Empathy came into English relatively recently, in eC20, and quickly became a complex word. The concept it denotes first emerged in lC19 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 is probably modeled on Ancient Greek empátheia, “physical affection, passion,” ultimately from em-, in, and pathos, feeling. The word was coined in 1909 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 lC19, 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 beholders comprehend an artwork by feeling into it or projecting themselves 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 eC20 and the sense of the term broadened, encouraging its use in other fields.
According to the OED definition, empathy denotes in psychology and aesthetics “[t]he quality or power of projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, and so fully understanding or appreciating it.” The seven supporting quotations for this definition in the OED span the years 1909 to 1966 and refer 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). OED follows this with a further sense, namely the interpersonal, psychological sense of empathy familiar today: “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.,” with examples from 1946 to the present. An early use outside technical discourse is from Cecil Beaton’s journal in 1952 “It is her [sc. the Queen Mother’s] empathy and her understanding of human nature that endears her to everyone she talks to.” In such use of the term, a person empathizes with another human being, not an inanimate work of art or object in nature.
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 is the ability to adopt a different perspective. 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 the 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. The 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 mC16 and lC17, compassion’s prominence dwindled, and of all the related terms it is sympathy that has enjoyed the most widespread usage, beginning around 1830. In C16, sympathy had denoted “harmony” or “agreement in qualities, likeness, conformity, correspondence” before becoming commonplace during C17 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 only implicity related 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 eC20 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 is also used to describe a person who easily empathizes with others (interestingly it occurs already in the 1950s in science fiction). According to the May 2017 version of the Wikipedia article for empathy, “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 online OED 2002 draft addition to compassion, 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 suffering can cause them to experience empathy fatigue.
In politics, large-scale social problems have been blamed on lack of empathy among citizens. 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. After the controversy that arose when President Obama declared empathy one of his criteria in choosing a Supreme Court judge, its emotional overtones seen as potentially distorting the legal system, he restated empathy as the “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 for his compassion or empathy with the poor 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 C21 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.