were students of Wundt.

  11. John, I really agree that that there is a huge difference between the projective phenomena that “Einfühlung” was meant to capture is pretty different from the versions of empathy that are connected with ideas about openness, and which are specifically concerned with responding to emotional suffering.

    I suspect that Bree’s point about empathy research being done on WEIRD subjects is quite important, though I don’t have well developed views about this.

  12. For more on empathy see:
    Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

    Perhaps you’d be interested in doing a panel on the topic of empathy and Anthropology?
    see http://bit.ly/y8WS7V

    Also see my interview:
    Michael Kimball & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy with Anthropology

    “Michael Kimball is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado. In his video Recovering Empathy, he explored the relationship of empathy and the antithesis of antipathy and apathy. Antipathy is wanting to shut down a threat and fear which are often caused by unfamiliarity, differences, ignorance, inexperience and irrelevance. Apathy is shutting down when we feel powerless.

    Metaphorically speaking, empathy empowers construction of a stone arch bridge of interpersonal communication; apathy is the gap between the sides; antipathy is tensional stress, i.e., underlying forces trying to pull the connection apart. The Stone arch bridge, like human survival strategies, has an ancient heritage. The metaphorical bridge is made of individual stones – moments of shared experience; outreach efforts; courage to allow oneself to be vulnerable, etc.”


  13. One more and I’m out.

    There’s a distinction between empathy as an internal state and as something read into behavior.
    We only know others’ minds by reading their actions. The internal states themselves are unknown and they’ll stay that way until we all walk around with monitors on our chests that show our brain scans to whomever we’re engaged with at the time.

    Foucault made a good point when he said that the king didn’t care what you thought, only how you acted.

    I didn’t care if the hospice worker actually cared about my mother; my main concern was that she pay attention to her. Concern in that sense is a practice, not an idea or emotion. And as far as politics, Gandhi’s pacifism was a practice. He wasn’t exactly a hippy. He believed that if a starving child had nothing to eat but steak, he should be left to starve. The practice is remembered, the details of the theory, less so.

    The concern for inner states, for sincerity, slides easily into a concern for self-regard. It’s very important to liberals to be well-thought-of. They want to see themselves as liberal, even if they’re not. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was stinging in its contempt for “the white moderate”. Again, by the numbers:

    The civil rights movement was a movement of black lower middle class and otherwise socially conservative church-goers.
    The fight for women’s rights (post-war) was led angry housewives and secretaries.
    The gay rights movement went full on after cops picked the wrong night to raid a bar full of drag queens. Judy Garland had died and they were in no mood. That alone explains why the “Queer theory” that came later is such a mix of the radical and reactionary (the demimonde still give us the best critique of liberal democracy we have).

    Liberal Jews do not speak for Palestinians any more than white for black, men for women, straight for gay, and goyim for Jews for that matter, especially after the holocaust. The change in popular attitudes towards Zionism is the result of immigration and mass media: we see more Palestinians than we used to. They used to be only an idea, to be spoken about. “The Palestinian Problem” finally has gone the way of “The Negro Problem” and the others. They’re here! Get used to it.

    In every case the mechanisms of change have been the same. Change builds from below. “Political theorists” now opposed to historians by definition, try to imagine a future, without paying attention to the present. The focus on “the idea” of politics weakens our understanding of politics just as the focus on inner states, on sincerity, on the need for an amorphous “idea” of caring, weakens our understanding of the practice of it.

    Worry about moral responsibility and moral seriousness will take care of itself.

  14. Frances, thank you for your kind words. Research with WEIRD subjects may be one issue, but I think myself that Bree nails it with,

    A general point re: the contexts of renewed emphasis or focus on empathy and the ‘mini-boom’ in the worlds of counselling, education and social work – I think this says a great deal about how normalised and pervasive the experience of dissociation, alienation or estrangement has become.

    We are, I propose, dealing with a phenomenon with a sociological explanation, the accelerating urbanisation of human lives the world over. As Georg Simmel pointed out both hostility and amity are social relationships. Indifference is not. And, as many observers have noted, the urban experience is one in which our lives intersect with growing numbers of people to whom we are indifferent. We don’t know them. They don’t know us. Note how different this situation is from the “little communities” that anthropologists traditionally study, where whether members of the community love or hate each other, indifference is not an option.

    Another relevant line of research is that pioneered by the sociolinguist Basil Bernstein, who observed that simplified codes (limited vocabulary and simple grammatical forms) were characteristic of aristocratic speech as well as speech in working class neighbourhoods. In both cases, members of the communities in question don’t have to say much to mean a lot, since the contexts in which they speak and the individuals with whom they speak are intimately familiar. It is, in contrast, in socially mobile middle-class circles where interaction with strangers is common that speech becomes more elaborate.

    Yet another may be the work of Bellah, et al, in Habits of the Heart, where four types of American individualism are described: two classic and two more recent. In the classic variants God or the Nation provide an external standard against which behaviour is measured. In the more recent variants, values are seen as originating in individuals, either in the rational choices of homo economics or the feelings dramatised in therapy and theatre. In both these recent forms, what the other is thinking or feeling is not only of critical importance; it can only be inferred, since clear external referents are lacking. Empathy emerges as a vital skill for both salesman and therapist but remains suspect to those who see rational choice, in the market’s nasty how can I beat the competition to get what I want sense, as the only motivation that actually counts.

    Anyway, Happy New Year to all. Here in Japan, it is time to party.

  15. Slight return, and an apology. I almost never see red flags where there aren’t any, but these days often I see dozens where there are only two or three, and the name Bourdieu makes me see red for days. But if I’m attacking moralists its best not to sound like one. It’s a good post and good discussion. My grumpy indignation was uncalled for, so in a more polite, and useful, tone I’l add one more comment.

    That empathy, as Einfühlung, originated in the discussion of esthetics is poetic justice, since Bourdieu’s use of Habitus originates in Erwin Panofsky. I’ve said that before but this discussion makes the relation clear. We need to return the irony that Bourdieu and others have stripped from it.

    To surgeons as tight-rope walkers and hospice workers as prostitutes, add war correspondents as adrenaline junkies and defense lawyers who defend war criminals because its necessary, and because its fun. On the other side of the equation put nurses who hide their fear and self-pity in obsessive service to the sick, bureaucrats who imagine order as justice, economists who see economics as formal science, librarians who conflate filing systems for literary criticism, artists who equate abstraction with representation, and performers who think they need to be miserable to communicate sadness. And remember that Bourdieu drew his arguments also from Clement Greenberg.

    Emotionalism and formalism (two sides of the same coin), or irony and responsibility.
    This is the good stuff. This is where it gets heavy. This is where it gets fun.

    Happy New Year.

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