The word “empathy” first appeared in English in 1909 when it was translated by Edward Bradford Titchener from the German Einfühlung, an old concept that had been gaining new meaning and increased relevance from the 1870s onward. While today we often treat “empathy” as a synonym for “sympathy,” if not—and more commonly—as an improvement on it, empathy at the turn of the century was used to describe a unique combination of cognitive effort and bodily feeling thought to characterize aesthetic experience. Such experience was not limited to contemplating works of art, however; for several of its earliest theorists, empathy named our aesthetic experiences of other people. It would seem to some that a radical break had been made between sympathy, seen as a primarily moral (and moralizing) activity, and a more scientific, physico-psychological process for which the human brain was hardwired. Yet the empathy of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may also be seen as sharing key features with sympathy, particularly as the latter was conceptualized by eighteenth-century moral philosophy and Romantic and Victorian aesthetics.
Empathy is a hot topic these days, on the lips of cognitive scientists, philosophers, literary critics, and U.S. Presidents alike. But what is it? Consider the opening paragraph of the opening essay of a 2011 collection entitled The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. In “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena,” C. Daniel Batson writes:
Students of empathy can seem a cantankerous lot. Although they typically agree that empathy is important, they often disagree about why it is important, about what effects it has, about where it comes from, and even about what it is. The term empathy is currently applied to more than a half-dozen phenomena. These phenomena are related to one another, but they are not elements, aspects, facets, or components of a single thing that is empathy, as one might say that an attitude has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Rather, each is a conceptually distinct, stand-alone psychological state. Further, each of those states has been called by names other than empathy. Opportunities for disagreement abound. (3, original emphasis)
As Batson goes on to suggest, empathy can be difficult to define because it is often invoked “to provide an answer to two quite different questions” (3). The first is this one: how do we know what others think and feel? And the second: how can we explain the impulse to respond to the feelings of others? The first is principally a question of knowledge. It asks how we are able to infer the contents of other minds, or how and to what extent we project those contents from our own. The second, centered on motivation and behavior, is primarily ethical. It seeks to understand as well as “promote prosocial action” (4).
The empathy of the moment has accrued a number of unique (and contradictory) meanings and associations, from benevolent, altruistic care to the biochemical and physiological responses of our minds and bodies as we mimic or mirror the feelings of others—as, for example, in the “primitive empathy” of motor mimicry, an automatic or reactive bodily response that (some say) is carried out unselfconsciously, without intention or will (Bavelas et. al.). We might well wonder, then, what relation empathy has to sympathy, a concept with which it is sometimes aligned, sometimes treated synonymously, and sometimes contrasted. It might seem intuitively correct to assume a wide distance between the two, if one takes as a starting point such recent titles as “The Empathetic Brain” and “Imitation, Empathy and Mirror Neurons.” Empathy is without a doubt the preferred term for describing brain phenomena that, it would appear, only the most cutting-edge technology has made visible. Yet empathy in the late-nineteenth-century, Darwinian era looks surprisingly like the empathy of today. There was, of course, no talk of mirror neurons then, but the material body and the interworking of its parts had become vital to those whose interest in loosening the grip of morality on our understanding of human experience had directed their attention to muscles and nerves. Indeed, we find family resemblances when we look back farther still. When, in 1987, the psychology professors Nancy Eisenberg and Paul A. Miller distinguished empathy from sympathy—defining empathy as a vicarious “emotional matching” occurring in the apprehension of another’s affective state and sympathy as involving “sorrow or concern for another’s welfare”—they opened their essay with references to David Hume and Immanuel Kant (92). Hume is among the first in a long line of thinkers who stress the emotional origins of moral behavior; Kant stands with those for whom cognition is key. If it is true that “psychologists generally have been less concerned than philosophers with delineating the ontological nature of morality,” the status of the emotions and the thinking mind, as well as the ostensible divide between them, has continued to occupy students of empathy and sympathy since the Scottish Enlightenment (Eisenberg and Miller 91).
