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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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Empathy is the idea that the vital properties which
we experience in or attribute to any person or object
outside ourselves are the projections of our own feel-
ings and thoughts.

The idea was first elaborated by Robert Vischer in
Das optische Formgefühl (1872) as a psychological
theory of art which asserts that because the dynamics
of the formal relations in a work of art suggest muscular
and emotional attitudes in a viewing subject, that sub-
ject experiences those feelings as qualities of the object.
Aesthetic pleasure may thus be explained as objectified
self-enjoyment in which subject and object are fused.

In the social sciences a similar conception called in
English “empathic understanding” refers to our delib-
erate attempts to identify ourselves with another, ac-
counting for his actions by our own immediate experi-
ence of our motivations and attitudes in similar
circumstances as we remember or imagine them. The
English term is a translation of the German nacherleben
as used in the works of Max Weber and Wilhelm
Dilthey (cf. Maurice Natanson, Philosophy of the Social
Sciences: A Reader,
1963). All general behavior-maxims
are the results of an investigator's ability to “relive”
a situation. This idea is accepted by many social scien-
tists as the basis of a method claimed to be unique
to those sciences. Empathic understanding has been
made the ground for ethics and personality theory as
well as for historical and sociological explanations.

In popular usage the idea refers to the emotional
resonance between two people, when, like strings
tuned to the same frequency, each responds in perfect
sympathy to the other and each reinforces the re-
sponses of the other. A good example of this occurs
in the statement: “Aleatoric concert music, like jazz,
demands a strong empathy between performer and
listener” (Houkom, p. 10).

The word “empathy” (feeling-in) was coined by the
American psychologist, Edward Titchener, as a trans-
lation of the German Einfühlung.

The theory of Einfühlung arose in the latter part
of the nineteenth century in Germany, and, like most
German thought of that century had its roots in
Kantian philosophy. Kant's assertion that pure beauty
is the beauty of form was variously interpreted. Those
who developed the notion of empathy refused to find
the source of our aesthetic pleasure in form considered
solely as mathematical relations, as the Herbartians did,
or in form as the bearer of Idea, as the Hegelians did.
They saw form as the vehicle for the expression of
feelings and emotions. Kant also declared that the
judgment of beauty is grounded in the subject making
the judgment, not in the object (Kant, pp. 45-46). With
this notion as well as with his assumption that the
mind's objects must agree with the forms and categories
of the mind he enunciated ideas which, as their full
import and romantic interpretations, such as Schiller's,


unfolded, were to characterize later German philoso-
phy and aesthetics. Thenceforth the new philosophy
explored the formative activities of the mind, and the
new aesthetics elucidated the process of artistic crea-
tion and the resulting work of art primarily in relation
to the human subject. This new orientation meant that
aesthetics turned away from the classical idea of imita-
tion, which explained art in its relation to nature. The
theorists who believed the content of art was human
feelings and emotions found their main problem was
that of expression. They viewed the aesthetic problem
as part of a larger question. Not only works of art but
the forms of nature are incapable of experiencing
human feelings. How, then, can they express them?

In 1872 Robert Vischer, following a suggestion of
his father, Friedrich Vischer, proposed an answer. The
explanation, he said, must lie in some unconscious
process of the person who views these forms. He must
endow them with their vital content by an involuntary
act of transference of which he is not at the time aware.
He named this process Einfühlung.

The Ästhetik (1903-06) of Theodor Lipps is the most
extensive analysis of empathy, presented with a host
of examples from the visual arts. Lipps thought of
psychology as philosophy made scientific. Its business
was the uncovering and describing of one's inner expe-
riences. Yet his analysis of empathy is laden with the
vestiges of philosophical speculation and his thought
is frequently unclear.

