Empathy and Art

Empathy is rooted in art!

In 1909, Edward Titchener (famous dude in psychology) introduced the term “empathy” into the English language. “Empathy” is a translation of the German word “einfühlung” or “feeling into.”

But before the introduction of empathy to English speakers, the concept had an interesting birth and journey.

The birth of “empathy” or “einfühlung” came about in the second half of the 1800s. German philosophers used “einfühlung” to describe a person’s experience with art. Although the philosophers were chatting about “einfühlung,” the word didn’t appear in print until 1873 when a student (Robert Vischer) used it in his doctoral thesis.  Thirty years later, a famous German philosopher (Theodor Lipps) formalized “einfühlung.” This formalized definition is what Titchener introduced to English speakers:

Edward Titchener
Edward Titchener

“Einfühlung” described a person’s internal psychological or bodily process triggered by art.  The essence of this concept is that people don’t just intellectually understand that a piece of art is supposed to project an unhappy person or emotion – rather the viewer actually experiences the unhappiness.

With time, many things change. The same is true of “empathy.”  However, this original definition is still part of the concept. Keep in mind that today’s researchers quibble about the fine details of “empathy” – but generally, it is divided into two kinds. This emotional empathy as described by the student (Vischer), philosopher (Lipps), and famous dude in psychology (Titchener), and cognitive empathy – the intellectual, cerebral understanding of another person’s state.

The evolution of empathy is rather cool, isn’t it?





Lipps, T., 1903. Einfühlung, innere Nachahmung und Organempfindung. Archiv für die gesamte Psychologie, 1,185–204.

Titchener, E., 1909. Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes.Macmillan, New York.

Karsten Stueber (February 14, 2013). Empathy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/empathy/.

Picture Attribution

Empathy and Art: “Musé des Beaux Arts” by Astrid Westvang

Edward Titchener: Wikimedia