The Secret Underground History of Empathy

This is a live event – you are invited – on July 14, 2016 – Bastille Day – from 6:00 to 7;30 PM at the Gleacher Center of the Graham School (UChicago) at 450 Cityfront Plaza Drive (Chicago, IL 60611) –

To register you will be asked for contact data and a modest fee ($15) – as you know, perception of value tracks price, so, in general, people do not value (or believe in) a total delacroixLibertyAndTriColorgive-away. At least that is the thinking this time out. (Will let you now how it works.)

What we will cover: If empathy is so great, why does there seem to be so little of it in the world? Can empathy be trained?

Explore the secret underground history of empathy in such thinkers as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Theodor Lipps, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger in this lecture.

Surveys show that most people think that empathy is compassion. The world certainly needs more compassion, but it is not synonymous with empathy. Empathy tells you what the other person is experiencing as a vicarious experience, and not an identification; compassion (and ethics) tells you what to do about it. Empathy is oxygen for the soul. If one is feeling short of breath at the end of the school year or business cycle, it is possible that they are in need of expanded empathy.

Did you know? The philosopher David Hume (never a stickler for consistency) defines “sympathy” at least four different ways in his “Treatise of Human Nature” (1739) including emotional contagion, benevolence, the power of suggestion, a double representation (idea) of the impression of another, and “a delicacy of sympathy – and taste.” The second to last comes close to what we mean by empathy today. Did you know the word “empathy” was not even invented in English until the 1890s. Edward Bradford Titchener – the Cornell University Psychologist was translating his teacher, Wilhelm Wundt, and he invented “empathy” to translate the German “Einfühlung”. Did you know the psychologist Theodor Lipps substitutes “empathy” [Einfühlung] for aesthetic taste in his three volume Aesthetics – so if you want to expand your empathy, go to the art institute and open yourself to the experiences available there. Empathy really gets traction with the phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, Max Scheler, and Martin Heidegger (the latter calling for a special “hermeneutic of empathy,” but never delivering one).

Empathy becomes the foundation for community. In short, without empathy, we lose our relatedness to other individuals. When one loses the other individual, one loses his or her empathy – and one loses one’s humanity. When one loses the other person, when one is left without empathy, then one experiences a loss of vitality, aliveness, and engagement with the world. One is left apathetic, lethargic, empty emotionally – in short, depressed. Empathy gives us our humanity. Empathy humanizes. Meanwhile … From a completely separate perspective than phenomenology, Sigmund Freud mentions “empathy” some 22 times in 24 volumes and most of the important references are totally mistranslated by James Strachey in the Standard Edition, so no one even knew how important it was to the treatment process – until Heinz Kohut puts “empathy” at the foundation of his innovations in Self Psychology (1959, 1971, 1977, 1984).

Can empathy be trained? I am working on the approach in which one removes the resistances and obstacles to empathy – fear, shame, guilt, reluctance to be intimate, the effort needed to relate to “difficult” people, the list goes on – and empathy naturally unfolds, develops, comes forth. We are naturally empathic, and relate empathically unless it [empathy] gets driven out of us by so-called parents, teachers, chief compliances officers, the imperative to conform, and the real setbacks that life presents to us. I am just getting warmed up here with the secret underground story of empathy. Come to the talk.

Join me to explore – and expand – empathy on Bastille Day, July 14. On this historic day, I encourage you to expand your understanding of empathy, and storm the Bastille of emotional tyranny in the community!


(c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: communicability of affect, Einfühlung, Emotions, empathic interpretation, empathic receptivity, empathic responsiveness, empathic understanding, Empathy, historical empathy

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  1. The Secret Underground History of Empathy • SJS
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