Philosophy Weekend: What Is Empathy?

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.

16 Responses

  1. To me empathy is akin to the
    To me empathy is akin to the notion of not judging someone until having walked in their mocassins. But with empathy, it seems that one is walking on another’s internal journey to see their point of view.

  2. There also is a difference
    There also is a difference between cognitive empathy (also called ‘theory of mind’), the ability and drive to identify another’s mental states – and affective empathy, the ability and drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states.

    Autistic people, for example, have difficulties in cognitive empathy (ascertaining others’ feelings), but often demonstrate equal affective empathy when they are aware of others’ states of mind. Psychopaths, on the other hand, show intact cognitive empathy (they understand how their acts of cruelty feel to their victims) but impaired affective empathy (they don’t care and go on nevertheless).

    Cognitive empathy is clearly an effect of the process of individuation, I think, for it inevitably requires an I and a you, an observer and one who is observed – two indviduals.

    Affective empathy, however, is a more intuitive process of affective responsiveness, where the you and the I aren’t as clearly distinct, the boundaries between them not as univocally defined, and therefore much closer to that “child of the universe” empathy you are speaking of.

    Interesting topic, Levi! I surely will go on pondering about that…..

  3. Those are great points About
    Those are great points About cognitive and affective empathy, panta rhei, thanks.

  4. Panta rhei, your comments are
    Panta rhei, your comments are well taken and stated.

    Levi, to me this is all such hand waving. It’s either too sophisticated and deep for me or it’s too much nonsensical jumbo jumbo.

    But, I would like to suggest that you are leaving out sympathy. I think the better contrast to understand empathy is sympathy rather than compassion.

    I agree with you that empathy is very important and I feel it is central to the human experience and the ability to empathize sets us apart from animals (although I do think great apes can empathize to some degree).

  5. Applauding your column by way
    Applauding your column by way of disagreement.

    You say that, “If individuation is indeed a process that occurs over time,”…then “that must mean that a newborn baby can feel at least some degree of empathy with every part of the universe.”
    No, it mustn’t.

    Since individuation is a process that occurs over time, starting with the completely un-individuated, in-differentiated state of the newborn baby, this means that a newborn cannot feel empathy to any significant degree unless and until it reaches a functionally significant level of individuation.

    This is why Ferber, et al, are emotional criminals. They characterize babies crying for emotional comfort as trying to “manipulate” parents into providing fulfillment. This assumes a level of sophistication far beyond even a 2-year-old: it assumes they know that there are separate people, and that actions they take can influence those individuals.

    The baby left to cry it out is living in an undifferentiated universe in which soothing and the fulfillment of emotional needs do not come in response to any actions the baby takes (crying). Instead, soothing and needs fulfillment are random, unconnected to any action taken by the child.

    A child who is completely un-individuated, then cries and receives a loving response, slowly learns that there is something out there that responds with empathy and/or compassion in response to something he/she did. The baby is not left to the randomness of the universe, but a powerful actor upon something or things that are “out there.”

    Thus they are initiated into the realm of me and thee.

  6. Levi, I think empathy is not
    Levi, I think empathy is not purely rational, but rather an other-regarding emotion. It’s what you called an emotional concern with another person’s well-being. It’s not merely putting yourself in someone else’s shoes–after all, sadists do that too to derive pleasure other people’s pain–but doing so and caring about what happens to them: not wishing to hurt them.

  7. @ Claudia: What you are
    @ Claudia: What you are talking about is, I think, the differentiation between cognitive and affective empathy.

    @ TKG: Those three terms (empathy, sympathy, compassion) are getting so easily confused, and often aren’t even clearly distinct from each other according to definition:

    Etymologically, empathy is the ability to FEEL INTO another person:

    (greek e-, em-: ‘in, within, into’ / -pathos: ‘mood/feeling/emotion’ )

    Sympathy means to FEEL WITH another person:

    (greek sym-; ‘together with’ / -pathos: ‘mood/feeling/emotion)

    Compassion means to SUFFER WITH another person
    (latin com-: ‘together with’ / -pati: ‘to suffer’)

    …Which is quite interesting, as in common usage, ‘sympathy’ is not only used to describe the feeling of affinity of others’ mentality/attitude (as in “sympathizing with the communists”), which matches the etymological meaning, but more often, to specify a lowering reaction to another one’s feeling or suffering, as in pity or charity (implying a benevolent, condescending attitude).

