September 24, 2004

Empathy Papers I & II

The Concept of Empathy

Azar Nafisi writes that empathy is at the heart of the novel. My aim in this essay is to explore exactly what empathy means, how its usage has changed, and the various connotations it carries in preparation to examine how empathy is used in novels in the next essay. Empathy is closely related to the concept of sympathy. We cannot examine empathy without examining sympathy because their meanings are similar and their usage overlaps somewhat. The concept of empathy is a fairly new one, while the idea of sympathy has been around much longer. Empathy has evolved over the past century from its first usage as necessary to aesthetic experience to the idea that it is a fundamental part of human nature and necessary for psychological well-being. This essay will elaborate on how the concept of empathy evolved from the concept of sympathy to include understanding of a person or object, and how the modern usage of empathy is important in our understanding of the human condition.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, empathy is “the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” The two subjects one can find empathy listed under are psychology and aesthetics. Empathy comes from the German Einfuhlung, and was first used in 1903. Einfuhlung was first coined to mean putting one’s self into an aesthetic experience. The best example of this is an actor who actually becomes the part he is playing. The actor lives the experiences of the role he plays. The connotation of projecting one’s self into an aesthetic experience was the most common usage of empathy until the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, the concept of empathy changed to include the meaning of sharing another person’s feelings. The Oxford English Dictionary records the 1963 definition of “It is true that in both sympathy and empathy we permit our feelings for others to become involved.” Here we see that empathy as a feeling for another person necessarily includes the feeling of sympathy also. Encyclopedia Britannica states that the concept of empathy was modeled upon that of sympathy.
Sympathy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has many meanings. The closest definition to empathy is “The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling. Also, a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.” The concept of sympathy was first used in 1579. Its usage has evolved since then, but it still carries the connotation of sharing another person’s feelings. It does not imply understanding of the other person like empathy does. Empathy evolved from sympathy to include understanding how the other person feels, along with sharing the other person’s feelings.
The connection between sympathy and empathy is made in other languages also. In German, sympathy (sympathie) carries the connotation of liking and supporting another person. Empathy, or Einfuhlung, means sensitivity and intuitive understanding. The person who coined Einfuhlung expanded on the concept of sympathy as support for another person to include understanding. In French, sympathy (compassion) carries the connotation of pity, compassion, and condolence. Pity (pitie) carries the meaning of mercy and compassion. Empathy (empathie) carries the connotation of understanding a person. There are no words that are related to empathy in French like there are for sympathy. Again, this suggests that sympathy is more developed as a concept, and that empathy is a recent construct that draws on sympathy but also expands its meaning to include understanding. If we move out of Indo-European languages, we see that the same connotations and meanings are found in Arabic. Whereas there are very few related words to empathy in German, French, and English, the reverse is true in Arabic. There are more meanings in Arabic for empathy. More words are needed to explain it because it is a recent construct. Sympathy is a much older idea in Arabic, and thus needs less words to explain. Arabic employs a system of root words, where several hundred words can be related back to the root meaning. Sympathy in Arabic comes from the root word عطف. It has many meanings but the most common are to bend, to incline, be favorably disposed to, have or feel compassion, awaken affection towards, or close to one’s heart. Empathy can be traced back to three root words. The first is عطف, demonstrating again that one cannot feel empathy without feeling sympathy also. The second is عنق, meaning attach closely, embrace, hug, or associate closely. The third root is قمص, meaning to put on a shirt, clothe, wrap in, pass into another body (spirit), or materialize in another body. The third meaning is closest to that of understanding. It brings to mind the saying “walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” This implies that a person cannot fully experience another person or object unless they can place themselves into the other person or object and fully understand what it is like to be that person or object. In looking at other languages, we get a sense of how the concepts of empathy and sympathy are intertwined.
The usage of empathy has evolved over the years from an aesthetic experience to a more complex, related form of sympathy. Empathy is a much deeper, more intimate relation with another person or object than sympathy. If we look in the Oxford American Thesaurus, we see that sympathy and empathy are listed as synonyms for each other. However, because empathy necessarily implies understanding, whereas sympathy only implies caring, we see how empathy means deeper involvement and connection with a person or object. Caring and understanding are not mutually exclusive, but it is possible to care for another person and not understand them. The most prevalent example is that of funerals. People send cards and flowers to the bereaved relatives, but do not really understand the pain of losing that person because they did not have an intimate connection with the person who died. People who have gone through the pain of losing a loved one will better understand how the relatives feel. To understand a person is to know intimately what they are thinking, feeling, and have experienced in life. Caring for a person does not mean sharing their experiences and thoughts. It only implies concern for their well-being, but not necessarily knowledge of what the person is experiencing.
The concepts of empathy and sympathy can never be completely separated from each other, but if we look at their modern connotations we see that each implies something different today. Sympathy is thought of today as more of a condolence gesture, whereas empathy has evolved into a fundamental part of our psychological well-being. If sympathy is searched on google.com, the most common references are to flowers and cards. There are many websites for sending flowers and cards to a person for condolence. What this implies is caring that another person is grieving, but there is no engagement with what the person is experiencing. It is known that the person is grieving, but there is no understanding of what that is like. Flowers and cards can be sent off in remembrance, but the matter is often put out of the person’s mind after that because they do not understand and, thus, cannot do anything more. In contrast, if empathy is searched on google.com or amazon.com, the most common reference is psychological self-help. This implies that empathy is a necessary part of human nature. The word itself is a recent construct, but its modern usage has made it into a thing we must have to be psychologically whole. Encyclopedia Britannica states that the concept of empathy was an important counseling technique of the American psychologist Carl Rogers. The implication is that we must understand each other to be fully human. Part of being human is relating to other people. We do not go through life alone and, thus, must interact with people. Part of this interaction requires understanding if we are to fully engage with others. In its modern usage, empathy means being able to understand the human condition. The human condition is the full range of things which humans experience, to put it simply. If we cannot engage with and understand the world, there is a fundamental part of our humanity missing.
Azar Nafisi argues that empathy is at the heart of the novel because the reader’s understanding is precisely what the novel is trying to achieve. The novel attempts to draw the reader into an aesthetic experience of the human condition, evoking both the earlier and latter definitions of empathy. The concepts of sympathy and empathy can never be completely untangled and discussed separately, but there is this sense that we need empathy more to completely experience our humanity. Empathy will always include sympathy, so sympathy is not irrelevant. Sympathy alone is not enough, though. We see in Peter Gomes’ introduction to Frederick Douglass’ narrative that it is not enough to simply care. We must also engage with and understand what we are reading in order to fully experience what slavery was like. In the next essay, I would like to explore the literature to show how the authors conceptualized empathy as necessary to our humanity.

