In the late nineteenth century, the concept of Einfühlung , as "feeling into," was proposed by Rudolph Lotz and Wilhelm Wundt. E. G. Tichener, a student of Wundt, coined the English translation "empathy" in 1910, using the Greek root pathos for feeling and the prefix em for in. Empathy was developed as an aesthetic theory in the work of Theodore Lipps and others.
The term Einfühlung described the projection of a sense of the inward feeling of our bodily state onto inanimate objects. The aesthetic experience of empathy sought to break down the distinction between subjective feelings and objective reality. It was an experience often described in pantheistic terms. Empathy was thought of as a mode of intense perceptual absorption in which lines and forms were experienced by the subject as specific motor sensations, and were the catalyst for a vitalization of the imagination.
see also body image.
Empathy is to be distinguised from sympathy (Ger. Mitfühlung ), a term used since Aristotle, which refers to a shared experience. As Lauren Wispe puts it, "In empathy the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its identity. Sympathy, on the other hand, is more concerned with communion." Empathy is a way of working out one's relations to the objective world by objectifying oneself. In Theodore Lipps' accounts, the perception of an emotional gesture in another being directly activates the same emotion in the perceiver, without any intervening labeling, associative, or cognitive perspective-taking processes.
see: Lauren Wispé, "History of the Concept of Empathy", in N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer, (eds.) Empathy and Its Development, Cambridge U. Press.
There were two moments, as it were, in the elaboration of the aesthetic concept of empathy. The first moment described the pantheistic relation between self and world. The second moment, stimulated by contemporary physiological research, attempted to correlate motor functions of the body, especially the eye, with qualitative dimensions of experience.
To endow inanimate objects with a sense of body posture and mood is comparable to hearing emotion in music. For Heinrich Wolfflin, "the experience of musical sounds would have no meaning if we did not consider them the expression of some sentient being. ... The same is true in the physical world. Forms become meaningful to us only because we recognize in them the expression of a sentient soul. Instinctively we animate each object." ("Psychology of Architecture," p 152)
Wilhelm Worringer based his "contribution on the psychology of style" on a distinction between abstraction and empathy. Empathy is an identification with persons and the world outside. For Worringer, some societies reject this identification, through dread or through a different system of beliefs. Primitive societies tend to feel this dread, while Eastern civilizations discount the primacy of the outside world -- the world of Maya, or illusion. In Worringer's account, societies must feel a certain confidence in the world before empathy can become the basis for art. For Worringer, it was the "confident surrender to the outer world, the sensuously secure feeling of being at ease and at one with creation," that lead to the Classical style of the Greeks, "whose beauty is living and organic, into which the need for empathy, unrestrained by any anxieties concerning the world, could flow without let or hindrance." (Abstraction and Empathy, pp 101-102) in fact, for Worringer, "Our aesthetics is nothing more than a psychology of the Classical feeling for art." (appendix)
These accounts of art focus on expression, on emotional identification, on the psychological motives for art, rather than an account of interpretation based on representation. or on visuality.