Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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History of the Evolution of the Word, Concept, Phenomenon of Empathy
Send me an email with additions.

Homo Erectus Empathicus
a really long time ago

Hunter, Gatherer, Philosopher

"Share your food with others like you would wish them to share with you.
Groom others as you would like to be groomed."

ca. 8th century BC
Ancient Greek Epic Poet

"Yet, taught by time, my heart has learned to glow for other's good, and melt at other's woe." 
David Hume
Philosopher,  Economist, Historian (on sympathy)
Argues that foundations of morals lie with sentiment, not reason.
"Sympathy, for Hume, is a principle for the communication and sharing of sentiments, both positive and negative. In this sense, it is akin to what contemporary psychologists and philosophers call empathy." Wikipedia

He says, "the minds of men are mirrors to one another, not only because they reflect each others emotions, but also because those rays of passions, sentiments, and opinions may be often reverberated, and may decay away by insensible degrees."
"Tis evident, that sympathy, or the communication of passions, takes place among animals, no less than among men"
Adam Smith


Moral Philosopher, Pioneer of Political Economy (on sympathy)

Talks about sympathy as "fellow feeling" and as a social glue.
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."
"Society is ... the mirror in which one catches sight of oneself, morally speaking."
"As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation."
Percy Bysshe Shelley
1792 -1822
Romantic Poet  (on sympathy)

"The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived;"

"The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.  A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination."   A Defense of Poetry

Charles Darwin
Naturalist  (on sympathy)
Talks about sympathy
 "the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. "
"sympathy, which, as we shall see, forms an essential part of the social instinct, and is indeed its foundation-stone."
Friedrich Theodor Vischer
1807 - 1887
German Philosopher and Literary Historian

Used the term Einfühlen  "feel into"  or "in-feeling in explorations of Idealism relative to architectural form,
Henry David Thoreau
Writer, Essayist, Philosopher, Transcendentalist

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eye for an instant? 

Robert Vischer
German Art Historian and Philosopher

The projection of feelings into art work. He is credited with the f
irst to use the word Einfühlung to explain how we  "feel into"  or "in-feeling" of works of arts and nature in his work, On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics, 1873.

His father
Friedrich Theodor Vischer had used a similar term

Rudolf Hermann Lotze
Philosopher and Logician

(some sources credit Lotze with translating Einfühlung into empathy, but that doesn't seem accurate, most say it  was Titchener)
Mikrokosmus 1858
Coined 1858 by Ger. philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-81) from Gk. empatheia "passion," from en- "in" + pathos "feeling" (see pathos).

Wilhelm Wundt
Father of Experimental Psychology
     used empathy in terms of human relationships in an aesthetic doctrine,

When empathizing with a work of art, the beholder physically imitates the object and imaginatively projects himself into the object.


Theodor Lipps
German Psychologist-Philosopher
a student of Wundt

Einfühlung - "transfers it to psychology in an attempt to explain how we discover that other people have selves"
The Ästhetik (1903-06) of Theodor Lipps is the most extensive analysis of empathy,  Presented with a host of examples from the visual arts
  Brings word form aesthetics to physiology
  The act of projecting oneself into the object of a perception.
  Story of circus performer (man on a high wire) you feel it.
  Said, "when I observe a circus performer on a hanging wire, I feel I am inside him"

Sigmund Freud

Freud and the history of empathy. Freud picks up on it from Lipps
sychodynamics of putting oneself in another person's position


Edward Titchener

He coined the word "empathy" (feeling-in), as a translation of the German Einfühlung.
Empathy neologism from Greek empatheria - which means appreciation of another person feelings.
"Process of humanizing objects, of reading or feeling ourselves into them"
1909     empathic (adj.) is from 1909
Edith Stein

1891 - 1942

Philosopher and Nun

" the experience of foreign consciousness in general...This is how man grasps
the psychic life of his fellow man"
Elmer E. Southard

 - used empathy between patient and clinician

1924     The term 'empathize' was coined in 1924.
Wolfgang Kohler
German educated American Psychologist
Co-founded school of  Gestalt psychology
Argued empathy was more cognitive rather than "feeling into"



Jean Piaget


Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy of Science at the University of Neuchatel.
Emphasized the cognitive over the emotional



George Herbert Mead

1863 - 1931

Philosopher, sociologist and psychologist,
Emphasized the cognitive over the emotional
Understanding how people  view the world, more perspective taking

Heinz Kohut
Clinical psychologist - Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis
Main person to Introduce empathy in psychoanalysis. He considered empathy as a form of internal scientific inquiry.
Empathy: Abstract & Operational
Video: Heinz Kohut - Reflections on Empathy
Another reason to go back to empathy
I have a responsibility about the abuse of this concept.
Other's claim that empathy cures, I don't believe that at all.

Introspection and empathy as an informer of appropriate action.
Empathy can be used for kindness or hostility.
Absences of the mother, leads to emptiness, Analysis cures and empathy plays a role.

Carl Rogers
Clinical psychologist and therapist
Very influential in the exploration of empathy
Was Prominent Psychologist. Much of the empathy work in psychology and psychotherapy is based on his work on empathy.
Author: Client Centered Therapy
Author: On Becoming a Person
 and others
Article: Empathic: An Unappreciated Way Of Being
Experiences in Communication

Martin Hoffman
  Professor of Psychology at New York University (NYU).

Empathy as a biologically based disposition for altruistic behavior


Giacomo Rizzolatti
He lead team that discovered mirror neurons:
Leonardo Fogassi, Giuseppe Di Pellegrino, Luciano Fadiga,
Vittorio Gallese

2008 President Obama: Warm Wishes for Rosh Hashanah
Barack Obama
1961 -(American) USA President
Barack Obama ran for U.S. President saying that the country had an 'empathy deficit' that needed to be filled. His 'value system' is build on the value of empathy.

2009 2009-05-01 - Barack Obama on David Souter Retirement - Senate Debate on Empathy (4 of 90)
Barack Obama

1961 -

USA President
President Barack Obama says he will choose a Supreme Court Judge that has empathy.
US Senate
  Senate Debate on Empathy
US Senate has an extensive and ongoing debate about the relationship of empathy to justice and the Supreme Court.
Frans de Waal

1948 -

Primatologist and Ethnologist.

 Director of Living Links Center at the
Yerkes National Primate Research Center  in Atlanta.
 Publishes his book
The Age of Empathy

There is now an explosion of people working on empathy from all different fields and disciplines.
See the Empathy Experts page.

History Links