Works Cited
“Empathy.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 24 Jun 2004. .
“Empathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004 .
Gomes, Peter J. “Introduction.” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House, 2003.
“Sympathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004. < http://80-dictionary.oed.com.floyd.lib.umn.edu/cgi/entry/00245131?query_type=word&queryword=sympathy&edition=2e&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=1&search_id=J0BC-ucBLoH-15936&hilite=00245131>.
Oxford American Thesaurus.


Paper II
The Concept of Empathy in Literature

Azar Nafisi writes that empathy is at the heart of the novel. My aim in this essay is to define the concept of empathy and discuss how authors use empathy as crucial part of their novels. Empathy has evolved over the past century from its first usage as necessary to aesthetic experience to the idea that it is a fundamental part of human nature necessary for psychological well-being. This essay will examine how the authors of Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Soul on Ice, and Wynema utilize both meanings of empathy to show that it is not an intrinsic quality in humans, but learned by the author, readers, and characters in the novel.
First, empathy needs to be defined. It is important to understand empathy specifically as “the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation” (Oxford English Dictionary). Emerging from psychology and aesthetics, empathy comes from the German Einfuhlung, and was first used in 1903. Einfuhlung was first coined to mean putting one’s self into an aesthetic experience. The best example of this is an actor who actually becomes the part he is playing. The actor lives the experiences of the role he plays. The connotation of projecting one’s self into an aesthetic experience was the most common usage of empathy until the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, the concept of empathy changed to include the meaning of sharing another person’s feelings. The Oxford English Dictionary marks the 1963 change in meaning as “It is true that in both sympathy and empathy we permit our feelings for others to become involved.” Here we see that empathy necessarily includes the feeling of sympathy also. The authors of the novels under analysis utilize both meanings, that of aesthetic experience and connection between people, to argue that empathy is a
necessity for humans.
Sympathy is a similar concept to empathy. Their usage overlaps somewhat, so it is important to define sympathy and understand it as a distinct concept from empathy because they are used in different ways in the literature. Sympathy has many meanings, but the closest to that of empathy is “The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling. Also, a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.” (Oxford English Dictionary). The concept of sympathy was first used in 1579. Its usage has evolved since then, but it still carries the connotation of sharing another person’s feelings. It does not imply understanding of the other person like empathy does. Sharing and understanding mean two different things. Empathy evolved from sympathy to include understanding how the other person feels, along with sharing the other person’s feelings.
Examining other languages further illustrates the distinction between empathy and sympathy as concepts. In German, sympathy (sympathie) carries the connotation of liking and supporting another person. Empathy, or Einfuhlung, means sensitivity and intuitive understanding. Einfuhlung expanded on the concept of sympathy as support for another person to include understanding. In French, sympathy (compassion) carries the connotation of pity, compassion, and condolence. Empathy (empathie) carries the connotation of understanding a person. There are no words that are related to empathy in French like there are for sympathy. Again, this suggests that sympathy is more developed as a concept, and that empathy is a recent construct that draws on sympathy but also expands its meaning to include understanding. If we move away from Indo-European languages, we see that the same connotations and meanings are found in Arabic. Arabic employs a system of root words, where several hundred words can be related back to the root meaning. Sympathy in Arabic comes from the root word عطف. It has many meanings but the most common are to bend, to incline, be favorably disposed to, have or feel compassion, awaken affection towards, or close to one’s heart. Empathy can be traced back to three root words. The first is عطف, demonstrating again that one cannot feel empathy without feeling sympathy also. The second is عنق, meaning attach closely, embrace, hug, or associate closely. The third root is قمص, meaning to put on a shirt, clothe, wrap in, pass into another body (spirit), or materialize in another body. The third meaning is closest to that of understanding. It brings to mind the saying “walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” This implies that a person cannot fully experience another person or object unless they can place themselves into the other person or object and fully understand what it is like to be that person or object. Empathy is more of a state of understanding, but also means sharing feelings. Sympathy involves the heart and feelings, but does not include understanding.