    ‘Compassion’, on the other hand, in common usage is used in a more positive way, extending its etymological meaning from ‘suffering’ to ‘feeling’: it describes the suffering / feeling with others, such as showing them you understand and truly care and try to alleviate their suffering.

    And empathy…. is often confused with or used alternatively for either of them!

    Etymologically it would be something like this:

    EMPATHY: feeling INTO / shared way of feeling / one person sitting behind another person on his/her horse, rocking and moving in the same rhythm, feeling the same things as the other one does / to look into the same direction from almost the same point of view

    SYMPATHY: feeling WITH / parallel way of feeling / two persons sitting on two horses that gallop side by side into the same direction, having a similar experience of the ride / to look into the same direction from a slightly different angle

    COMPASSION: suffering with / assimilated way of suffering / two persons on two horses being preoccupied by the hurting or suffering aspects of one person’s ride / one rider focuses on the other one’s suffering (and may thus miss other aspects of the ride, just as the sufferer does)

    In English common use, though, these terms keep commingling in meaning regarding both prefixes and word stem…

  8. Panta Rhei, you really outdid
    Panta Rhei, you really outdid yourself with this – that comment should be next weekend’s blog post! It’s eye-opening to see the word origins and realize the many ways all these words are popularly misused. As I.said above, maybe we’re finally reaching the point where we can discuss these words with the subtlety they deserve.

    Vicki, thanks for your comment too. I don’t think there is any disagreement between us here. You are emphasizing a different aspect of the birth/individuation/empathy procession than I am, and pointing out the importance of bringing an infant into the world with enough love to help the child develop empathy. I totally agree. And when I say that the child is born in a state of complete empathy, I!m talking about a kind of potential, rather than actual, empathy, so I don’t think there’s a contradiction.

    TKG, I love it that you tell me what you think of this discussion. Can’t please everybody,that’s fine. I hate mumbo-jumbo myself, but for some reason this topic feels very pressing and immediate to me.

  9. Ha – didn’t mean to
    Ha – didn’t mean to anticipate anything your were going to say in your next post, Levi! Actually, I’m looking VERY forward to hear your take on the (mis)conceptions and acceptations of these words next weekend – I have an especially great interest in this topic and am quite curious about what you have to say about it.

  10. i think empathy means feeling
    i think empathy means feeling sorry with someone and sympathy means feeling sorry for someone. i’m thinking people generally mind sympathy more than empathy and given a choice likely would distinctly prefer the latter. both seem a slightly finer distinction than compassion to me, and mercy likewise seeming seeming broader. i dunno -semantically speaking about these words describing intersections of feelings, circumstances, and context gets slippery maybe. i will say all the words that end in ‘pathy’ are interesting ones.

  11. Hi John — let’s also
    Hi John — let’s also remember that “empathy” and “sympathy” are not only about feelings of sadness. If I see somebody dancing and smiling and I start dancing and smiling, that’s also a case of empathy. It may even also a case of sympathy, though I’m not sure. I think this preponderance of linguistic confusion regarding all these “-pathy” words supports my statement that we need a more sophisticated understanding of all of these meanings!

    Thanks for the nomination, G. Martinez — I do always try to be a versatile blogger.

    Panta Rhei, no worries about anticipating my ideas! You said it better than I would have. And, I got lots more blog posts to write about this topic … and I’m thrilled to know that many of you are interested in the topic too.

  12. that’s a good point, Levi …
    that’s a good point, Levi … two good points even.

    … i would like to ask: how many here ever – particularly when young adults – had experiences of near telepathy (or thought they had), as in sensitivity to the feelings of others to the point of sensitivity to their thinking?

  13. Levi, I believe that one
    Levi, I believe that one needs BOTH a visceral emotive empathy and a rational conscience to behave in an other-regarding manner. Without the visceral emotive empathy, you get sociopaths who intrinsically lack it and harm others for the sport and pleasure of it. Without some kind of rational conscience, however, one can still hurt others all too often. How often do even people with empathy get mad and do or say harmful things to loved ones, which they later regret? I think other-regarding behavior is a combination of the rational and the emotional, visceral empathy and caring for other human beings and the rational conscience of not causing them harm even when you’re mad at them.