All that I experience, he says, is permeated by my
own life. Why? Because an object as it exists for me
is the resultant of two factors, something sensuously
given and my own activity. The first is merely the
material that my activity uses to construct the object
as it is for me. Consequently my experience of that
object is an experience of a self-activity projected as
an attribute of the object. This is the first fact of

The sensible appearance of an object originates
activity in me. It asks to be “apperceived” in a partic-
ular way. If it is a line it asks me to apprehend the
bend of its curvature; if a large hall, I grasp its spa-
ciousness through a feeling of expansion. If I see a tree
swaying in the breeze I carry out its movements in
imaginative imitative activities. In these responsive
actions not only do I feel alive, for activity is associated
with life, but I also enliven the object by my vital
actions. These actions, being incipient, are actually
tendencies of my will. Empathy is the projection of
my feeling and willing ego in an object. But there is
no twofold consciousness of self and object. Empathy,
he says, is the intuited fact that object and self are

If the elicited responses are in accord with my incli
nations, I experience feelings of pleasure and freedom.
This harmony between stimulus and my own inner
urges is positive empathy. If the responses are contrary
to my basic drives I feel displeasure and the empathy
is negative. It is important to recognize negative
empathy. One must account for displeasure by the
same principle that accounts for pleasure. But if an
object can elicit a response which is appropriate to
it but contrary to my inclinations it would seem the
material of appearance must have far greater active
power than Lipps has assigned to it.

He mentions three levels of empathy. The first is
general apperceptive empathy when the form of a
common object evokes a unique recreative activity, and
the object presents itself merely to be perceived. The
second is natural empathy. Here objects summon from
my understanding the willful, striving activity of fitting
them into a scheme of reality or a causal order. This
is the level where natural objects are humanized. The
highest level is empathy for the sensible appearance
of a human being, when we respond to the gestures,
facial expressions, and tone of voice in another.

Each of these levels is exploited in art and exhibited
in our responses to art. But the way I attend to a work
of art is different from my experience of an object in
the natural world. Before a work of art an ideal self,
existent only in the act of aesthetic contemplation,
experiences an ideal world. This is Lipps' way of ac-
counting for the difference in reactions one might have
to a painting of a raging storm, and to a raging storm

An Englishwoman, Violet Paget (1856-1935), who
wrote under the name of Vernon Lee, presented the
notion of empathic projection independently of Lipps.
Her description is not entangled with metaphysical
notions of the self, or with the identity of self and
object. Her early ideas, first stated in “Beauty and
Ugliness,” which was written in collaboration with C.
Anstruther-Thompson (Contemporary Review, 72 [Oct.
and Nov. 1897], 544-69, 669-88), limit empathy to the
projection of our own body sensations, particularly the
imagined muscular adjustments we tend to make before
a work of art. Later, influenced by Lipps, she con-
sidered these muscular accommodations as symptoms
of emotions and ideas, which are our ejects. Actions
like raising our eyes and lifting our heads when we
look at a mountain towering above us give us an
awareness of rising which then coalesces with the
object of our attention. The general idea of rising
which has accumulated in our minds from this and past
experiences and from anticipated future ones, is finally
transferred to the mountain and occasions a resulting
emotional fullness.

Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber along with some


other German philosophers who were interested in
the special problems of the Geisteswissenschaften
(“humanistic and social studies”) advanced the method
of empathic understanding at about the same time
Lipps was presenting his theory of empathy. Probably
the source of both ideas lay in the statement made in
the beginning of the eighteenth century by Giambat-
tista Vico that man knows only what he makes, his
history, his art, his languages, his customs; and in Vico's
attempt to understand the poetry and customs of the
men of the past by the reconstruction of circum-
stances of the past.

The basis of the method depends upon an investi-
gator's sympathetic identification with the point of
view and motivations of the human subjects of his
study. An historian, seeking to explain the actions of
someone in the past on a certain occasion should first
project himself imaginatively into the situation that
confronted that person. Discovering his own imagina-
tive reactions in those circumstances as vicariously
relived, the investigator has a basis for explaining the
actions of his subject. One understands why Caesar
crossed the Rubicon by becoming Caesar. Or, as Croce
says, to understand a Sicilian first make yourself into
a Sicilian. Historical novelists adopt this method as a
device for artistic purposes to provide them with ma-
terials for convincing character portraits.

The differences between empathic understanding
and the first conception of empathy are two. Empathic
understanding derives from an alleged re-experiencing
of the motivations and mental purposes of another and
on this basis makes a knowledge claim about the causes
of that person's action. The original notion of empathy
with another person limits its identification to the
feelings and emotions of the other, and makes no
knowledge claim. When I identify in feeling with a
laughing countenance I do not claim to use the laugh-
ter to tell me something about the laughing person.

