Suzanne Keen, “‘Altruism’ Makes a Space for Empathy, 1852”


This contribution to BRANCH describes how Auguste Comte’s term “altruism” entered into English by way of an October 1852 review article by George Henry Lewes, published in the Westminster Review. Briefly accounting for the dissemination of the term through leading English Positivists and members of the Westminster Review circle, the essay suggests that, while Comte’s altruism included both a feeling reaction for others and subsequent ethical actions taken to benefit them, influential commentators such as Herbert Spencer and (in France) Darwinian psychologist Theodule Ribot segmented altruism to account for both egoistic and other-oriented responses, separating the feeling from the action on behalf of others. This separation made room for the later term empathy, which replaces the other-oriented “feeling with” of Comte’s altruism, while that term retains its meaning as costly action taken on behalf of another. The twentieth century’s association of empathy with altruism is thus explained: for the early Victorian Positivists, feeling with another and acting on his or her behalf were both encompassed by the term altruism.

engraving of Comte

Figure 1: Engraving of Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte used his 1851 coinage “altruism” (from the Italian adjective altrui, meaning others’ or other people’s) to mean reflective emotions whose impulses worked to benefit others, with ethical consequences. “To live for others,” Comte writes in his Catechism (1852), “afford[s] the only means of freely developing the whole existence of man. . . . None but the sympathetic instincts can have unimpeded scope, for in them each individual finds himself aided by all others, who, on the contrary, repress his self-regarding tendencies” (215). Altruism was an important affective component of Comte’s new humanist religion, Positivism. According to his English redactor G. H. Lewes, Positivism embraces all that can “regulate Humanity,” a philosophy and a polity that connects intellect, sociability, and human social life, understood scientifically (Comte’s Philosophy 9). (Comte also invented the term “sociology.”)

Comte’s Positivism urged believers to live for others, putting the social over personal motivations. In many English cities, followers of Comte met at Positivist chapels called “temples of humanity” (Dixon 46-7). Comte’s Positivist religion sought to create conditions in which egoism could be subordinated to benevolence towards others in the exercise of altruism. A focus on recognizing and sharing others’ feelings that later generations would associate with empathy was a central element of altruism. This highly influential idea disseminated rapidly from the Westminster Review circle: brought into English by Lewes in October 1852; elaborated by Lewes in 1853 in his book Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences; translated by Richard Congreve, J. H. Bridges, and Edward Spencer Beesley; picked up by John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer; championed by the English Positivist Frederic Harrison; and adopted, at least temporarily, by intellectuals and novelists primed by earlier moral sentimentalism (Dixon 43-4).

Novelists played a key role in the amplification of altruism even when they did not use the word themselves.  Though not the only art form directing feelings towards others in ethical directions, Victorian fiction and its heritage included didactic narratives and sentimental novels. Contemporary commentators were divided on whether the feelings evoked by novels were elevating or corrupting, but those who defended the novel saw its potential for moral efficacy. Victorians often conflated what we now see as separate phenomena: authors’ imaginative empathy, readers’ emotional responses to literary texts, and ethical consequences in the real world felt by those outside the literary transaction. These linked ideas had roots in Romanticism and eighteenth-century moral sentimentalism. When altruism arrived on the scene, it did not displace earlier notions about the moral improvement of humankind through other-directed thinking. It intersected with the established discourse of sympathy and especially with the idea that literary reading could cultivate readers’ sympathetic imagination.

For example, George Eliot’s influential formulation that her readers “should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves” adds a literary element to hopes for sympathy’s cultivation (111).  It follows on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s requirement in his Defence of Poetry that a man of enlarged sympathies must “imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own” (517). The concatenation of an author’s imaginative practices, her readers’ cultivation, and their improved relations with unfamiliar others is one of the most enduring legacies of Victorian fiction.[1] It had roots in eighteenth-century moral sentimentalism and persisted throughout the period, before and after the Comtean vogue.

