Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art and Culture

The recent discovery of mirror neurons, which fire in a macaque monkey when the monkey either observes or performs a given movement, has ushered in a resurgence of interest in the meanings and mechanisms of empathy. The purported role of these neurons in empathic responses in monkeys and humans has led to an array of neuroscientific studies of cognition and autism. Empathy also plays an important role in many other disciplines: in philosophy of mind, it functions as a critical component of social cognition; in trauma studies it is a controversial means for grasping another’s experience of suffering; in ethics it has functioned as a natural or evolutionary substrate for moral behavior; and in visual studies, empathy is defined as a projective and emotion-laden engagement with aesthetic objects. In all these domains, empathy has become an indispensable tool for conceptualizing the emotional and cognitive links between self and other, and between individual minds and social and aesthetic objects.

The concept of empathy has a surprising history. In the 1870s, German physiologists, psychologists, and aesthetic theorists coined the term Einfuehlung (feeling-into) to describe emotional and kinesthetic responses to works of art. The term empathy entered the English language only in 1909 as a translation of the German word, and then migrated into psychological, psychiatric, social scientific and neuroscientific disciplines over the course of the twentieth century. This workshop provided a complex answer to the question: “what is empathy, and how has it been conceptualized?” by mapping a genealogy of empathy and its investigation over the course of the past century. Participants examined the concept of empathy from a variety of disciplinary angles to ascertain how historical notions coincide and diverge from current ones. The workshop was an exceptional opportunity to form a bridge across the historical and scientific divide by fostering dialogue between historians of science, medicine and art, and scientists who are examining the nature of empathy in research and clinical practice. This interdisciplinary workshop was a major contribution to the growing interest in emotion, and emotional communication across many fields.

Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art and Culture was an Exploratory Workshop funded by a grant from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia awarded to Principal Investigator Robert Brain, History. The workshop is co-organized by Susan Lanzoni, Science Technology and Society Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Allan Young, Social Studies of Medicine, McGill University.