The nontechnical, popular idea of empathy appears
to presuppose even more than the other two concep-
tions. It refers to that immediacy of communication
between two people that dispenses with the need of
conceptualization through abstract ideas conveyed by
language. It is part of the anti-intellectualist current
which has risen so strongly in our century that empha-
sizes the greater importance of sublogical, noncon-
ceptual “thinking” over intellectualization. Deeper
knowledge, it claims, is “co-naissance.” It is also part
of the mid-twentieth-century emphasis on communi-
cation, as this term refers to the dynamic interrelation-
ships between mind and mind that language and out-
ward signs fail to convey. A good actor, knowing that
one does not project an emotional state to an audience
merely by imitating the actions of one in that state,
“lives” his part, becoming the character he portrays,
directly experiencing states of feeling but keeping some
residue of objectivity to prevent his behavior from
disintegrating altogether. Doing this he affects his au-
dience more successfully.

In talking of our response to drama we often refer
to one's identification with the characters of a play
as an empathic response. However, this is actually a
case in which the spectator is not projecting his own
feelings into the characters but is experiencing feelings
of the characters as though they were his own. He
projects himself into a character through an imagina-
tive identification. This has been our traditional re-
sponse to Western drama since the time of Aristotle.
One does not merely witness a drama; he experiences
it with personal involvement. Though Bertolt Brecht
with his theory of the epic theater repudiated this
tradition, asking his actors to recount the drama like
epic storytellers and expecting his audience to think
about the problem a drama presents, the continued
persistence of audiences to respond emotionally to the
characters in his plays attests to the strength of this
long habit of response.

Empathy is a latecomer to our stock of ideas, being
scarcely a hundred years old. But its origins are diverse.
One could call it primitive animism made sophisticated
by reformulation as a psychological theory, at least as
far as feeling into natural objects goes. Poets have
always enlivened the world of our experience by
humanizing it. Animism is the root of poetic metaphor.
Aristotle foreshadowed a discussion of empathy when
he remarked how often Homer described some physical
object with an adjective appropriate only to a living
thing. He cites passages, such as those where the poet
speaks of the arrow as “bitter,” or “flying on eagerly,”
or “panting” (Rhetoric 1411b). Empathy theory inter-
prets the affective part of all experience as the uncon-
scious creation of metaphor.

The belief that, when one is in affective communion
with another, subject and object become merged is
recognized at least as early as Plato, who says of the
beloved that “his lover is the mirror in whom he is
beholding himself, but he is not aware of it” (Phaedrus
255, Jowett translation).

Sometimes the idea of sympathy, as developed in
the eighteenth century by such writers as Kames and
Gerard, is cited as a source of the idea of empathy.
Actually the two notions are different. Empathy sup-
poses a fusion of subject and object, while sympathy
supposes a parallelism between them in which I am
aware of the distinction between myself and the other.
In sympathy I feel with; in empathy I feel in. Popular
thought often does not respect the difference, using
empathy where sympathy is meant.


The insistence by some that the distinguishing char-
acteristic of empathy is the merging of subject and
object has not seemed by others to be the important
requirement. Living in the experience of another only
means being in perfect sympathy with him; when one
identifies with another it means he has the same kind
of feelings. What is the relation of empathy to British
associationism, in the context of which the theory of
sympathy developed?

Lipps insisted that empathy was independent of the
association of ideas. One does not first see a form and
then associate emotional content with it, he says; the
perception and the emotion are indistinguishable. But
we do know that Lipps was a great admirer of the
psychology of Hume and translated some of Hume's
writings into German. It is not surprising, therefore,
to find a basis for conjecturing some influence. Hume's
notion that certain qualities of things are naturally
fitted to produce particular feelings in us might have
been the basis of Lipps' idea that sensible appearances
generate appropriate activities in us. The fact that he
never explained how the appearances do this leads us
to assume that he never supposed there was a question
here. Again, he declares that though a subject experi-
ences vitality, power, and feeling in himself, he finds
the empathic content in what is outside him. The
“raging” is in the storm, he says. He then contents
himself with observing that it is a remarkable fact that
what we can feel only in ourselves we can again find
in something else. This observation asserts that we must
first experience the raging in ourselves, then, upon
seeing the energy of natural forces of a storm, we
apprehend it in those forces. But the present raging
is not identical with past raging. They are only similar,
and may be connected by association.

