Empathy: A History

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A surprising, sweeping, and deeply researched history of empathy—from late-nineteenth-century German aesthetics to mirror neurons.

Empathy: A History tells the fascinating and largely unknown story of the first appearance of “empathy” in 1908 and tracks its shifting meanings over the following century. Despite empathy’s ubiquity today, few realize that it began as a translation of Einfühlung or “in-feeling” in German psychological aesthetics that described how spectators projected their own feelings and movements into objects of art and nature.

Remarkably, this early conception of empathy transformed into its opposite over the ensuing decades. Social scientists and clinical psychologists refashioned empathy to require the deliberate putting aside of one’s feelings to more accurately understand another’s. By the end of World War II, interpersonal empathy entered the mainstream, appearing in advice columns, popular radio and TV, and later in public forums on civil rights. Even as neuroscientists continue to map the brain correlates of empathy, its many dimensions still elude strict scientific description.

This meticulously researched book uncovers empathy’s historical layers, offering a rich portrait of the tension between the reach of one’s own imagination and the realities of others’ experiences.


“Susan Lanzoni reveals the little-known roots and reach of ’empathy,’ particularly its richness as a lens on the arts. An eye-opener for anyone with an interest in empathy, particularly those in the behavioral and brain sciences, whose understanding of the concept will be expanded in astonishing ways.”—Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence“Highly impressive…. this lucid and generously case-based book gave me a distinctly different understanding of empathy and its role in scientific explorations, like emotion theory and neuron research, as well as in everyday social relations.”—Jill Morawski, Wesleyan University“This remarkable study of empathy, a crucial but much misunderstood concept and experience, is encyclopedic in its inclusion of aesthetic, historical, psychological, and social sources. Readers will be enriched by Lanzoni’s breadth and clarity.” Robert Jay Lifton, author of The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope and Survival

“Susan Lanzoni’s dive into the history and use of empathy – in aesthetics, ethics, politics and now neurobiology – has produced a book that is both deep and wide.  Few concepts have exerted such power.  This is a crucial study, now more than ever.”—Peter Galison, Harvard University

Empathy: A History (Yale University Press, September 2018, $30, 408 pp., cloth), by Susan Lanzoni, a historian of the mind sciences, tracks the surprising development of the word from the early 20th century on and reflects on the role of the concept in Western society.

Empathy is now broadly understood as our capacity to grasp and share the feelings and thoughts of others. But our use of the term began, Lanzoni tells us, as a translation of the German word Einfühlung, literally “in-feeling,” which described the way that spectators’ feelings of emotion or movement could be projected into objects of art or nature. From there, the concept of empathy transformed, eventually becoming a scientific subject to be researched, as well as a widely called upon antidote for personal, political, and cultural ills.

To study empathy is to pay attention to the ways we mark self and other, Lanzoni says, in a pursuit that will seem familiar to dharma practitioners. For while we may like to think of empathy as a means of relating to others, it’s also a way of defining boundaries of difference. “To see another accurately,” she writes, “means to recognize that I am not you.” Ultimately, Lanzoni’s goal is not to establish a universal definition for the term but to home in on its subtlety, allowing its myriad renditions to enrich our contemporary understanding of interconnection.” By Gabriel Lefferts, Tricycle Magazine, FALL 2018

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