Any moderately attentive observer of contemporary philosophy is bound to notice the significant number of publications dedicated to what has come to be called “empathy.” The relevance of this topic has also found its place in non-philosophical forums, for example Barack Obama’s much-cited statement during his first presidential campaign that “the empathy deficit is a more pressing political problem for America than the federal deficit” or one of the central claims in Jeremy Rifkin’s acclaimed book, The Empathic Civilization. In general and as has been pointed out recently, there are two reasons for this renewed interest in empathy—on the one hand, moral philosophers have presented research on whether empathy plays an important role in motivating pro-social or altruistic behavior and, on the other hand, social knowledge researchers have hypothesized that empathy could be the key to understanding important issues regarding interpersonal understanding, particularly with respect to understanding other people’s emotions. In addition, a diversity of perspectives has addressed this topic, including phenomenology, cognitive sciences, social sciences, psychiatry, etc. This mix has led to the unexaggerated estimate that there are as many definitions of empathy as there are authors who have attempted to define it. In any case, and in spite of the great diversity of theories on empathy, most authors usually cite Theodor Lipps (1851-1914) as one of the “fathers” of empathy. In turn, the British psychologist Edward Titchener (1867-1927) translated the term Einfühlung (which Lipps used) into English as empathy, a translation that is not without its problems, as I will later demonstrate.
One of the many merits of the volume that brings together Lipps’ texts on the problem of Einfühlung, which Faustino Fabbianelli edited and introduced, is its success in showing the need to dually expand the perspective of analysis when it comes to this German thinker. Certainly, Lipps used the term Einfühlung to refer to knowledge of other selves versus the knowledge of the self (internal perception) and the knowledge of external objects (sensible perception). However, to expand this analysis, we must not forget that Einfühlung is one way, among others, of explaining the other’s experience (Fremderfahrung). In other words, in light of current comparisons between what is usually called empathy and the experience of the other tout court, we must show that this version is a peculiar way of interpreting the other’s experience.
The question of the other’s experience (Fremderfahrung), that is, of the experience we have of other selves and their lived experiences, was the object of special attention at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two groups of theories emerged in this respect: on the one hand, one group maintains that that which is given to us in the proper sense is our own self and, therefore, access to the other’s conscience is always mediated and, on the other hand, those who reject that our access to the other’s conscience is always mediated. The first group of theories argues that the experience of the other is always experience of him in his corporeal appearance. I experience my own lived experiences in a unique, immediate, and original way, while I do not experience the lived experiences of others in this way. What is given to me from another human being in the proper sense, originaliter, corresponds exclusively to the phenomenon of the physical body. Based solely on this form of giving oneself, the other is considered somehow animated; an other self exists. One of the ways to access this other self corresponds to so-called “reasoning by analogy theories” (Analogieschlusstheorien), which maintain that I “judge” the expressions of others in analogy with my own expressions, that is, I know that these expressions (Lebensäusserungen) (for example, certain face gestures) contain certain experiences that imitate my own experience when I so gesture.
These theories received significant criticism, especially from Theodor Lipps, who worked in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As one of the texts in Fabbianelli’s volume (Eine Vorfrage: Die Vielheit der Iche und die Einfühlung, p. 351) argues, Lipps considers these theories inadequate for two fundamental reasons. On the one hand, I am aware of, for example, certain eye or mouth gestures not because I observe my own expressions, but because I am able to observe others’ expressions; this observation occurs in the exact opposite order with regard to the Analogieschlusstheorien. In fact, Lipps believes that certain processes in other people’s bodies express lived experiences, which are then accompanied by gestures that express these lived experiences. On the other hand, he considers reasoning by analogy a fiction. Such reasoning, Lipps argues, takes place when, for example, I see smoke and conclude that there is fire. At some point, I saw smoke and fire together and now I add to the perceived smoke that which I have repeatedly perceived as associated with it. But such reasoning does not apply here. Rather, I have to deduce from myself an object that, although it is the same type, is completely different from me. In addition, theories of reasoning by analogy assume that I know that the meaning of my own facial gestures denote certain experiences. If this were the case, I would need to constantly observe my face in a mirror. According to Lipps, the following is what really occurs: I see another’s features change, which I interpret as the body of another human individual. An internal tendency to tune in arises in me and suggests that I should act and feel in sync with the other. I feel his sadness not as conditioned by my own thoughts, but as brought on by a perceived gesture. I feel my own sadness by perceiving the other’s gesture (Egoismus und Altruismus, p. 211).
