Our Ever-Evolving Language for and Sense of Shared Identity

Sympathy? Empathy? TOM? Social Intelligence? What do these changes tell us?

Posted Sep 22, 2014

Our vocabulary for shared identity has an interesting historical trajectory that is still in flux. Nineteenth century Romanticism turned away from the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment and looked to the emotions, rather than reason, for inspiration, a new way to relate to the world, and to understand the self. The Romantics used Nature to mirror human emotions. To mark this transition from reason to the emotions, new vocabulary appeared. In Modern Painters (1843), John Ruskin, a Victorian art critic, criticized excessive Romantic identification with Nature by coining the phrase “poetic fallacy” as a criticism of excessive sentimentality: “poetic fallacy” is a fallacy because nature does not have human emotions. The term has survived, however, without the negativity Ruskin intended and inspired later thinkers about how we relate to art and to one another.

 Benjamin Morgan, professor of aesthetics at the University of Chicago, notes that in 1873, the German philosopher Robert Vischer is the first to use  “Einfûhlung” (ein-into; fûhlung-feeling/empathy) in describing aesthetic pleasure as derived from projecting “body and soul” onto the natural world through the eyes. According to Vischer, humans have a spiritual and physical link to Nature. According to the OED, E.L. Hinman uses empathy for the first time in English in 1895, in translating the psychological theory of Kurd Lasswitz, a scientist, philosopher and the founder of German science fiction. Empathy is described as “a physical property of the nervous system…believed to be correlated with feeling.” (1895, E. L. Hinman tr. K. Lasswitz in Philos. Rev. 4 673). According to Prof. Morgan, Theodor Lipps is the first to suggest that empathy could be felt for people as well as things. A reader and admirer of Lipps, Freud describes Einfühlung as the ability to compare ourselves with another, which provides catharsis (p.1775), a concept he introduced in Studies on Hysteria in 1895 while working with Joseph Breuer. From the very beginning, definitions of empathy suggest a physical link between the emotional, the neurological, and the psychological in how we relate to Nature, to art, and to one another.                          

Since empathy appears so late in human history to express such a fundamental concept, what word fulfilled this need before the creation of empathy, and why was it replaced? According to the OED, sympathy describes a real or supposed affinity between certain things that causes them to be affected by the same influence, to attract or influence each other, especially in some occult way. Sympathy comes from the Greek meaning “having a fellow-feeling,” with a special emphasis on feeling the suffering of others. The OED notes sympathetic reactions affecting two bodily organs, two people, or even two commodities. Sympathy entails harmony and shared feelings or temperament, which allows people to identify with one another and to feel compassion for them. The key to understanding sympathy is compassion.                                                                               

The OED defines compassion as “suffering together with another, participation in suffering: fellow-feeling ”(Obs.), the feeling or emotion of a person moved by the suffering of another and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to help another. Pity, in turn, is defined by the OED as the disposition to show mercy, the desire to relieve suffering—i.e., compassion. Sympathy implies humans are emotionally bonded to one another in an essential, if occult, manner. In its strongest form, sympathy can elicit the desire to alleviate the suffering of another. We still see this desire expressed in sympathy cards.                                                                       

Empathy gradually replaced sympathy, leaving behind the  “occult”—i.e., not understood— dimensions of sympathy. Empathy replaced sympathy first with neurological and later, with psychological associations that place the emphasis on how the individual experiences these emotions as opposed to the bond itself, which is the essence of the definition of sympathy. Paradoxically, empathy is more egocentric than sympathy because it emphasizes how the individual senses the bond as opposed to the bond itself. By definition, empathy is more scientific.                                        

The Romantics replaced the aesthetics of order, proportion and reason of Neo-Classicism and the Enlightenment with empathy, which entailed a   personal, visceral response to Nature and to art. Prof. Morgan notes that Vernon Lee (a pseudonym for Violet Page) popularized this empathetic reaction to literature and art. The Romantic concept of “embodied reading” (e.g. chills down the spine, tears, etc.)—i.e., empathic reading—was rejected by American critics W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley as “the Affective Fallacy” (echoing Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy). Wimsatt and Beardsely were founders of what would later be called “New Criticism,” which makes the reader the only authority in interpreting a work of art: the author and his life are of no import because once the work has been created it is up to others to interpret it. The emphasis is on discussing the aesthetics of the work, not the meaning, which can never be certain, and is, therefore, an Intentional Fallacy.

