“Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?

According to the OED, “empathy” entered the English language in 1895 to mean “a physiological brain-function”–specifically, “a form of psychophysical energy” in the nervous system–that correlated with a feeling.

This meaning is now obsolete, because the underlying theory is. A somewhat more familiar meaning appeared in 1909: “Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride … but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscles. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung.” E. B. Titchener Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes i. 21  (1909).

But this meaning is now also “rare,” says the OED. The word “empathy” gained its mainstream current meaning only in 1946 (in a professional psychology journal):

[Meaning 2b] orig. Psychology. The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.

1946 Jrnl. Clin. Psychol.2 61/1   A ‘man-to-man’ regard for the client, characterized (ideally) by the understanding of empathy without the erratic quality of identification or the supportiveness of sympathy.

You might think it’s a Greek word, and it parses in Greek: en- (“of the state or condition of”) plus pathos (“an incident, accident; suffering”) = “the state of someone’s [else’s] suffering.” But no such word is listed in my Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon. It is a modern English word built of ancient Greek components. If anything, the origin is the German word Einfühlung (coined in 1873), which needed an English equivalent.

While noting the recent origins of the English word, Emily McRae also argues that it has no direct translation in Sanskrit or other languages that have been used to express the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Key words from that tradition are better translated as “compassion” and “sympathetic joy.” McRae derives a theory of empathy from Buddhist texts, but she interprets phrases like “exchanging self and other” rather than any single word that corresponds to “empathy.”*

Since the word “empathy” is recent, and many wise thinkers have done without it, we might ask whether adding it to our vocabulary has done us good. It would be possible to carve up the conceptual space so that “empathy” vanished and we used only “compassion,” “beneficence,” “good will,” “forgiveness,” “responsiveness,” “mirroring,” and other related words.

I am a little worried that “empathy” confuses matters by combining an empirical concept–empathy exists when person A feels an emotion, which causes person B to feel some of that same emotion–with a positive moral valence (it is good to be empathetic). Yet it is not always good to feel the same emotion as someone else in response to that person.

*“Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Ethics” for Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge), edited by Heidi Maibom, 2017. See also: empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; and my self, your self, ourselves

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.