As mentioned, Fabbianelli’s selected texts from Lipps—which do not include the important article entitled, “Das Wissen von fremden Ichen” (which was already published by the same editor in the fourth volume of Schriften zur Psychologie und Erkenntnistheorie and recently translated into English[i]), but which does include the previously unpublished article Der Begriff der Einfühlung–show the need to broaden the usual analysis of Lipps’ Einfühlung notion. That is, it is unjustifiably reductionist to consider Einfühlung the only way of explaining the Fremderfahrung (although, certainly, it is the right way, according to Lipps), as well as to think that Einfühlung’s scope is limited to knowledge of other selves. In this sense, Fabbianelli’s introduction highlights the importance of Einfühlung in Lipps’s thought insofar as it constitutes the ultimate explanatory foundation of the relationship between individual subject and individual object—not necessarily another I—before understanding grasps both moments. In this sense, we can speak of an “alogical” relationship (prior to actual knowledge) between the subject and the object. This alogical or irrational character of Einfühlung is due to the object’s uniqueness to which, and thanks to it, the self unites. Insofar as the conception of reality underlined here is radically different from a logical-rational explanation of reality, Fabbianelli believes that the “irrationality” of Einfühlung comes into play.
Yet, by putting his concept of Einfühlung at the center of Lipps’s philosophical reflection, Fabbianelli’s introduction insists on the need to consider it in a broader context, namely, with a new Kantian conception of the problem related to the conditions of possibility for knowing the world. Faced with other more or less established interpretations that reproach Lipps for having offered a psychological interpretation of this problem, Fabbianelli joins authors such as Glockner, who maintain that Lipps must be considered a thinker who follows in the classical German philosophical tradition insofar as he discovers the condition of possibility for the synthesis of subject and object in the alogical relation of empathy.[ii] In this sense, Lipps endeavored to clarify the relationship between psychology and transcendental philosophy, showing how psychological reflection goes hand in hand with a transcendental philosophical approach. However, according to Fabbianelli, the primacy of psychology in Lipps is not the same as psychologism. In fact, he sees in Lipps a separation between psychology and psychologism insofar as he insists on keeping the subject and object separate, that is, the self and the world. Fabbianelli also references the fact that Lipps himself repeatedly rejected accusations of psychologism such as the vigorous criticism contained in the first volume of Husserl’s Logical Investigations. He based his rejection of this psychologism reproach on a clear separation between what constitutes the laws of thoughtful reason and what pertains to the mere empeiria self. According to Fabbianelli, Lipps always establishes a connection with transcendental philosophy through Fichte, insofar as there is a parallel between projecting oneself on the other (sich hineinversetzen, sich hineinverlegen), which according to Lipps happens with Einfühlung, and the constitution of the world that, according to Fichte, the self carries out. Without entering into detailed discussion here, Fabbianelli’s argument defending the plausibility of considering the relationship between man and reality as transcendental does not seem to me entirely convincing. The transcendental nature of this relationship is such in so far as it does not deal with objects, “but [with] the form and way in which objects can be known.”
In any case, to the extent that Lipps gives Einfühlung a transcendental meaning as the productive emergence of the other (human and nonhuman), Einfühlung cannot be understood as an accurate synonym of empathy. The English concept that Titchener introduced belongs to a different semantic realm since it characterizes feeling the other’s psychic state as a foreign state in oneself, while Einfühlen, for Lipps, is, rather, a fühlen by which I feel myself in the other (human or not). When I experience Einfühlung a kind of sich hineinverlegen or sich hineinversetzen occurs such that I project part of myself in the external other. Thus, when I consider that a landscape is melancholic or that a friend’s voice is cheerful, it is not that the landscape itself denotes melancholy or that my friend’s voice is actually happy. Melancholy and happiness are, rather, subjective moments, properties of my self—Ichbestimmtheiten in Lipps’ terms— that, in some way, are felt in that landscape and in that voice. I feel, therefore, melancholy in the landscape object and happiness in my friend’s voice object. It is not that I feel melancholic or happy and then “put” (hineinverlege) melancholy or joy into the landscape or into my friend’s voice, but rather that I live or feel these things in the landscape and in my friend’s voice. This does not merely involve representation. When I hear my friend’s voice, I do not represent the happiness that it contains, but rather I experience it (Cf. Einfühlung, Mensch und Naturdinge, p.60). It is precisely this co-rejoicing (sich Mitfreuen) that Lipps calls Einfühlung. Thus, for Einfühlung, what we could call “subjective” is perceived as residing in the object that is before me, that is, not in the object as it is in itself, but in the object as it is presented to me (Cf. Zur Einfühlung, page 375). As Zahavi pointed out to Lipps, ” To feel empathy is to experience a part of one’s own psychological life as belonging to or in an external object; it is to penetrate and suffuse that object with one’s own life.”[iii] In this way, Einfühlung, insofar as I live in it in the object, is, as Fabbianelli points out, Einsfühlung or the fusion of the self with the object (Cf. Zur Einfühlung, page 419).