Empathy is the decidedly younger term, at least in English. Moreover, though “empathy” is favored over “sympathy” in modern discourse (for reasons we will explore), it rose to prominence and accrued new meaning in a field—psychological aesthetics—which for many of us no doubt remains unfamiliar.When the British psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener translated the German Einfühlung into the English “empathy” in 1909, he drew upon a number of recent writings dedicated in part to revising and refining the term’s aesthetic and moral implications. Einfühlung had been used by the German Romantics to describe aesthetic experience, particularly the experience of “feeling into” the natural world, but had become the object of serious philosophical scrutiny only in the later nineteenth century through the work of German philosophers like Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps. The remainder of this essay considers why the introduction of that new term was important, what it meant, and how it differed from (or was continuous with) existing understandings of sympathy. It argues that while empathy and sympathy may sometimes be conceived differently, and necessarily so, a brief look at the history of these terms reveals that both share common merits. Finally, it suggests that empathy should be thought of less as an improvement over a sympathy understood as old-fashioned, pitying condescension than an innovation in theorizing a relation with which the first philosophers of sympathy were also concerned, that between the thinking mind, emotion, and aesthetic form. Such issues had preoccupied writers in the eighteenth century, when the fields of psychology and aesthetics were in their infancy. Empathy does not supplant a naïve, outmoded sympathy but seeks to answer different questions or to answer old ones in new ways.
Indeed, empathy, or rather sympathy, had been understood in aesthetic terms at least since Adam Smith, Hume, and their eighteenth-century contemporaries began the rigorous study of moral feeling, into which aesthetic experience fell. The highly physicalized empathy of the early twentieth century in many ways represents a continuation of, rather than a radical break from, a sympathy that in Smith and Hume’s day was not without its own bodily discourse of taste and appetites, or its embroilment in debates concerning the nature of attraction and repulsion. Even the architectural, geometrical emphasis that, as we shall see, characterized empathy for writers like Vernon Lee was not without precedent. In Beauty & Ugliness (1912; first published in two-part essay form in 1897), a work attributed to both Lee and Clementina (“Kit”) Anstruther-Thomson, Lee contends that to articulate properly the aesthetic process one must connect an analytic vocabulary to an affective one: “visible qualities” like “red, blue, tall, long, triangular, [and] square,” she writes, “tell us of no aesthetic peculiarities”; “[f]or those we must go to the names of our moods: pleasant, unpleasant, harmonious, jarring, unified, etc.” (271, original emphasis). Lee, following Lipps’s lead, goes on to describe in brilliant detail how we empathize with triangles and squares. But in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume too had had a good deal to say about the relationship between shape and color, ideation, and emotional response, as when he describes how we “revolve in our mind the ideas of circles, squares, parallelograms, [and] triangles of different sizes and proportions,” or describes a man looking at a kind of color wheel missing a particular shade of blue (22.214.171.124). “Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest,” Hume writes; “it is plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting. . . . Now I ask, whether it is possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses?” (126.96.36.199). Hume answers in the affirmative, drawing a parallel between color perception and sympathy with others. Both require imagination for filling in the gaps, yet neither is simply “subjective.” Our sympathetic responses are modified and corrected in the same way as are our judgments of color, line, and size. Both become objective in accordance with general rules.
Empathy’s significance to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theories of the visual and plastic arts may thus be seen as an extension of (if also distinctive from) that early connection between sympathetic responsiveness, judgment, and aesthetic form. In Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893 (1994), Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou describe the crucial twenty-year period during which Einfühlung acquired that modern significance as an important background for understanding the aesthetic transformations that would epitomize early-twentieth-century art. The formal experimentation of Futurism, Cubism, and Neoplasticism, they suggest, “was not without intellectual pedigree,” specifically in the shift away from “the erstwhile philosophical and physiological problem of how we perceive form and space” toward “the fledgling psychological problem of how we come to appreciate or take delight in the characteristics of form and space,” and the “analogous problem of how we might artistically exploit pure form and space as artistic entities in themselves” (1-2). The emphasis on pleasure is important. Though the intellectual tradition they trace leads them all the way back to Kant’s conception of “purposiveness” (Zweckmäßigkeit), which they define as “the sense of internal harmony that we presume to exist in the world” and thus “the heuristic rule or standard by which we relate to the forms of nature and art,” the final decades of the nineteenth century were marked by a profound attention to bodily response (Mallgrave and Ikonomou 6). Translating Einfühlung as “in-feeling,” Mallgrave and Ikonomou are keen to emphasize the physiological basis of, for instance, Robert Vischer’s “muscular” empathy, which links aesthetic appreciation to the rhythmic experiences of the body’s “self-motions,” or his conviction that certain “loud” colors “might actually provoke an auditory response” (23). As Vischer puts it, “[w]e move in and with the forms” (101). Whether carried far away in observing “fleeting clouds,” or mentally attempting to “scale [the] fir tree and reach up within it,” we “caress [form’s] spatial discontinuities”; by moving in this way “in the imagination,” we reproduce the kinetic motion of our internal organs and project it into other, even stationary, objects (101). This experience of a rhythmic continuity between self and other, outside and in, defines empathy in Vischer’s view. By objectifying the self in external, spatial forms, projecting it into and becoming analogous with them, subject merges with object. Self and world unite.
