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Despite the long-standing existence of modern psychology, which can be dated back at least to the 6th century B.C., the term “empathy” is a relative newcomer to the field.
Greek philosophers, Plato first and foremost among them, were discussing “psuche” – which became “psyche” more than 2,500 years ago. Inscriptions on the Edwin Smith Papyrus from ancient Egypt dating back to 1600 B.C. include a description of the brain and speculation on some of its functions. Psychology was a part of the philosophy domain up until the 1870s, when it became a field of independent study by forward-thinking German researchers, chief among them Wilhelm Wundt, who built the first lab dedicated solely to research of psychology. Still it was nearly 40 years later that “empathy” became a known word, and even then its meaning did not reflect what we know of it today. Wunt’s fellow psychologist Robert Vischer coined the term “Einfuhlung” in 1873, but defined it as the projection of a human feeling onto the natural world. “Einfuhlung” literally means “in-feeling”, and was originally much more of an artistic phrase than an emotional one. It was used when discussing the ability of an artist or other creative people to take their own feelings, movements, or goals and translate them into the shape of an object.
Trailing the Germans in the development of the field of psychology were the English and American researchers. Among their first tasks at the beginning of the 20th century was translating three decades of prominent German research so they could learn from it and build on it. The term “Einfuhlung” turned out to be a struggle to translate, with psychologists suggesting it could mean “animation”, “semblance”, “play”, or the clunky “aesthetic sympathy”. In 1908, a pair of leading psychologists from Cornell in the US and the University of Cambridge in the UK, invented a new word to match the unique meaning of “Einfullung” – empathy – derived by combining the Greek words “em”, meaning “in” and “pathos” meaning “feeling, a literal translation if there ever was one. The term was born, but it would be another several decades before it began to be used in the context we know it today.
Even though the word empathy was “absent from most dictionaries”, in the early 20th century, it gradually started gaining prominence after the Great Depression of 1929. Rebcca West, British author and journalist, said that a certain exhilarating feeling of being in flight with the dove was empathy defined, in her words “entering into the experience of objects outside themselves.” The general public might have been largely unaware of the phrase, but it had moved beyond the scientific realm and into the creative fields, regularly used by art and dance critics to praise and criticise the aesthetics of a particular piece.
In my book ‘Empathy Is Far More More Valuable Than Diamonds’, I have delved deep into the layers of behavior to find a structure which all of us can benefit from by inculcating within us Empathy as our guiding light.