The aesthetic origin of Einfühlung reveals that it is not limited to knowledge of other selves alone. For the aesthetic object, the sensible realm “symbolizes” that is has content at the level of the soul (selfish). This object is thus “animated” and, as a result, it becomes an aesthetic object and a carrier of aesthetic value (Cf. Einfühlung, Mensch und Naturdinge, p 53). The important thing here is that the sensible appearance of a beautiful object is not the foundation of aesthetic taste, which rather corresponds to the self feeling happy, moved, etc. before the object (Cf. Einfühlung, innere Nachahmung und Organempfindungen, p.35). In short, when considering the beautiful object the self feels free, active, vigorous, etc. in the object.
Now, how, according to Lipps, does this living in another object take place, be it in a physical object or another self? Lipps believes it happens in a way that, ultimately, is not explicable and that he calls instinct or impulse (see, for example, Einfühlung, Mensch und Naturdinge, p. 67ff, and Einfühlung als Erkenntnisquelle, p. 362). By virtue of this instinct, my apprehension of certain sensibly perceived processes instinctively inspires a feeling in me, a desire that, with the act of apprehension, constitutes a single experience of consciousness. In relation to this point, Fabbianelli endeavors to show in his introduction that the instinctive element that Einfühlung contains in Lipps’ thought has to be understood in the broader context of his conception of the knowledge of reality as ultimately based on instinct (Cf. Egoismus und Altruismus, p. 213) In this way, Lipps’ concept of instinct could be related to that of Fichte (Trieb). For his part, Lipps refers to what he calls “instinct of empathy,” arguing that they involve two components: an impulse directed toward imitation and another aimed at expression. In the past, I have been happy and then experience an instinctive tendency toward expressing happiness. This expression is not experienced as supplementary to happiness, but rather as an integral part of that feeling. When I see the same expression in another place, I have an instinctive tendency to imitate or reproduce it, and this tendency evokes the same feeling that, in the past, was intimately connected with it. When I experience this feeling again, it will be linked to the expression I perceive and projected onto it. In short, when I see a happy face, I reproduce an expression of happiness, which will then evoke a feeling of happiness in me and I will attribute this felt happiness, which is co-given with perceived facial expressions, to the other.
Lipps research on empathy concludes with a series of interesting analyses that deserve more space and time than the present contribution permits. I refer, for example, to the relationships between Einfühlung and the feeling of value, its so-called “sociological” repercussions, etc. Here I will only refer to two of them, namely, the different types of Einfühlung and the distinction between positive Einfühlung and negative Einfühlung.
Lipps distinguishes five different types of Einfühlung. First, he refers to what he calls general apperceptive Einfühlung (allgemeine apperzeptive Einfühlung), which occurs when, for example, I think I perceive that a straight line widens, narrows, etc. when, in reality, it ultimately involves activities carried out personally and that, in a way, we apprehend in the line in question. Secondly, as analyzed in an example above, we sometimes talk about the peace a landscape projects, the passion of a given work of art, etc. Certainly, peace, passion, etc. are not visible in the same way that qualities of a color, its hue, its degree of saturation, etc. are. In reality, I feel peaceful or impassioned. However, I “see,” in a certain sense, peace and passion as residing in the landscape or work of art, which communicate peace and passion to me. This is called Stimmungseinfühlung. A third type of Einfühlung is the so-called “empirical” or “empirically conditioned apperceptive” type. This happens when, for me, a force or a motor activity “resides” in a natural event, as when I observe a stone’s gravitational tendency towards the earth or its resistance to the action another body inflicts on it, etc. Fourth, it is possible to identify Einfühlung in human beings’ sensible appearance (Einfühlung in die sinnliche Erscheinung des Menschen). This is also known as Selbstojektivation because, in it, Eingefühlte is the “I” with feelings, along with all its modes of activity. In fifth and last place, Lipps identifies a type of Einfühlung in certain data related to sensible perception, which, after Einfühlung itself, we can identify as expressions of a conscious individual. An example of this is when a gesture that I see and that I later identify as a human face contains an affect such as, for example, worry or joy.