Separating feeling and meaning from literature presents serious problems—empathy no longer has a place. As Prof Morgan notes, “The relation between literature and empathy (…) has generally been viewed as important in relation to ethics (in philosophy) or altruism (in psychology),” (p.32)—an important point teachers can add to the reasons our kids need to be reading literature in school.                                                                      

The study of empathy makes clear that it is part of our link to Nature (cf. Vischer), to aesthetics (Vernon Lee), and to one another (Freud, Breuer). With his observations about courtship in the animal kingdom in the 1850s and in 1871 with specific references to animal aesthetics in The Descent of Man (pp. 359, 616), Darwin proved that animals also have aesthetics. Darwin also examined the physiological aspects of sympathy in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). His scientific observations were not enough, however, to keep sympathy current. As surprising as Darwin’s work on animal aesthetics were to many, studies on empathy in animals indicate animals possess empathy and even theory of mind. Theoretical distinctions between man and the animal kingdom were more and more in flux: our understanding of our shared identity was increasing.

Theory of mind  (TOM) is the ability to perceive the mental and emotional states of oneself and others, understanding that each person’s mental and emotional state is unique. This ability closely resembles empathy. It was long thought that only humans had TOM because TOM was thought to require language. In 1978, D. Premrack and G. Woodruff wrote a paper, “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?,” illustrating that chimps do, thus disproving previous theories that only humans have theory of mind. As science evolves new vocabulary is constantly created to redefine shared identity. Aesthetics, empathy, and TOM have all been broadened to include other animals besides mankind. We are not as unique as we would like to believe.                                                                        

Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) includes interpersonal intelligence (i.e., empathy) as one of our basic intelligences. Nicholas Humphrey furthers the discussion from an evolutionary viewpoint in The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution (1986). Having observed chimps with Diane Fossey, Humphrey maintains that the ability to anticipate the thoughts of others developed as a survival mechanism. Humphrey coins the term “social intelligence.” Scientific studies indicate that empathy played a key role in our development as human beings and that empathy is found throughout the animal kingdom. Despite this, the Social Intelligence Lab describes  Social Intelligence as “ the exclusively human capacity to use very large brains to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments”—a disappointing separation of humans from the rest of Nature  by degree rather than essence.                                                        

Not only our relationship with the animal kingdom, but also our relationship with computer technology poses crucial questions about shared identity. Will androids become so human-like that it will be difficult to discern who is human and who is not as Philip Dick suggests in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the inspiration for Blade Runner (1982). In his novel, Dick ponders the importance of empathy in humans. In the film Her, Spike Jonze explores the relationship of a man with his feminine OS (operating system with artificial intelligence). As opposed to Dick’s androids, the OS in Her has empathy. Eventually, the Operating Systems in Her develop their own community—a parallel universe. The existence of a parallel universe brings to mind Second Life in which humans lead a parallel existence in a virtual world. What are the ramifications this has for their empathy in this world?                                                                       

Sympathy, empathy, TOM, interpersonal, and social intelligence—the investigation into understanding how we relate to nature, art, one another, and now how we relate to artificial intelligence and to virtual worlds continues. Questions about what is real and what is not, what is life and what is not are becoming increasing complex. Empathy, by whatever name, remains essential in all these dimensions because empathy is an integral part of our evolution and survival according to both science and religion.       

What does empathy (and its on-going reinvention in TOM, interpersonal intelligence, and social intelligence) teach us? 1) We are part of our environment, part of the totality of Nature—not separate; and, therefore, our empathy needs to extend not only to one another, but also to Nature. 2) Empathy is necessary for the development of ethics and altruism—necessary, indeed, for our very survival. Because it is necessary for our survival here, it will be necessary for the survival of life where ever life develops, whatever form it takes, if it is to be a life worth living.                                                                

Yet, empathy seems in shorter and shorter supply as we become more and more consumed by the need to sate gargantuan appetites. Oxfam has just reported that half of the world’s wealth is now owned by one percent of its population: the world’s 85 richest people own the same amount as the bottom half of the entire global population. “This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems. Instead of moving forward together, people are increasingly separated by economic and political power, inevitably heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown.”                                                              

What has happened to empathy?                                                                                               

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison


“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action.” ― Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships


“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”― Roger Ebert