Since our weekend debates about ethics often revolve around the word “empathy”, it occurred to me that we should find out exactly what the word means. Let’s hit up Wikipedia and see what we find:
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B. Titchener as an attempt to translate the German word “Einfuhlungsvermogen”, a new phenomenon explored at the end of 19th century mainly by Theodor Lipps
I’d like to hunt down these etymological hints for a future article, but first I want to examine the meaning of the word. Does “empathy” indicate a person’s rational awareness of another person’s feelings, or rather does it indicate an emotional concern with another person’s feelings? The word is often popularly used in the latter sense: if I am empathetic with you, I care about your well-being. But the Wikipedia definition draws a prominent distinction between “empathy” (the intellectual awareness of another person’s feelings) and “compassion” (a concern for another person). “Empathy”, then, seems to have no necessary moral substance. It’s possible to feel empathy with someone while also wishing them harm. Empathy is only the antenna, the awareness, the sense.
This distinction may be too finely drawn for some people’s tastes, as it disagrees with the popular use of the term. But the distinction between awareness (empathy) and concern (compassion) does seem useful, and I am willing to go along with this strict definition of the term from now on, and differentiate between “compassion” and “empathy” as needed in future discussions.
But an even tougher controversy involving the meaning of “empathy” becomes apparent in the next section of the Wikipedia page, titled “Theorists and definition”. This controversy appears to be so active that Wikipedia throws up its hands and offers a list of possible definitions from various theorists, presenting a fascinating dichotomy between two popular meanings of the word. Here’s the section in full:
Empathy is an ability with many different definitions. They cover a broad spectrum, ranging from caring for other people and having a desire to help them, to experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, to knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other. Below are definitions of empathy:
Daniel Batson: “A motivation oriented towards the other.”
D. M. Berger: “The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.”
Jean Decety: “A sense of similarity in feelings experienced by the self and the other, without confusion between the two individuals.”
Frans de Waal: “The capacity to (a) be affected by and share the emotional state of another, (b) assess the reasons for the other’s state, and (c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective. This de?nition extends beyond what exists in many animals, but the term “empathy” … applies even if only criterion (a) is met.”
Nancy Eisenberg: “An affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.”
R. R. Greenson: To empathize means to share, to experience the feelings of another person.
Alvin Goldman: “The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings.”
Martin Hoffman: any process where the attended perception of the object’s state generates a state in the subject that is more applicable to the object’s state or situation than to the subject’s own prior state or situation.
William Ickes: A complex form of psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others.
Heinz Kohut: Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.
Harry Prosen: “an emotional understanding which allows one as a therapist to resonate with ones patients in depth emotionally, so that it influences the therapeutic approach and alliance with the patient”.
Carl Rogers: To perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.
Marshall Rosenberg: “Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person, the divine energy in the other person, the life that’s alive in them.”
Roy Schafer: Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person.
Wynn Schwartz: We recognize others as empathic when we feel that they have accurately acted on or somehow acknowledged in stated or unstated fashion our values or motivations, our knowledge, and our skills or competence, but especially as they appear to recognize the significance of our actions in a manner that we can tolerate their being recognized.
Edith Stein: Empathy is the experience of foreign consciousness in general.
Simon Baron-Cohen: Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be […]There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective […] the second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer’s appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state.
Khen Lampert: “[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.”
So, does “empathy” indicate a natural, direct experience of another person’s feelings, or does it indicate a simulated representation of an experience of another person’s feelings? If I am empathetic with you, do I feel your feelings, or do I only observe a colorless, abstract replica of your feelings? The road forks into two major paths here; about half of the quotes above suggest the first meaning of the word, and the other half suggest the second meaning.
Daniel Batson refers to “a motivation oriented towards the other”. Frans de Waal speaks of “the capacity to be affected by and share the emotional experience of another”. R. R. Greenson declares that “to empathize means to share”. Khen Lampert speaks of leaving our own bodies, and joins with Greenson in using the crucial word “share”. These definitions describe empathy as a direct, full, natural experience. To feel something empathetically in conjunction with another person appears to be no different in kind than to feel it privately. We are sharing feelings; the experience of the feeling transcends the separation between individuals at the most basic level.
However, Jean Decety isn’t having this. According to Decety’s quote, empathy is “a sense of similarity in feelings experienced by the self and the other, without confusion between the two individuals.” The feeling of empathy is a “similarity”, a facsimile, not the real thing itself. Many others are apparently in this camp. Carl Rogers emphasizes that a perception of empathy arrives “with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition.” If you perceive someone’s feelings, you momentarily feel as if you were this person. The separation between you and the other person is paramount; your empathy is a facsimile of what the other person is feeling, and not the real thing itself. Edith Stein mentions “the experience of foreign consciousness”. The word “foreign” speaks more loudly than any other word in Edith Stein’s sentence.
I can’t think of any controversy more central to the basic controversy of ethical philosophy — from Plato to Nietzsche, from Immanuel Kant to Ayn Rand, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud to Jean-Paul Sartre — than this basic disagreement over the meaning of the word “empathy”. If you believe that empathy is direct experience, than you will probably incline towards some kind of communitarian stance on ethical issues (though this can map out to a wide variety of more specific stances, from liberal socialism to family-values-based religious fundamentalism).
If you believe that empathy is only a weak representation or a facsimile of direct experience, than you probably think of your existence as an isolated indvidual as your only form of existence in the world, and will probably incline towards ethical philosophies that revolve around the rights of the individual (though this can also describe a wide variety of ethical philosophies, from the humanitarian utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill to the brutalist individualism of Ayn Rand).
You can also examine this question by trying to imagine the consciousness of a newborn baby. You are newly born into the cold and noisy world, after having been physically connected to and dependent on your mother’s body for nine months. Who are you? What are you? Do you know, at this moment, where the boundary is between yourself and the rest of the universe?
I don’t think you do. Psychologists like Carl Jung speak of individuation, the process by which an infant or child gradually learns the boundaries between his or her self and the rest of the world. If individuation is indeed a process that occurs over time, that must mean that a newborn baby can feel at least some degree of empathy with every part of the universe.
Phrases like “child of the universe” take on new meaning in this light; we are all born as children of the universe, coexistent with the world, feeling everything, caring about everyone. We gradually learn to focus our feelings around the orbits of our physical bodies. But our original consciousness amounts to an awareness of universal empathy. Empathy is natural to us all, and it’s the process of individuation, not the process of empathy, that we have to learn.
Whether you agree or disagree with this — whether you define empathy as direct and natural experience or indirect and simulated experience — may be the unexamined foundation of your entire ethical stance in life. I can’t think of any question more fascinating for us to continue to discuss on this blog. In fact it seems to me that the human race is only now reaching the level of psychological sophistication that will enable us to wholly grapple with this question and fully explore the nuances and implications buried within. What is empathy? Is an empathetic experience an actual experience, or a representation of an experience? Is the empathetic sense a natural and inborn sense, or is it a learned capability? I’d like to know what you think.