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(Rae Greiner)

Rae Greiner, “1909: The Introduction of the Word ‘Empathy’ into English”

Rae Greiner is Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University and editor of the journal Victorian Studies. Her book, Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction, is forthcoming from The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Greiner, Rae. “1909: The Introduction of the Word ‘Empathy’ into English.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


The word “empathy” first appeared in English in 1909 when it was translated by Edward Bradford Titchener from the German Einfühlung, an old concept that had been gaining new meaning and increased relevance from the 1870s onward. While today we often treat “empathy” as a synonym for “sympathy,” if not—and more commonly—as an improvement on it, empathy at the turn of the century was used to describe a unique combination of cognitive effort and bodily feeling thought to characterize aesthetic experience. Such experience was not limited to contemplating works of art, however; for several of its earliest theorists, empathy named our aesthetic experiences of other people. It would seem to some that a radical break had been made between sympathy, seen as a primarily moral (and moralizing) activity, and a more scientific, physico-psychological process for which the human brain was hardwired. Yet the empathy of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may also be seen as sharing key features with sympathy, particularly as the latter was conceptualized by eighteenth-century moral philosophy and Romantic and Victorian aesthetics.