Mallgrave and Ikonomou underscore how radical this proposal can seem once we recognize the pervasiveness of empathy in our unconscious, everyday activities. For Vischer’s conception of empathy involves “a pervasive attitude, an openness that we maintain with the world,” which in turn suggests (as Hume had done) that the self is a fiction, a form borne of imagination and maintained “only by force of habit” (Mallgrave and Ikonomou 25). One of empathy’s most pleasurable rewards, then, might be in the letting go (or loosening up) of that fiction. External objects lose their distinctiveness from the self when my feeling and my “mental representation” of a given object “become one” (25). This has important implications for the artist whose attempts at intensifying expressions of form do not attempt to copy nature but reveal the richly affective and energic processes “concealed therein”: art might strive “to objectify the human condition in a sensuous and harmoniously refined form,” translating “the instability of emotional life and the chaotic disorder of nature into a free, beautiful objectivity” (26). As Titchener explained in his Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought-Processes (1909), an author’s “choice and arrangement of words” could produce “attitudinal feels”: visceral pressures, muscular “tonicity,” and altered breathing and facial expressions felt by authors and readers alike (181). This collection of responses he calls “empathy,” yet it is not simply that aesthetic experience leads to physiological effects. For even ordinary, run-of-the-mill thinking and understanding involve similar exertions, in a kind of “motor empathy” in which one “act[s] the feeling out, though as a rule in imaginal and not sensational terms” (185). “Not only do I see” such abstract concepts as “gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness,” Titchener explains; “I feel or act them in the mind’s muscles” (21).
Such an empathy seems to have come a long way from sympathy as it is commonly understood, especially if by that word we mean something closer to the sentimental pitying often associated with Victorian morality (as we saw at the beginning of this essay, sympathy retains for many contemporary theorists an association with pity that empathy does not). Suzanne Keen reminds us in Empathy and the Novel (2007) that Victorian novelists like George Eliot were explicit in “articulat[ing] a project for the cultivation of the sympathetic imagination,” whereby novel readers “might learn, by extending themselves into the experiences, motives, and emotions of fictional characters, to sympathize with real others in their everyday lives” (38). Sympathy was urged as an urgent ethical response to the increasingly urban, disconnected, and morally uncertain world of full-blown capitalism. For some, though, that possibility came with messages fraught with danger, as from those who worried that novel reading corrupted readers (especially girls) by causing them to think and feel things they ought not, as well as from those who, from a different angle, considered sympathy a poor, overly personal substitute for large-scale social reform. Such concerns were as old as the novel itself, as was the sneaking suspicion that sympathy provided a cover for less than noble desires. As one Madame Riccoboni wryly remarked in 1769, “[o]ne would readily create unfortunates in order to taste the sweetness of feeling sorry for them” (qtd. in Boltanski 101). Yet Keen’s use of the terms “empathy” and “sympathy” more or less interchangeably marks an effort to rescue sympathy from the bad press it received not so much then as now, once empathy, having shed the moralistic overtones that had accrued to sympathy, was judged the more modern and better of the two. As I have written elsewhere, after 1909 (if not before it), sympathy seemed to belong to the Victorians, empathy to us (“Thinking” 418).
How this came to pass over the course of the nineteenth century is a story too long and complex to cover fully here. Yet in some ways the shift is easy to explain. As Neil Vickers writes, “in eighteenth-century Britain, ‘proto-psychology’ and ‘proto-aesthetics’ laboured under a common burden”: that of having to “prove their worth in moral terms” (4). The first “psychologists” we might say—admittedly, by stretching the term—were the “moral doctors” described by Karl Philipp Moritz in 1782 as the physicians of heart and head (qtd. in Vickers 5). The shift from moral medicine to morality-free scientific rigor (if it ever, finally, took place) was neither quick nor unambivalent. As Vickers reminds us, Samuel Taylor Coleridge apologized for using the term “psychological” in series of lectures he gave on Shakespeare in 1811-12 (the “patient” was Hamlet). Yet serious examination of the mind—studied attention to the relay between perception, cognition, and affective response—was beginning to lead many thinkers toward more neutral, less patently moral explanations for human behavior. And as psychology (along with many other branches of science) became increasingly professionalized as the century progressed, so a new psychological aesthetics developed in tandem with other scientific developments, and, as Carolyn Burdett explains, “physiology and psychology converged” ( “Introduction” 1).By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Burdett argues, evolutionary theory offered new ways “to understand such psycho-physiological phenomena” as reflex actions and spontaneous emotional response, thus “linking even the most seemingly sovereign of human experiences, such as the feeling of love for another person or the love of God, to vestigial instinctive behaviors which had once conferred evolutionary advantage” (1). As emotion fell under the powerful sway of physiology, so too did aesthetic response. If love was in some fundamental way biochemical, perhaps a sensation borne of the nervous system, the same might be true for experiences of the beautiful, including the sympathetic facility—now becoming “empathetic”—to have aesthetic experiences with, and of, others. As Lipps argued in “Empathy, Inner Imitation and Sense-Feelings” (1903), when in empathy with another person I experience “a spatial extension of the ego,” I assume “the place of that figure. I am transported into it. As far as my consciousness is concerned, I am totally identical with it” (qtd. in Jahoda 155). That, he continues, “is aesthetic imitation, and it is at the same time aesthetic Einfühlung” (155). For Lipps, “aesthetic enjoyment is objectivated self-enjoyment” in that it enabled a formal experience of self (Pinotti 94). For Lee, following from Lipps while carving out her own theory of “anthropomorphic aesthetics,” empathy involved emotional memory: physical motions, grown abstract through continual repetition, are sensations that in empathy we feel, thrillingly, to have been revived (Beauty 1).