Thomas Hardy was among those late Victorians who adopted a Shelleyan sense of the artist’s role and an Eliotian hope of impact on readers, but he did so by adopting the Comtean term that had become axiomatic in the second half of the nineteenth century. On a slip of paper discovered after his death, Hardy had written of himself, “It was his habit, or strange power of putting himself in the place of those who endured sufferings from which he himself had been in the main free, or subject to but at brief times.  This altruism was . . . constant with him” (291-92). (His use of the third person suggests that the note was intended as part of Hardy’s self-authored biography, later published under his second wife’s name.) Hardy’s use of the word altruism to describe what we would call empathy emphasizes an important Victorian source of what twentieth-century psychology calls the empathy-altruism hypothesis: Victorian psychology’s response to Positivism.

The diffusion of Comte’s altruism throughout nineteenth-century letters embeds a synonym for our contemporary version of empathy (feeling with) in Victorian literature, alongside sympathy (feeling for), compassion (suffering together with), and fellow-feeling (English for sympathy or compassion).  These older words represent the dominant forms, in Raymond Williams’ keyword, of a persistent moral sentimentalism, while altruism was an emergent structure of feeling, and empathy had yet to be coined at the end of the nineteenth century (Williams 132-34). Empathy, as an English version of German psychological aesthetics’ Einfühlung, is an early twentieth-century word. It is important to emphasize that the early German and English theorists of Einfühlung and empathy were interested not in prosocial helping behavior and human sympathy but in aesthetic responses, as Rae Greiner’s BRANCH essay “1909: The Introduction of the Word ‘Empathy’ into English”  makes clear.

The dissemination of the language of altruism in the period has been elucidated beautifully by historian Thomas Dixon. Less well understood is how the unlabeled empathetic element of Comtean altruism flows through Spencer’s psychology and the work of Darwinian psychologists such as Theodule Ribot, and back into the literary mainstream. Comte’s altruism embraced reflective emotions whose impulses worked to benefit others, with ethical consequences. Altruism referred to both feelings for others and the subsequent actions that intended to make others happier.  While Spencer saw altruistic feelings as a late development, emerging out of sympathy through the intermediary ego-altruistic blend, Comte saw self- and other-directed feelings as equally innate and always at odds with one another. Our twenty-first century senses of empathy, in those senses that exclude the specifically aesthetic Einfühlung for inanimate objects, were back formations of altruism. For when an other-directed, affective application of empathy emerged in early twentieth-century psychology and aesthetics, altruism was already there, with an empathy-shaped element that could be filled by the new term.

But does empathy, separated from altruism, lead to prosocial behavior on behalf of others? Once distinguished, do empathy and altruism inevitably belong back together? Or do the demands of the ego interfere? We are not the first to raise these questions. Victorians debated the relative predominance of egoistic motives and other-directed feelings under contested variants of altruism. Victorian and early twentieth-century theorists of human emotion sought to reconcile an individualistic reading of Darwinism with the philosophical claims of moral sentimentalism, which placed sympathy or fellow-feeling at the start of a set of responses that bound people into families, tribes, and nations.[2] Working with the older and more traditional term sympathy, derived from the influential accounts of David Hume and Adam Smith, Victorian psychologists strove to explain the evolutionary origin, continuing benefit, and likely future course of tender feelings for others.  While an attractive idea of human evolution lending itself to social progress fit well with Victorians steeped in the Positivism of Comte (he thought societies went from theological to metaphysical to Positivist stages), the claims of egoism were bolstered by Darwin, especially as understood by Herbert Spencer, who adopted and altered the term altruism.

Spencer’s influential extension of Darwinian theory in his books The Principles of Psychology (1855) and First Principles (1862) argued that the human mind developed from organic responses to the environment and that human society was the product of the evolution of egoistic individuals into social aggregates based on common interests. Thus, while he acknowledged the natural sympathy of humans for each other, particularly as expressed through the parental instinct, Spencer also thought that unselfish concern for others outside the family, let alone altruism, had developed only lately in human beings. Spencer’s adaptation of Comte’s altruism was not simple. By “ego-altruistic emotion,” Spencer meant “sentiments which, while implying self-gratification, also imply gratification in others” (Principles of Psychology, 2nd ed. 595), while purely altruistic sentiments (such as generosity, pity, justice, and mercy) are uncommon precisely because of their unselfishness (607-16). Spencer writes that “the root of all altruistic sentiments is sympathy” and calls for a supplementation of Smith’s insight with an explanation of the natural process by means of which sympathy develops from the parental instinct and produces higher sentiments such as justice (626).[3] Thus the scientific Spencer prises apart the stimulus and the response that Comte fuses into one phenomenon, altruism. Spencer calls for an explanation of how the underlying feeling develops into a higher moral sentiment (not an inevitability, despite Spencer’s optimism about human progress).