On the other hand, empathy repudiates two assump-
tions inherent in the British tradition. One is the pas-
sivity of the subject of experience. Associationism made
the active work of the mind as automatic as if it were
a reflex movement responding to the contiguity and
succession of impressions. Empathy gives the subject
all the activity which it denies, or at least reduces to
a minimum, in the object. The other is the claim that
the humanizing of nature is a fallacy. Ruskin described
this “pathetic fallacy” which occurs when we see
something under the influence of emotion or contem-
plative fancy. “Cruel, crawling foam” is an untrue
description of foam, for there is no such power in the
foam. It is falsely imputed. Empathy accepts the
imputation but does not call it a fallacy.

Empathy enjoyed its greatest acceptance as a funda-
mental principle of the theory of art in the early part
of this century. Variations of it appeared in the writings
of Karl Groos and Johannes Volkelt in Germany, Victor
Basch in France, and Herbert Langfeld in America.
It has a common ground with Santayana's definition
of beauty as “pleasure objectified.” It was congenial
to the voluntaristic activism that the Nietzschean and
Bergsonian philosophies were popularizing. It was
accepted as accounting for the appeal of the new
decorative style of L'art nouveau. One of the leaders
of the Jugendstil in Germany, August Endell, was a
student of Lipps. With the increasing dehumanization
of content as twentieth-century art developed,
empathy was first reduced to equal acceptance with
the new principle of abstraction. It has come under
strong criticism by those influenced by Gestalt psy-
chology. They object to the assumption that the ex-
pressive character of an object is not inherent in its
form. Those who accept empathy today generally con-
cede it is only one factor accounting for our responses.

Empathic understanding has also met sharp criti-
cism. One cannot identify one's self with another.
Consequently there can be no resulting verifiable
knowledge of the kind a science seeks. One can only
claim at best a possibility. In spite of such criticism
empathic understanding has strong supporters.

Empathy remains an idea to be reckoned with in
our traffic with art, with nature, in our interpersonal
relations, and in our inquiries in the social sciences.


The classical works for the development of empathy in
Germany are Robert Vischer, Das optische Formgefühl,
reprinted in Drei Schriften zum ästhetischen Formproblem
(Halle, 1927), and Theodor Lipps, Raumästhetik und
geometrisch-optische Täuschungen
(Leipzig, 1897), and
Ästhetik, 2 vols. (Hamburg and Leipzig, 1903-06; 2nd ed.
1914-20). Vernon Lee [Violet Paget], Beauty and Ugliness
and other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics
(London and
New York, 1912), written with C. Anstruther-Thompson; and
The Beautiful (Cambridge, 1913) are the sources for her
form of the theory. Herbert Langfeld, The Aesthetic Attitude
(New York, 1920), is the best introduction in English. The
fullest recent consideration is David A. Stewart, Preface to
(New York, 1956).

Shorter selections of Lipps translated into English may
be found in E. F. Carritt, Philosophies of Beauty (London
and New York, 1930) pp. 252-58; Melvin Rader, A Modern
Book of Aesthetics,
3rd ed. (New York, 1960), pp. 574-82;
and Karl Aschenbrenner and Arnold Isenberg, Aesthetic
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965), pp. 403-12.

For further reference see Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction
and Empathy
(New York, 1953); Victor Basch, Essai critique
sur l'esthétique de Kant
(Paris 1927); I. Kant, Critique of
trans. J. H. Bernard (New York, 1951), pp. 45-46.

The development of the method of Verstehen and
empathic understanding occurs in Wilhelm Dilthey, Ideen
über einer beschreibende und zergliedernde Psychologie

(Leipzig, 1894); and Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur


Wissenschaftslehre (Tübingen, 1920). The best short state-
ment and analysis of the idea occurs in Theodore Abel, “The
Operation Called 'Verstehen',” in the American Journal of
54 (1948-49), 211-18, reprinted in Edward H.
Madden, ed., The Structure of Scientific Thought (Boston,
1960), pp. 158-66. The full reference for Houkom is Alf S.
Houkom, “Lucas Foss and Chance Music,” Music: the
A.G.O. and R.C.C.O. Magazine,
2, no. 2 (Feb. 1968), 10.


[See also Iconography; Impressionism; Metaphor; Mimesis;
Psychological Schools; Ut pictura poesis.]