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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



Empathy Activists Circle #7
How Might We Design Empathy Trainings?

View Video On Facebook or On YouTube

An Empathy Circle with empathy activists, experts, book authors, etc. exploring different aspects of empathy. 


"Empathy Circles are the most effective gateway and foundational empathy building practice."
Edwin Rutsch
Director: Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

"It's time to harness the power of empathy by creating shared terminology, vision, and values across disciplines and sectors. As leaders of cross-industry dialogue and innovation, we are positioned to develop the standards and best practices of the empathy-building movement."
Elif Gokcigdem
Author: Fostering Empathy Through Museums

"History tells us that empathy comprises a complex, artful but also effortful practice that enrolls feelings, intellect, and imagination."
Author: Empathy: A History

"Rosa brings deep content expertise in working with engaged empathy to evoke collaborative sense-making, group flow, and energetic alignment within highly diverse groups."
Rosa Zubizarreta
Author: From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A User's Guide to Dynamic Facilitation




Other Resources


Vimeo: Susan Lanzoni: A History of Empathy
Minneapolis Institute of Art
"Susan Lanzoni, historian of psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience at Harvard University’s School of Continuing Education, shares her research on the earliest conceptions of empathy–initially a term to describe how spectators projected their own feelings onto objects of art and nature–and how this has transformed into its present meaning of grasping the feelings and emotions of other people.

Despite a century of scientific exploration, and even as neuroscientists continue to map the brain correlates of empathy, its many dimensions still elude strict scientific description. This talk 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, and the importance of practicing empathy in our current moment. "

Talk - Susan Lanzoni: A History of Empathy from Minneapolis Institute of Art on Vimeo.



The Politics of Empathy and Race
Empathy's most ardent promoters have keenly felt its absence.
Susan Lanzoni

Feb 12, 2020
"Klobuchar’s promise of empathy is not surprising coming from the first female senator from Minnesota. In recent years, U.S. Senator Cory Booker and President Barack Obama repeatedly invoked the importance of empathy. Advocating for empathy is indeed not limited to any one demographic, but there is a rich history of black intellectuals and civil rights leaders doing so. Some of empathy’s fiercest promoters are those who have keenly felt its absence."



Empathy's Paradox:
Empathy's beginnings in psychotherapy and its connection to mindfulness.
Susan Lanzoni Ph.D.

Dec 19, 2019
When Rogers identified empathy as a key element of psychotherapy in 1948, it was not a word or concept known to the broader public. Empathy, Rogers explained, entailed a therapist's deep engagement with a client’s experience without judgment or interpretation.


The Surprising History of Empathy
What empathy's original and forgotten meaning can teach us.
Susan Lanzoni Ph.D. 
Nov 30, 2019
There is a lot of talk today about empathy and how to cultivate it. But most people don’t know that the word “empathy” is relatively new to the English language and was only coined in 1908. And strangely enough, its early meaning was different from what we understand by empathy today. In fact, it meant nearly the opposite!

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."