It is vital to recall that altruism, a term so often teamed with empathy in twentieth-century investigations of human social psychology,[4] should precede and shape the subsequent understanding of empathy’s role. The preexistence of altruism as an element of personality and a goal of social development puts a functional pressure on empathy (as an aesthetic phenomenon) even as the new term emerges. The early formulations of other-directed emotion, starting with Comte and including Spencer and the French Darwinian psychologist Ribot, described altruism as a feeling for others that would lead to actions on their behalf.  In late twentieth-century psychology, the feeling and the action would be firmly separated. This separation allows for investigations of the conditions under which empathy does lead to altruism, as well as to consideration of more self-interested motivations, such as expectation of reciprocity. It also opens up a way of studying failures of empathy, through deviations of the original empathic response into egoistic personal distress and withdrawal, or the social phenomenon, diffusion of responsibility, by which an individual in a crowd absolves himself of responsibility to act and becomes a bystander rather than a helper. Some twenty-first-century thinkers doubt that true altruism, selfless behavior undertaken on behalf of another at some cost to the self, exists at all. Others assume a direct causal link between experiences of imaginative extension, such as those envisioned by George Eliot, and subsequent prosocial behavior in the form of good world citizenship (Nussbaum 90). Today’s psychology of narrative impact and social neuroscience can investigate what beliefs, biases, and circumstances interfere with the transmission of fellow feeling induced by narrative fiction and the altruism that was Comte’s Positivist dream.

Suzanne Keen, Thomas Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, is a narrative theorist whose work investigates the operations of literary empathy. Her books include Empathy and the Novel (2007), Narrative Form (2003), Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction (2001), and Victorian Renovations of the Novel (1998). She guest edited a double special issue of Poetics Today on Narrative and the Emotions (Spring and Summer 2011).


published August 2012

Keen, Suzanne. “‘Altruism’ Makes a Space for Empathy, 1852.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Batson, C. Daniel. The Altruism Question: Towards a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1991. Print.

Comte, Auguste. The Catechism of Positive Religion. 1852. Trans. R. Congreve. London: Chapman, 1858. Google Book Search. Web. 28 Apr. 2012.

—. Système de Politique Positive: A Treatise of Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity. 1851-54. Trans. Edward Spencer Beesly et al. London: Longmans, Green. 1875-77. Print.

Dixon, Thomas. The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Eliot, George. “To Charles Bray.” 5 July 1859. The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. Vol. 3. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954. 110-11. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, with an appendix including the unpublished passages in the original typescripts of The Life of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Richard H. Taylor. New York: Columbia UP, 1979. Print.

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Lewes, G. H.  “Contemporary Literature of France.” Westminster Review 58 (Oct. 1852): 614-30. Print.

—.  Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences. London: Bohn, 1853. Google Book Search. Web. 28 Apr. 2012.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry. 1821. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002. 509-35. Print.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1759. Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976. Print.

Spencer, Herbert. “Morals and Moral Sentiments.” Fortnightly Review  9 ns (1 Apr. 1871): 419-32. Print.

—. The Principles of Psychology. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855. Print.

—. The Principles of Psychology. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1897. Google Book Search. Web. 28 Apr. 2012.

—. First Principles. London: Williams and Norgate, 1862. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.


Rae Greiner, “1909: The Introduction of the Word ‘Empathy’ into English”

[1] The literary genealogy of this set of precepts should also include a family lineage tracing the emergent psychology of the nineteenth century. Alan Richardson, Rick Rylance, Nicholas Dames, Sally Shuttleworth, and Thomas Dixon, among others, have amply demonstrated the impact of psychology on writers.

[2] Darwin discusses sympathy’s evolution in The Descent of Man (1871).

[3] See also Spencer, “Morals and Moral Sentiments” 430.

[4] See the work of C. Daniel Batson and his collaborators for a rich literature on the empathy-altruism relation.