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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Susan Lanzoni

Empathy A History

Susan Lanzoni

Susan Lanzoni is a historian of psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience and teaches at Harvard's School of Continuing Education. Her work has been featured in the Atlantic and American Scientist and on Cognoscenti on WBUR, Boston's NPR station.  She is author of Empathy: A History. The book tells the fascinating and largely unknown story of the first appearance of "empathy" in 1908 and tracks its shifting meanings over the following century.


History tells us that empathy comprises a complex,

artful but also effortful practice that enrolls
feelings, intellect, and imagination.



Empathy, in it's many varieties, offers an oblique and

 sometimes direct challenge to the idea that we are

enclosed selves, sharply defined against

 the world and others.




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.



PART I:   Empathy as the Art of Movement

  1.   The Roots of Einfuhlung or Empathy in the Arts

  2.   From Einfuhlung to Empathy

  3.   Empathy in Art and Modern Dance

PART I I:   Making Empathy Scientific

  4.   The Limits of Empathy in Schizophrenia

  5.   Empathy in Social Work and Psychotherapy

  6.   Measuring Empathy

PART I I I:   Empathy in Culture and Politics

  7.   Popular Empathy

  8.   Empathy, Race, and Politics

  9.   Empathic Brains




Other Resources

The History of Empathy
(16 min audio podcast)
DEC 31, 2018

“It was about ‘feeling into’ things, like forms and shapes and art objects,” said Susan Lanzoni, a science and medicine historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of Empathy: A History.

This expansive new account of the history of empathy demonstrates the ways in which the concept has been imagined and reimagined across multiple discourses over the course of about a century.

The story unfolds in roughly chronological order, showing how empathy developed from aesthetic roots, was taken up as a technical scientific term in clinical and social psychology, and then stood at the centre of political debate in the wake of World War II and during the Civil Rights Era.

Lanzoni uses thematic vignettes to elaborate on how the empathy concept was deployed for specific concerns at specific times. For each of these vignettes, one gets the impression that there is enough material to fill a whole book. Lanzoni identifies her approach as akin to David Armitage’s method of serial contextualism, which provides “a way of delving into significant historical moments with detail yet still holding to an expansive view” (p. 16).
"Empathy, you must know by now, is a major keyword in the design business. We empathize with our clients. We empathize with their employees and their customers. We empathize with outside experts. With humanity. We empathize, that is, with the people who most need it and seldom receive enough of it. And yet, as I recently paged my way through Susan Lanzoni’s lavishly researched Empathy: A HistoryI realized that we never actually spell out what we mean by the term.
Lanzoni’s volume reminded of when, in 2015, my former colleague Augusta Meill published an essay against empathy. She didn’t define the term, but she did bring some necessary critical thinking to the subject: “Empathy’s great value as a design and business tool is that it offers palpable closeness to other people. This is by its nature singular and individualistic,” she wrote, adding that “our responsibility as designers (and, dare I suggest, as businesspeople too) should be not only to the individual but to the society.”"


Is it possible to empathize with lines in an abstract design, with the expansive reach of a tree, the sweep of a bird’s flight, or the imposing rise of a range of mountains? Can we “feel into” forms and shapes?

If today we know empathy as a way of understanding and feeling the emotional lives of others, one hundred years ago, surprisingly, empathy took place with objects of art and nature. In 1928, the novelist Rebecca West used the new term “empathy”—still absent from most dictionaries—to describe her own feeling of soaring with a bird as it arched through the skies. She explained that such an experience was ordinary, although it had only been identified and labeled empathy in the previous decades.

A Short History of Empathy
OCT 15, 2015
The term’s only been around for about a century—but over the course of its existence, its meaning has continually changed.

Empathy in Translation: Movement and Image in the Psychological Laboratory
Susan Lanzoni
Science in Context 25 (3):301-327 (2012)

Review of Empathy: A History. By Susan Lanzoni.
Glenn C. Altschuler Ph.D.
"Lanzoni illuminates the complex genealogy of empathy and shifts in definition. Best understood as “an array of ideas and practices,” the concept, she demonstrates, has been deployed as a method of appreciating art, a psychotherapeutic tool, an innate human trait, and an essential element of civic responsibility. Social psychologists and clinicians have tied empathy to the body (as a kinesthetic response); perceived it as an abstract idea; understood it as an unconscious or deliberate response."