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Empathy is an Explanation

Arguing for or against empathy is like arguing for or against gravity.

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We are living in troubled times.

A time that calls for a reflection on what it means to thrive together.

Why it matters to thrive together.

How we can thrive together.

To reflect on these questions, I believe it is important that we start from the following basic question:

“What is empathy?”

At this time, I will not go into detail as to why I believe this, but I hope it will become apparent as this series unfolds.

Empathy is a Word

In 2013, I published a book titled Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Making. One of the most difficult challenges in writing the book was coming to a resolution on what empathy is.

At the time, I browsed through what felt like a hundred different definitions of empathy. Until it came down to one simple fact.

Empathy is, first and foremost, a word.

Not any word, but a word invented to explain an event.[1] An event observed and experienced by a philosopher.

The word “empathy” is a translation of the German word “einfühlung,” invented by Robert Vischer, a German philosopher. His purpose for inventing the word was to explain why people can go from…

  1. Feeling separate from an artwork to
  2. Feeling one with it.[2]

It’s like how Sir Isaac Newton invented the word “gravity” to explain why an apple can go from…

  1. Being above the ground to
  2. Being on it.

Soon after, another German philosopher named Theodore Lipps entered the scene. He proceeded to expand the meaning of “einfühlung” to explain not only why we experience such oneness with a piece of artwork, but also with other people. A British psychologist named Edward Titchener then imported the word into the English language as “empathy.”[3]

Beyond Words

As you can see, the word “empathy” has changed in meaning throughout history. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so. But what will stay constant is the opportunity to feel as if we are one with an “other.” An “other” with which we have previously felt separated, disconnected, or perhaps even at odds. Whether this happens for a moment or for a prolonged duration of time and whether that “other” is a piece of artwork or another person, the feeling remains the same.[4]

I’ve read well-intended articles that argue for or against empathy. Those “against empathy” worry that we may do harm by being “for empathy.” Those “for empathy” feel the same way about being “against empathy.” Personally, I find arguing for or against empathy akin to arguing for or against gravity. Whether we like it or not, empathy is here to stay. Once we accept that, what matters is how we leverage it and to what end.

When our primary mode of communication is through words, it’s easy to get caught up in a war of definitions. Yet, it is not the wordempathy,” that I find important, but rather our potential to move from…

  • A. Feeling separate from an “other” to
  • B. Feeling one with them.

This potential is what I believe will make a significant difference in reflecting on the 3 questions I set forth at the beginning of this article.

  1. What does it mean to thrive together?
  2. Why does it matter to be together?
  3. How can we thrive together?

Stay tuned for Part 2.


[1] Herwig-Lempp. Johannes. Explanatory Principle.

[2] Nowak, Magdalena. The Complicated History of Einfühlung.

[3] Titchener, Edward B. Lectures of the Experimental Psychology of Thought Processes, New York, Macmillian, 1909.

[4] Just to be clear, this is not to anthropomorphize pieces of artwork or to claim that they have minds like human beings. It simply means that when it comes to empathy, we’re talking primarily about our ability to have an experience of connection or oneness with an “other,” not merely our ability to analyze them. It is also not to imply that every single person on the entire planet can experience such connection or oneness. I have no way of proving that. There are also various individual differences. For example, many programmers feel such connection or oneness with computers. Not everyone can feel this.

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