Empathy and The Danger of Inventing Words Derek Matravers sifts through a hodge-podge of ideas
The Germans had empathy before we did. At least, the term “empathy” was coined in 1909 as a translation of the German “Einfühlung”. Einfühlung was a technical term, in late nineteenth-century German aesthetics, which referred to the mind’s supposed capacity to project itself into objects so as to make it appropriate for viewers to experience them as animate or beautiful. “Empathy” was not the first attempt at translation; “Einfühlung” was originally translated as “infeeling” (and the subsequent debate might have been rather different had we stuck with that). The term we know and seem to have come to love was coined by the Cornell psychologist, Edward Tichener, who, in an inspired linguistic move, drew on the Greek “em” (in) and “pathos” (feeling).
Since that time, the term has had a curious history. There were some in the Anglophone world who were interested in aesthetic theory and who knew the German debates. These included the remarkable figure of Vernon Lee (a pseudonym of Violet Paget), who, at least until the recent interest in the history of empathy, was better known as the author of short stories of the supernatural. Lee and her collaborator Clementina Anstruther-Thomson already had an interest in “experimental aesthetics”, carefully measuring the physical effects on each oth-
er that were caused by regarding the visual arts. Lee and the foremost German proponent of Einfühlung, Theodor Lipps, argued with each other in print, with, in retrospect, Lee’s scepticism of German theory-building coming out on top. The debate raged, drawing in people such as T.E. Hulme and possibly, although even then only for a short while, R.G. Collingwood. Lee’s neighbour, the great Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson, appears to have borrowed from the debate for his influential notion of “tactile values” – although he (absurdly) accused Lee of plagiarising his ideas and didn’t speak to her for twenty years.
What sense could be attached to the notion that we project our minds into objects?
What emerged from this welter of activity is that Einfühlung, empathy, had at its heart a mystery: projection. What sense could be attached to the notion that we project our minds into objects? From Oxford, an earlier proselytiser for aesthetics E.F. Carritt wrote in his The Theory of Beauty,