If we look at modern usage of sympathy and empathy, we further see the distinction between sympathy and empathy. Also, this discussion will demonstrate more fully how the psychological meaning of empathy is conceptualized. Sympathy is thought of today as more of a condolence gesture, whereas empathy has evolved into a fundamental part of our psychological well-being. If sympathy is searched on google.com, the most common references are to flowers and cards. What this implies is caring that another person is grieving, but there is no engagement with what the person is experiencing. It is known that the person is grieving, but there is no understanding of what that is like. In contrast, if empathy is searched on google.com or amazon.com, the most common reference is psychological self-help. This implies that empathy is a necessary part of being human. The word itself is a recent construct, but its modern usage has made it into a thing we must have to be psychologically whole. The implication is that we must understand each other to be fully human. Part of being human is relating to other people. We do not go through life alone and, thus, must interact with people. Part of this interaction requires understanding if we are to fully engage with others. If we cannot engage with and understand the world, there is a fundamental part of our humanity missing.
The authors of the three novels under discussion use the psychological meaning of empathy as a connection between people in their novels as a way to understand how to live with other people. They conceptualize empathy as necessary to have a functional relationship with others. The format in which they make their argument, the novel, is itself another form of empathy. Using the novel as a way to argue their case draws upon empathy as an aesthetic experience. The authors are attempting to teach the reader empathy by using empathy itself.
However, far from being intrinsic in human nature, empathy can be learned or unlearned. The capacity to have empathy is part of human nature, but this does not necessarily mean that people automatically feel empathy all the time. In fact, what the three authors portray in their novels is the struggle to find empathy and learn to be with others. Truly understanding others is something that all people struggle with because everyone besides the “self” is “other,” meaning that there is some part of everyone else that is truly unknowable. What is knowable about others is what it is like to be human, with all of the struggles and triumphs that are included in being human. The struggle to both know and understand is depicted in the novels Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Soul on Ice, and Wynema. All three novels ask the reader to learn empathy, although it is questionable whether the reader will truly empathize with the characters if he or she cannot understand the experience of the characters. The novel is full of external (author and readers) and internal (characters) struggles to learn empathy.
Frederick Douglass wrote his narrative to tell white Americans what it was like to be a slave in an attempt to abolish the system of slavery. It was his hope that by showing the horrors and inhumanity of slavery he would move people at least to have sympathy that some people were being dehumanized by a brutal system. Douglass also argues that it is not only the blacks who were being dehumanized by slavery; the whites were also being dehumanized because they were unlearning empathy. He includes the story of his new mistress in the best household in which he had ever lived to illustrate his point that slave owners are made, not born (Douglass, 46-7). His mistress treated him kindly because she had never owned a slave before. According to Douglass, “The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face.” (46). His mistress had never been indoctrinated into the system of slavery and, thus, treated Douglass like a human being. It is arguable whether his mistress had empathy for his plight in slavery because she had never experienced slavery, but at the very least she understood him to be a human being. She treated him well because she did not view him as an animal. However, his mistress unlearned her empathy for Douglass when she was confronted with the power that is inseparable from being a slave owner. She began to mistreat Douglass because the brutal power system embedded in slavery caused her to unlearn her empathy for slaves, and, thus, dehumanized her because she no longer saw him as a human being.
In contrast, Soul on Ice and Wynema offer instances where empathy is learned. Soul on Ice is an angry narrative about a life of oppression in the United States during the civil rights era. It was written with the intention of informing Americans about the injustices carried out by the powerful in the United States, both domestically and internationally. However, the book also reveals that Eldridge Cleaver had a personal motive for writing it. Writing the book served as a therapy of sorts to help himself learn empathy. With this novel, we see the external struggle of the author. That writing helped him learn empathy is evident in Cleaver’s words:
