The History of Empathy

Dec 31, 2018

Empathy: you probably have an intuitive sense of what it is, but can you define it? The word itself is about a century old, and the meaning has actually been in almost continual flux. 

On top of that, there’s debate about whether empathy is a good and useful feeling that can help us move toward a kinder and more just world, or whether it’s actually counterproductive.  

The word was first used in German as “einfühlung” or in-feeling around the turn of the last century. It was used in the context of aesthetics, an area of philosophy.  

“It was about ‘feeling into’ things, like forms and shapes and art objects,” said Susan Lanzoni, a science and medicine historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of Empathy: A History.

“Slowly it's morphed into more of, ‘How do we understand someone else and not project ourselves into the other person as we're doing so.’”

In 1948, a young woman named Roslind Dymond Cartwright developed one of the first research projects involving empathy. The project was aimed at understanding how another person is thinking.

“Social scientists were really alarmed about what happened in World War II,” Lanzoni said. “You see, in that light, efforts to think about empathy. To test it, to standardize it, to operationalize it.”

In 1978, African-American social psychologist Kenneth B. Clark talked about empathy in criticizing the American education system. Clark said that American schools were teaching competition rather than understanding one another, and it was causing societal problems.

“There have been voices in American culture that have really championed this quality of trying to grasp another's point of view,” Lanzoni said.

“For him… it’s not just an emotional understanding of another. But also, once you give someone that kind of attention, you're also granting them their humanity, and with that, as Clark argued, their rights. So he saw it as a political act.”