Thinkaboutit #5
What Is Empathy—Really?
Most people today seem to think that empathy is like sympathy, only better!There is a proper use of the word “empathy,” but that isn’t it.  Correctly used it refers to that quality that enables us to relate to other human beings as persons like ourselves.
If you look for “empathy” in one of those old dictionaries you may not find it.  It is of relatively recent currency.  Indeed, a friendly correspondent of mine checked his references and found the word in his prized copy of Webster's New International Unabridged Dictionary (2nd Ed.), 1955, there defined as “Imaginative projection of one's own consciousness into another being; esp. sympathetic understanding of other than [sic] human beings."  However, when he checked his Oxford English Dictionary (ca. mid-1920s), the definitive reference on all words in the English language, the word was not present.
That means that the word “empathy” was not in use then.  It doesn’t mean the word did not exist.  In fact the word was coined in a 1903 translation of the term einfuhlung  invented by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze in an essay on art appreciation.  In 1909 someone made it into an adjective (empathic), but in 1925 someone else used it as a verb (empathize).
By mid-century “empathy” was part of the jargon of the intelligentsia, but in my personal observation the word’s current popularity can be traced to the introspective milieu of the 1970’s. By the end of the century counselors, clergy, and consultants were encouraging all of us to develop empathy in order to relate properly to others.
Why then the current hubbub about empathy?  It involves some complications from postmodern legal theory, but it all boils down to the question of whether empathy is a necessary component of a good judicial decision.  Those who hold to the older view of equality under the law say no, because empathy necessarily entails partiality and the law must be impartial.  The newer, postmodern (and Marxian) view holds that law is the equalizer, and that justice requires empathy for “the oppressed” (although there is no universal definition of that group).
Empathy, in other words, has become a political construct.  George Orwell got it right when he pointed out that whoever wants to command a society must to take over its history (i.e., how it is told) and its language (how things are said).
Can this word be rescued?  Only if we go back to the root.
Empathy is what enables us to love others as we love ourselves.   It’s not that we necessarily do, but it is a capacity that makes it possible.  Empathy is a common human characteristic, but if it is not inculcated and trained in early childhood it is not likely to be gained later.  The people who lack empathy are sociopaths (not conservatives, as in the liberal definition under current discussion).  
Empathy, then, is not strictly speaking a moral term, but we might accurately say it is pre-moral.  It is not a virtue in and of itself, but it is the ground for all relational virtues, i.e. those virtues that we recognize in people we call good.  It is not compassion, but it is the soil in which compassion grows.  One may have empathy, yet not fulfill the commandment; one may have empathy and still behave selfishly.  Yet it does not appear likely that one can love one’s fellow man, with all that entails, if one does not view others as his fellow man.
Unfortunately this word “empathy” has taken its place in the pantheon of human virtue—a tragedy made even sadder by the loss of the word that once held its place.
For some thoughts on that word, go here.
Tell me what you think.
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