The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Empathy (Einfühlung): An involuntary projection of self into an external object, whether animate or inanimate (e.g., a person, animal, place, natural force, or thing), that entails identification with the object. Empathy involves participation in an object’s existence to the point of feeling what the object senses or undergoes.

The concept of Einfühlung (literally, a “feeling into”), which entered English-language literary criticism in the twentieth century, was initially developed by nineteenth-century German theorists. Some scholars credit German philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze with formulating the idea as early as 1858, in the second volume of Mikrokosmos. Others trace it to German psychologist Robert Vischer, who developed a psychological theory of art, set forth in Über das optische Formgefühl (On the Optical Sense of Form) (1873), holding that the viewer of a work of art experiences physical and emotional sensations suggested by the work and derives pleasure from the fusion of object and self. Another German psychologist, Theodor Lipps, subsequently elaborated on Vischer’s theory of aesthetic response in Ästhetik (2 vols., 1903—06), an extensive analysis of empathy with examples from the visual arts. A few years later, the concept was imported into English by British-American psychologist Edward Titchener, who translated Einfühlung as “empathy” and defined it as “the process of humanizing objects, of feeling ourselves or reading ourselves into them” in Lectures in Experimental Psychology (1909).

Empathy should be distinguished from sympathy, a term that connotes affinity with or compassion for an external object but not identification with it. However, while most critics distinguish between the “feeling into” of empathy and the “feeling along” of sympathy, some consider the terms to be essentially synonymous.

EXAMPLES: To feel terrified and cower, shoulders hunched, like the hunted character in a movie, is to experience empathy, whereas to feel sorry or afraid for the intended victim (but not personally fearful) is to experience sympathy. The many images from 9/11 of onlookers holding up their hands as if to keep the World Trade Center towers from collapsing after the terrorist attacks reflect the experience of empathy.

Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968; adapted to film as Blade Runner in 1982) explores empathy as a central theme, asking whether empathy is uniquely a human trait. Protagonist Rick Deckard, a bounty-hunter tasked with finding and “retiring” rogue androids, discovers that some androids are capable of learning empathy.