As reflected in the various texts included in this volume, among which the unpublished article mentioned above is especially relevant, the term Einfühlung expresses a curious fact, namely, a way of experiencing myself, of experiencing a property of my self in a sensibly perceived or perceivable object as residing in such an object. This involves the fact that the subject or a property of his is “objectified” by my conscience or “projected” into an object. Now, as Lipps believes, it would be a mistake to understand this objectification or projection in the sense of a process that takes place in consciousness as if I had an idea of one of its properties objectified or projected onto an object and then, so to speak, this idea passes from me to the object or becomes a property of the object in question. In Einfühlung, rather, what I in principle know as a property of the self appears to me in a given case as residing in an object that is nothing like the self. This is precisely why Lipps speaks of a property of the self “projecting” onto an object.
A second particularly noteworthy aspect to take up here is the distinction between positive Einfühlung (also called sympathetic Einfühlung) and negative Einfühlung (Cf. Einfühlung, Mensch und Naturdinge, pp. 83ff, and In Sachen der Einfühlung, p. 260ff). Starting with the latter, let us consider the case of offensive behavior on the part of another subject. A sort of Einfühlung would emerge even in this case. We tend to experience said behavior in ourselves, although we may be, at the same time, inwardly opposed to that tendency. This for Lipps is negative Einfühlung. The same thing happens when someone asserts a judgment that contradicts my knowledge. Upon hearing it, my knowledge activates and directs itself against said judgment. I deny it. This supposes that judgment co-exists with other judgment, i.e., that I have a tendency to judge in the same way. My rejection of judgment then forces me to accept judgment. It is a negative intellectual shared experience, a negative intellectual Einfühlung. On the contrary, for positive Einfühlung, the life of consciousness that seems to come from outside coincides with my activation tendencies. Thus, my consciousness accepts the life of another’s consciousness. I experience this with harmony rather than contradiction, as a confirmation of myself. These distinctions deserve better explanation regarding the difficult problem of the influence of non-intellectual, affective conditions in Einfühlung.
As mentioned, there are many aspects that this 700-page collection of Lipps’s writings on Einfühlung highlights. The richness of Lipps’ analysis deserves special attention and involves analyses oriented toward a faithful description of the different phenomena that give rise in consciousness. Brief summaries do not suffice in this case; rather, it requires a clear effort to be faithful to what is given and as it is given. This is what, as Lipps notes, philosophy should be made of. Thus, it would make sense to defend a positivist philosophy in the sense of a philosophy built on experience, a philosophy whose main task is, on the one hand, to separate what is proper to consciousness from what corresponds to the object of sensible perception and, on the other hand, to inquire into the extent to which certain data in my conscience are apprehended as residing in objects.
In short, with the publication of these texts, Faustino Fabbianelli not only made an important contribution to research on the phenomenological conception of Einfühlung, but also to a systematic and ordered study of a genuine philosophical problem. Lipps’ texts on Einfühlung gathered in this volume show, therefore, the unfairness of Husserl’s qualification of some of them as a “refuge of phenomenological ignorance.”
[i] “The Knowledge of other egos,” transl. by M. Cavallaro. Edited and with an introduction by Timothy Burns, in The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, XVI, Phenomenology of Emotions, Systematical and Historical Perspectives. Edited by R. Parker and I. Quepons, Routledge, Oxon, 2018 p. 261-282.
[ii] Cf. Glockner, H., “Robert Vischer und die Krisis der Geisteswissenschaften im letzten Drittel des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Irrationalitätsproblems,” Logos. Internationale Zeitschrift für Philosophie der Kultur, XIV, 1925, p. 297-342.
[iii] Zahavi, D., Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014, p. 104.