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The Surprising History of Empathy

What empathy's original and forgotten meaning can teach us.

Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons
Albert Bierstadt, Sunrise on the Matterhorn
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons

There is a lot of talk today about empathy and how to cultivate it. But most people don’t know that the word “empathy” is relatively new; it was coined in 1908. And strangely enough, its early meaning was different from what we understand as empathy today; in fact, it meant nearly the opposite.

“Empathy” was translated at a time when psychologists were setting up laboratories and training programs to establish the new science of psychology. This new science had gotten its start only a few decades earlier when philosophers studying the mind began conducting laboratory experiments on perception and sensation. Many of these laboratories were based at German universities, and psychologists needed to translate German scientific terms into English.

The word “empathy” thus appeared in 1908 as a translation of the German Einfühlung (literally “in-feeling”). This early empathy was not about understanding another person, but about projecting one’s own imagined feelings and movements into objects. Empathy explained how a viewer perceived a mountain or architectural column as if it were rising because the viewer transferred his or her own feelings of stretching upwards into the mountain or column. Similarly, viewers could observe abstract lines moving in a painting because they projected their own inner sense of movement into the lines. Empathy was seen as key to the pleasures of art.

Psychologists began conducting experiments on aesthetic empathy to find that subjects perceived lines with sharp angles as furious, and lines moving upward as expressing force and uplifting feelings.[1] The writer Rebecca West depicted her own joyful feeling of soaring with a bird as it arched through the skies as “empathy,” even though in 1928 the word had not yet entered most dictionaries. With empathy, the self could imaginatively merge with an object of contemplation.

If empathy originally had an aesthetic meaning, American psychologists began to extend its scope to include the understanding of other people. One could, for example, project one’s own remembered feelings of sadness into another’s sad expression to grasp what they were experiencing. In the 1930s, psychologists and sociologists explored how empathy might help clinicians more deeply understand their clients.

By the Second World War, social psychologists began devising experiments to gauge a subject’s empathy for others. Empathy now meant that one could make correct predictions about another person’s preferences, without contaminating those predictions with one’s own ideas. As empathy came to denote the ability to accurately grasp another’s thoughts and feelings, the idea that it was an aesthetic projection of one’s own feelings into objects disappeared.

Today, in psychology and neuroscience, empathy is a multifaceted term that sometimes entails the emotional understanding of others’ feelings, sometimes describes a cognitive grasp of another’s thinking processes and at other times means acting in a caring manner to others. Because of this complexity, scientific studies of empathy now specify at the outset the type of empathy under examination.

Even as today’s empathy is multifaceted, most psychologists are unaware of its earliest aesthetic meaning. But empathy theorists were on to something a century ago when they pointed out that we can feel ourselves into the objects and forms around us, even if we are not aware of doing so. Psychologists now call this ability simulation, and some think that humans have an intrinsic ability to project ourselves not only into other people, but also into inanimate forms.

In a 1944 study, subjects described geometric shapes moving on a screen as if they were intentionally blocking or chasing the other shapes.[2] We talk about our computers or phones “dying” as if they were animate. The neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese collaborated with art historian David Freedberg in 2007 to show that when subjects looked at abstract art, they imagined the gestures or movements that might have produced the designs.[3] And in the new field of neuroaesthetics, some theorists argue that our capacity to imagine movement and feeling in the world around us explains our ability to simulate and to experience beauty — concepts that were central to the early conception of empathy.[4]

What do we gain by remembering this early empathy? Can we learn something by recognizing that the vigor of a column might be animated by our stretching upward, or by seeing our own sadness personified in a drooping tree branch?

Aesthetic empathy can help us understand that our selves are not simply contained within our bodies, and our minds are not locked within our skulls. Instead, we can acknowledge our inherent connection to a world beyond ourselves. A harmonious relation to the world, according to early empathy theorists, was integral to the experience of beauty.

Rekindling aesthetic empathy might help us better appreciate and tend to the natural world. If we feel more akin to our natural environment, we will be more likely to respond to it with care and concern. At a time of rapid climate change, such a response is more critical than ever. Empathy, understood historically in all its varieties, has the power to link us not only to other people, but also to the shapes and forms in our world.


[1] Susan Lanzoni. (2018). Empathy: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press. ch. 3

[2] Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel (1944). “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior” American Journal of Psychology, 57(2), 243-259.

[3] David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese. (2007). "Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (5), 197-203.

[4] G. Gabrielle Starr. (2013). Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience. MIT Press.