  14. To make things even more
    To make things even more confusing, “Sympathie” in German is almost solely used in the sense of liking (or, more precisely, to describe the precursory state of any possible liking: relating to someone/something, feeling a consoncance with him or her, being on the same wavelength and in emotional or intellectual accord, a mutual or parallel susceptibility, a feeling of affinity towards the other one)…

    Empathy (German “Einfühlungsvermögen”, literally “the ability to feel into”), however, is used the same way as it is used in English: the capability to ascertain other’s feelings as well as to respond to them appropriately – just as compassion (German “Mitleid”, literally “suffering with”) is.

  15. Just came across this
    Just came across this particular article but the subject is one that concerns me directly and almost constantly.
    Empathy, for me, can be heaven or hell. I worked with a man who would come to work without eating breakfast (we shared an office) and I would start feeling a headache, and would take some aspirin. After this happened a couple times, I asked him if he had eaten, and if he had a low blood sugar headache. He hadn’t and he did. On one level, I would know what he was going to say or do before he did it. I would know when our boss (in another room) was calling on the phone (this was in the days of very old fashioned phones).
    It developed so much that when the boss was supposed to be out of town (200 miles away) I would know that he was in town (within 25 miles). Useful in knowing when work absolutely had to be done but not good because when the boss was angry I could feel it through several cement block walls and steel doors.

    I often hear a subtext in peoples’ emotions so I am aware of what they’re not talking about, but which concerns them.
    This is not something I look for or want (it makes most relationships difficult, rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes) but that I am stuck with. I disregard it at my peril as people do not always say what they think or mean.
    It often comes to me in music…I start hearing a song in my head and I have to listen to it because it won’t go away…and it’s not usually a currently popular song–sometimes a song I have to research before I even know what it is (aside from one verse or refrain).
    Sometimes it tells me something I need to know about what a person might need (to know, to hear, etc).

    With some people, I am strongly aware of certain emotions. People who suffer from anxiety provoke feelings of anxiety in me (I’ve learned to distinguish between what is mine, and what is theirs but it doesn’t make theirs go away) or who are under the influence of alcohol (often supressed anger) or drugs (I get spaced out myself).

    I have found ways to sort of isolate myself to protect myself from others emotions/needs but it also blocks the positive aspects of it as well.

    When I worked in customer service (for a steamship agency) I would end up feeling a sort of link with many people I spoke with on a regular basis, so the ‘talent’ (not the best word) isn’t based solely on physical contact.
    With one friend, I described it to him in this way: You take a drink of wine, but what I taste is brandy–without your identity to filter the experience, I get the more concentrated effect.
    There are ways in which this is used in a very positive fashion so ultimately it’s worth the cost. I also know that if I can find myself in a very positive place, it can affect people around me (stressful situations like catching a plane oversees and all the stuff one has to go thru…what they hear is my chatter but what it does it take them away from their stress or anxiety).
    There are times when my response has nothing to do with a mental perception but is an instinctual response.
    I have to be very concerned about knowing things about people which is really their own private property (their feelings) so I try to maintain a ‘no trespass’ policy and not look for what people might feel.
    Strong emotions in other people can be damaging for me..anger makes me want to run because it comes from deep within and is usually unrestrained. There are comedians I can’t watch because their humor is based in deep anger and while others laugh, I feel the pain.

    Strong empathy can be useful for those involved in healing arts. (I’ve discussed this with friends who are massage therapists and chiropractors).

    I think the ethical side of empathy is dependent on how much the person feeling empathic has experienced themself and how they have grown from it.

    It took me a long time to come to really understand what was happening and then quite a while to learn how to deal with it. When you feel something strongly you assume it is your emotions. I wonder if a lot of abused women suffer from empathic response to the destructive emotions of their partners…
    For myself I finally was able to take it apart a piece at a time. Did I usually feel this way? Had I felt this way recently? Did I like feeling this way? If the answers were no, then I would try to see the way I felt as a shabby old overcoat that I was wearing, but that it wasn’t MINE–so I could put it away.

    In Asimov’s Foundation series there’s a character named The Mule. He has the ability to affect peoples’ emotions–and he uses music for that purpose. His work was negative….
    but I think empathy can be used in group settings in positive ways…to bring people together, to better share in what they have come together to experience.

    All this is a personal and extreme version of empathy…but a real one. When I feel compassion, it is separate and apart, when I feel sympathy is quite another thing.

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