Empathy came into English relatively recently, in early 20c. Despite its relatively short history, however, the word has become increasingly challenging. The concept it denotes first emerged in late 19c aesthetics, but empathy now finds itself central to ethical debates and political platforms, as religious leaders, politicians, and humanitarian organizations urge that the characteristics empathy denotes should guide public policy and decision-making if just social outcomes are to be achieved. Much of the word’s increased complexity arises from efforts to understand it as a general type of ‘fellow feeling for another’ strongly linked to, even interwoven with, older words including sympathy, pity, and compassion.
The noun empathy derives from Ancient Greek ἐμπάθεια [empátheia],passion: em-, in + pathos, feeling. The word was coined in 1904 as an English rendering of the German technical term Einfühlung, which literally translates as ‘in-feeling.’ Sources cite German philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze as the first to use Einfühlung in 1858, but the verb form sich einfühlen [to empathize] can be traced further back, to Johann Gottfried Herder and Novalis. It was not until late 19c, however, that Einfühlung gained currency as a key concept in German aesthetics. In Robert Vischer’s On the Optical Sense of Form (1873), Einfühlung refers to the manner in which a beholder comprehends an artwork by ‘feeling into’ it or projecting himself into its forms. For Vischer and other early empathy theorists this process was universal: all humans possess a capacity to empathize continuously by attributing their soul and its moods to the inanimate. Due in part to the trend in modernist art toward abstraction and alienation rather than identification, empathy faded from aesthetic discourse during early 20c and the sense of the term broadened, encouraging its use in other fields.
According to the current OED definition, empathy denotes in psychology and aesthetics “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” The supporting eleven citations span the years 1904 to 1963, with the first eight referring specifically to aesthetic empathy or Einfühlung: “This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung” (E.B. Titchener, 1909). The interpersonal, psychological sense of empathy familiar today is evident only in the final OED citation: “It is true that in both sympathy and empathy we permit our feelings for others to become involved” (R. L. Katz, 1963). This citation marks a turning point in empathy’s history: it testifies to the word’s broader use and the increase in psychological studies of empathy as a factor motivating prosocial behavior during the 1960s. In such use of the term a person empathizes with another human being, not an inanimate work of art or object in nature. While the OED entry acknowledges empathy’s late 19c origin and its expanded sense in mid 20c social psychology, this single, general definition has not yet been updated to reflect the term’s contemporary difficulty.
In its most common current sense, empathy describes the practice of participating vicariously in the psychological perspective and emotions of another. The idiom ‘to put yourself in someone else’s shoes’ represents the view that empathy leads to better understanding of another individual, but different contemporary senses must be distinguished. Cognitive empathy, also known as ‘theory of mind,’ is the ability to adopt a different perspective or, alternately, to identify with characters in fiction. Affective empathy—the capacity to respond appropriately to another’s emotions—manifests itself as either empathetic concern for another or self-centered personal distress in response to another’s suffering. Each type requires significant work of imagination in order to “know” and identify with another’s experiences. Recent application of cognitive empathy to identification with fictional characters demonstrates that empathy continues to be important in the aesthetic realm.
Since the cognitive-affective empathy distinction is largely unknown outside psychology and philosophy, some users of this cluster of words consider sympathy, compassion, and pity to be synonymous with empathy. These four terms, in their broadest senses, indicate a person’s capacity to recognize and share another’s feelings; but they have branched in different directions.
After reaching its peak between mid 16c and late 17c, compassion’s prominencedwindled and of all the related terms it is sympathy which has enjoyed most widespread usage, beginning around 1830. In 16c, sympathy had denoted ‘harmony’ or ‘agreement in qualities, likeness, conformity, correspondence’ before becoming commonplace during 17c when talking about feelings toward another person.Today, sympathy suggests any type of shared feeling, but combinations such as sympathy pains and sympathy card tend to associate the word with physical pain, loss and sorrow. In certain contexts unrelated to the emotions, sympathy and sympathizer express support for a political party or cause; for example, workers with no direct grievance against their employer may show solidarity with another group of locked-out or striking workers during a sympathy strike.
Although sympathy, compassion, and pity are close synonyms, empathy can convey the sharing of any psychological perspective or emotional state. The distinction between sympathy and empathy also signifies a difference in perceived depth of shared feeling, as an example cited in the OED entry for empathetic reveals: “The method… condemns the biographer to immerse himself in his subject’s mind, to take a view that is more than ‘sympathetic’, that is indeed empathetic” (1932).
While regarded in early 20c as a universal impulse in aesthetic contemplation, empathy has more recently been subject to attempts to measure and classify it, a trend reflected in a proliferation of derived compounds. Frequently abbreviated to EQ, for example, the Empathy Quotient is a self-assessment that aims to determine one’s ability to empathize and screens adults for Autism Spectrum Disorders. The term empath has also been used, from the 1960s, to describe a person who easily empathizes with others. According to Wikipedia, “The capacity to empathize is a revered trait in society”, but terms such as empathetic sickness or empathy fatigue suggest that too much empathy may be detrimental to a person’s own health. Compassion fatigue, which appears in the OED draft addition to compassion (2002), is defined as “indifference towards the suffering of others…, typically attributed to numbingly frequent appeals for assistance, esp. donations.” Media analysts have argued that bombarding viewers with decontextualized images of tragedies and suffering can cause them to experience empathy fatigue.
In the political sphere, large-scale social problems have been blamed on lack of empathy among citizens. The word empathy peaked in usage (as shown by a Google Books Ngram) between 2004 and 2008, the period during which US President Barack Obama frequently decried an “empathy deficit” in American society, largely building his 2008 presidential campaign on commitment to promoting empathy as a social value. Following complications with the word’s emotional overtones as potentially distorting the legal system, however – complications that emerged publicly during the appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor - President Obama replaced empathy in 2010 with an alternative phrasing: “keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.”
Public discourse typically aligns empathy with compassion rather than sympathy. The news media for instance have applauded Pope Francis I for his compassion or empathy with the poor ever since his election as leader of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013; in India, an emerging politics of empathy has focused on Dalits, people who were traditionally regarded as ‘untouchable’ and who still suffer social stigmatization. For 21c political, religious or humanitarian discourse, it appears, sympathy no longer suffices. Only the deeper sentiment of empathy promises to solve social ills, through a process that involves simultaneous recognition and negation of differences between people in order to achieve better mutual understanding.