After I returned to prison, I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray-astray not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized-for I could not approve the act of rape. Even thought I had some insight into my own motivations, I did not feel justified. I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered. That is why I started to write. To save myself. (34)
Writing the book saves him from his life as a rapist and criminal. The former rapist began to think about the relations between people in the United States and regained the humanity that he had lost by being a rapist. He learned empathy because he realized that the same things that had happened to him had happened to countless others (Cleaver, 34). However, his empathy was very selective. From his narrative, we see that he did not have a high opinion of gays or women. Still, his narrative becomes increasingly more complex as it progressives from his earlier writings to the end of the book. As time passes, he learns more about human relations, and in doing so, he learns more empathy.
In Wynema, S. Alice Callahan writes about the plight of the Native Americans with the United States government in an effort to show her readers the cruelties carried out against the Native Americans, and also to portray them in a better light. The character of Genevieve Weir is a good example of a person learning empathy in Wynema. Genevieve decides that she will go live among the Indians and teach the young children without knowing what Indian life was like. However, she felt that she had a moral duty to go (Callahan, 8). When she arrives in the town that is later named Wynema after one of her pupils, Genevieve is confronted with a strange way of life that takes time for her to understand. She views medicine men as barbaric and prefers Western doctors, but Gerald Keithly demonstrates how strange white customs must seem to the Indians (Callahan, 21-22). Even so, a few years later, she comments on how barbaric their dances are, and Gerald Keithly informs her once again that the Indian customs are not as barbaric as she thinks (Callahan, 27-8). By the end of the novel, Genevieve has a better understanding of Indian life and culture and does not think that they are that barbaric. By living with the Indians, and by experiencing their way of life and problems with the United States government, she learns empathy for the Indians. Thus, we see that experience is a vital part of having empathy. It is difficult to understand unless one has the experience. Genevieve gains experience with the Indian way of life, even if she does not like or agree with everything, and empathizes and sympathizes with the plight of the Sioux Indians at the end of the novel.
Azar Nafisi argues that empathy is at the heart of the novel because the reader’s understanding is precisely what the novel is trying to achieve. The novel attempts to draw the reader into an aesthetic experience of the human condition, evoking both the aesthetic and psychological definitions of empathy. The authors of the three novels discussed conceptualized empathy as necessary to live humanely with others, but as a state that can be learned. The authors argue that sympathy alone is not enough. We see in Peter Gomes’ introduction to Frederick Douglass’ narrative that it is not enough to simply care. We must also engage with and understand what we are reading in order to fully experience what slavery was like. It is questionable whether readers will ever be able to empathize with slaves since slavery is absent from many people’s experience, but the novel’s purpose is to try to teach empathy to the author, readers, and characters in the novel. Minority literature in the United States, as represented by the three novels discussed, serves precisely this purpose. It tries to bridge the gap between the many cultural groups in the United States, but most especially tries to inform whites about the power inequalities present. Even though the different cultural groups present in the United States may never fully understand the other groups’ experience, minority literature attempts to convey, at the very least, a minimal understanding to all parties involved with the novel.
Works Cited
Callahan, S. Alice. Wynema. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Random House, 1991.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
“Empathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004 .
Gomes, Peter J. “Introduction.” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House, 2003.
“Sympathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004. < http://80-dictionary.oed.com.floyd.lib.umn.edu/cgi/entry/00245131?query_type=word&queryword=sympathy&edition=2e&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=1&search_id=J0BC-ucBLoH-15936&hilite=00245131>.

Posted by zebu0001 at September 24, 2004 1:51 PM