For many such writers, empathy necessarily involved a cognitive component, though how strong, and how dominant, varied. As Burdett notes, Lee and Anstruther-Thomson’s Beauty & Ugliness offered “an empirically-based account of aesthetic experience” in which bodily sensation precedes and leads to emotion: “we fear because we tremble,” not the other way around (“Vernon Lee” 3). But Lee balked at entirely severing morality from aesthetic experience. Inspired, Burdett argues, by a proposition central to Darwin’s 1871 Descent of Man—that “female aesthetic choice” shapes and even dictates (hetero-)sexual selection—Lee was at once receptive to arguments for the primacy of sensation and resistant to any mechanistic understanding of aesthetic response (11). From Vischer she took the idea that we imaginatively experience our own bodies via those external objects into which our emotions are projected; from Lipps’s Spatial Aesthetics and Optical Illusion (1897), she took the notion that the seeming vitality of objects, including the erectness and “balance” of a Doric column, is among those “ideas of movement” and dynamism produced by empathy (Burdett “Vernon Lee” 20, original emphasis). Such ideas are “made out of the accumulated and synthesized, ‘abstracted’ memory store of our experiences of sensory motor activity, out of imagined similar movements, and out of an unconscious knowledge of primordial dynamism as such” (Burdett 20). They are, for Lee, “tantamount to life,” for beauty confirms us to ourselves: “forms and shapes,” she believed, “are how we keep feeling that we are alive” (Burdett 20).
If by 1932 empathy had become a widely accepted term amongst psychologists, sympathy had in certain circles suffered a decline, at least in popular perception. It is worth remembering, however, that the moral and social theories of Smith and Hume are thick with references to the mental activities, perceptual and imaginative acuities, and ethical conundrums that, in the parlance of our own day, can seem to belong exclusively to empathy as well as the moment. Projection and mirroring, the role of inference, fiction, and the imagination in inhabiting other minds—these were central to the broad eighteenth-century attempt to reconceive how feeling fundamentally affected nearly every aspect of human life. Though their aims and conclusions sometimes differ, Smith’s insistence that our sympathies arise not simply by viewing another’s emotional expression firsthand, but from reflecting upon “the situation which excites it,” isn’t so far from the “in-feeling” that interested Lipps, Lee, and the rest (12). It too involves an experience of form, in what Smith calls the “going along with” others: imaginatively re-creating their mental movements, crafting narrative accounts so as to understand (and simulate) their attitudes, feelings, and thoughts (83). As with Lee’s “abstracted” memories, feelings in Smith’s sympathetic process must first be abstracted—turned into the stuff of story—to be imaginatively passed on and shared. His denial that feelings could pass from one body to the next in the contagious fashion Hume described, and his resistance to the idea that our sympathies arose in response to bodily feeling of any kind, turned sympathy into a mental process. It also made emotion thoroughly social. No man can “think of his own character,” Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), without imagining how he appears to the minds of others; lacking that mental “mirror,” even the self is an “object which he cannot easily see, [and] which naturally he does not look at” (110). Smith illustrates the point by describing a man living in total isolation: on a good day, he might “view his own temper and character with that sort of satisfaction with which we consider a well-contrived machine”; on a bad day, he is but “a very awkward and clumsy contrivance” (192-93). Selfhood is so unthinkable on the social margins that only a minimal subjectivity is possible outside it. A man who cannot “suppose the idea of some other being, who is the natural judge of the person who feels,” is also incapable of having a self (193). Physiological accounts of empathy thus share with Smithian sympathy a crucial insight: that we project our feeling into other forms in order to experience ourselves.
