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Empathy and The Danger of Inventing Words

“we have here nothing but an attempt to explain in figurative language an unconscious process by which some beautiful objects may have become so”. It looked as if, after a brief flourishing, the notion of empathy was dead; replaced by theories such as the expression theory and formalism. Indeed, that seems to have been the case; the term then pretty much disappears from sight for around fifty years.

“Empathy” was coined in 1909 -does this mean that we did not have empathy before 1909?

It is not clear why “empathy” stared to creep back into common parlance. My hunch is that it stemmed from the translation, in 1954, of Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraktion und Einfühlung. The translator looked back to when the debate was live (the book had first been published in German in 1907), and employed the English term from then; hence, Abstraction and Empathy. Even then, take up outside of Art Historical circles was fairly slow. Nonetheless, an explosion of interest was about to happen.

What underpinned that explosion was not aesthetics at all. Early on in the debates, before Titchener had even coined the term, Lipps had suggested the work that had been done in aesthetics could be applied to solve the problem of other minds. In a slightly handwaving passage in 1907 he claimed that we could somehow mirror the mind of another in our own minds, and grasp both the fact that they had minds and also the content of their minds. In the later twentieth century this, our capacity to “read the minds of others”, was in the intellectual air. Psychologists were researching such matters as the basis for altruism, the acquisition of a “theory of mind” (our capacity to represent the mental states of others), and the underlying causes of autism. However, it was the philosophical debate about interpreting what was in the minds of others that, I suspect, took “empathy” to the centre of the stage. Since the mid-1960s, the dominant theory of mind had been “functionalism”; the claim that mental states were functional states – something that was caused by inputs (sensory information), had relations to other mental states, and caused outputs (appearance and behaviour). This came along with an account of how we could come to learn about another’s mental states: we employ some interpretative psychological theory we all carry around with us. This theory consisted of theorems such as “If a person desires X, and believes acting in such-andsuch a way will bring about X, then, all things being equal, they will act in such-andsuch a way”. In the mid-eighties this was challenged by Jane Heal in the UK, and, independently, Robert Gordon in the States. Rather than using theory to interpret each other, Heal and Gordon proposed a simpler alternative. We imagine ourselves being in the other person’s circumstances, work out what we would think or feel, and attribute those thinkings and feelings to them. That is, we discover what is going on in the heads of others by replicating the content of their minds in ours. Although this quickly got known under the name “simulation theory”,


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