Indeed, it is also worth remembering in closing that empathy and sympathy were overlapping terms even for those who initially sought to clarify empathy’s aesthetic dimensions or to distinguish it from the moral sentiments associated with sympathy. In his commentary on Doric columns, for instance, Lipps had written that while the arrangement of materials constituted its “technical” creation, only a “combination of aesthetic relations for our imagination constitutes a work of art”: “the essential of the work of art,” he continues, “is an imaginary world unified and self-contained” (qtd. in Lee “Recent” 434). It may be difficult to see how any ordinary morality could function in this “self-contained,” “imaginary world.” Yet in “Recent Aesthetics,” published in 1904 in the Quarterly Review, Vernon Lee cites this same passage, declaring that
[t]his phenomenon of aesthetic “Einfühlung” is . . . analogous to that of moral sympathy. Just as when we “put ourselves in the place” or more vulgarly “in the skin” of a fellow creature, we are, in fact, attributing to him the feelings we should have in similar circumstances, so, in looking at the Doric column . . . we are attributing to the lines and surfaces, to the spatial forms, those dynamic experiences which we should have were we to put our bodies into similar conditions. (434)
As sympathy with “the grief of our neighours” can constitute “a similar grief in our own experiences,” so too an “aesthetic attribution of our own dynamic modes to visible forms implies the realisation in our consciousness of the various conflicting strains and pressures, of the resistance and the yielding which constitute any given dynamic and volitional experiences of our own” (434). The Doric column’s valiant effort to defy gravity revives in us a sense of the human condition. Its is “a little drama we have experienced millions of times” (434).
Certainly, one must be wary of overstating the similarities between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of sympathy and a fin de siècle empathy bearing the undeniable stamp of its post-Darwinian making. At present, though, the pendulum often swings too far in the opposite direction, making empathy seem inarguably superior to its old-fashioned cousin. In Upheavals of Thought: the Intelligence of Emotions (2003), Martha Nussbaum offers a corrective, asserting the continuing relevance of a sympathy that, unlike empathy, always entails an ethical stance: “a malevolent person who imagines the situation of the other and takes pleasure in her distress may be empathetic,” she writes, “but will surely not be judged sympathetic. Sympathy, by comparison, includes a judgment that the other person’s distress is bad” (302). There are no doubt plenty of good reasons why a recent study citing evidence for the altruistic behavior of rats toward their distressed fellows should refer to such behavior as empathetic rather than sympathetic (the moral question, surely, is number one). But Nussbaum’s distinction may nevertheless give us reason to pause before jettisoning sympathy altogether in explaining more human endeavors. We will do well, as historians and scholars of a long and lengthening nineteenth century, to continue scrutinizing the empathy/sympathy relation as well as its ostensible divide.
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
published March 2012
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Boltanski, Luc. Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
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—. “‘The Subjective Inside Us Can Turn into the Objective Outside’: Vernon Lee’s Psychological Aesthetics.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 12 (2011): 1-31. Web. 7 Nov. 2011.
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Mallgrave, Harry Francis, and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds. Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893. Santa Monica: Getty Center, 1994. Print.
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 For instance, see de Vignemont and Singer’s “The Empathetic Brain: How, When and Why?” and Iacoboni’s “Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons.”
 Though no one was talking of “mirror neurons” in the late nineteenth century, neurons had been named in 1891 by Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried von Waldeyer-Hartz; three years later, Franz Nissl successfully stained them with dahlia violet. My thanks to the anonymous reader of this essay who clarified this point.
 I cover some of this ground in my forthcoming book on sympathy and realism, forthcoming from the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2012. For a more thorough account, Keen’s work is a good place to start.
 Vickers’s essay is part of a special issue of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century devoted to nineteenth-century psychology and aesthetics.
 Lee found Lipps’s account of empathy overly abstract: “[o]ne might almost believe that it is the dislike of admitting the participation of the body in the phenomenon of aesthetic Empathy which has impelled Lipps to make aesthetics more and more abstract, a priori, and metaphysical” (Beauty 60). From Lipps’s study “has come,” she writes, “if not the theory, at least the empirical and the logical demonstration of the process to which Professor Lipps has given the convenient but misleading name Einfühlung” (60).
 As Gardner Murphy wrote that year in An Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology, “the term Einfühlung (‘empathy’) has in fact come into general psychological use” (qtd. in Jahoda 162).
 According to Jahoda, Lipps treated empathy and sympathy interchangeably except in the case of “negative Einfühlung,” which Jahoda calls “rather an elusive concept” (158).
 See Bartal et.al., “Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats.”