The term empathy has become a linguistic commonplace in everyday communication as well as in interdisciplinary research. The results of the research questions, raised in the last hundred (and more) years, coming from different areas, such as aesthetics, psychology, neurosciences and literary theory, lack in fact a clear concept of empathy. Not surprisingly, a recent paper has identified up to 43 distinct definitions of empathy in academic publications. By reconstructing the main research lines on empathy, our paper highlights the reasons for this conceptual inadequacy and the deficiencies in the theorization of empathy that create misleading interpretations thereof. Along the line connecting Plato’s insights on empathic experiences to the present neuroscientific experiments, a broad spectrum of issues is deployed for which “empathy” functions as an umbrella term covering a net of categorical relationships – projection, transfer, association, expression, animation, anthropomorphization, vivification, fusion, and sympathy – that only partially overlap. Our paper therefore recommends that “empathy” should not be assumed as a self-evident notion but instead preliminarily clarified in its definition every time we decide to have recourse to it.
If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.
Baron-Cohen S. Wheelwright S. Hill J. Raste Y. & Plumb I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: A study with normal adults and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 42(2) 241–251.
Baron-Cohen S. (2011). The science of evil. On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.
Batson C. D. (1991). The altruism question. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
Batson C. D. (2011). These things called empathy. In J. Decety & W. J. Ickes (Eds.) The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 3–15). Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Bekoff M. (2007). The emotional lives of animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy sorrow and empathy and why they matter. Novato CA: New World Library.
Berthoz A. & Thirioux B. (2010). A spatial and perspective change theory of the difference between sympathy and empathy. Paragrana 19(1) 1–32. doi:10.1524/para.2010.0003
Bischof-Köhler D. (1989). Spiegelbild und Empathie: Die Anfänge der sozialen Kognition. Bern: Huber.
Bloom P. (2016). Against empathy. The case for rational compassion. New York NY: Ecco.
Calvo-Merino B. Glaser D. Grèzes J. Passingham R. & Haggard P. (2004). Action observation and acquired motor skills: An fMRI study with expert dancers. Cerebral Cortex 15(8) 1243–1249. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhi007
Darwall S. (1998). Empathy sympathy care. Philosophical Studies 89(2–3) 261–282.
Cameron D. Inzlicht M. & Cunningham W.A. (2015). Empathy is actually a choice. NYTimes 10 July 2015 12.
Cohen J. (2001). Defining identification: A theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters. Mass Communication and Society 4(3) 245–264.
Coplan A. (2004). Empathic engagement with narrative fictions. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 141–152.
Coplan A. (2011a). Understanding empathy. Its features and effects. In Amy Coplan & Peter Goldie (Eds.) Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives (pp. 3–18). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Coplan A. (2011b). Will the real empathy please stand up? A case for a narrow conceptualization. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 49(s1) 40–65.
Cuff B. M. Brown S. J. Taylor L. & Howat D. J. (2014). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion Review 8(2(April 2016)) 144–153.
Davis M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology44 113–126.
de Vignemont F. & Singer T. (2006). The empathic brain: How when and why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10 435–441.
Dick Philip K. (1968). Do androids dream of electric sheep? Garden City NY: Doubleday.
Djikic M. Oatley K. & Moldoveanu M. (2013). Reading other minds: Effects of literature on empathy. Scientific Study of Literature 3(1) 28–47.
Dziobek I. Rogers K. Fleck S. Bahnemann M. Heekeren H. R. Wolf O. T. & Convit A. (2008). Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger syndrome using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET). The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 38(3) 464–473.
Eisenberg N. (2000). Empathy and sympathy. In M. Lewis J. M. Haviland-Jones & L. F. Barrett (Eds.) Handbook of emotions New York NY: Guilford pp. 677–691.
Fagiano M. (2016). Pluralistic conceptualizations of empathy. Journal of Speculative Philosophy 30(1) 27–44.
Feshbach N. & Roe K. (1968). Empathy in six- and seven-years-old. Child Development39 133–145.
Freedberg D. & Gallese V. (2007). Motion emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11(5) 197–203. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2007.02.003
Gallese V. & Guerra M. (2012). Embodying movies: Embodied simulation and film studies. Cinema 3 183–210.
Gell A. (1998). Art and agency. An anthropological theory. Oxford England: Clarendon.
Gordon K. (1934). A device for demonstrating empathy. Journal of Experimental Psychology 17(6) 892–893. doi:10.1037/h0071475
Grandin T. & Johnson C. (2009). Animals make us human: Creating the best life for animals. Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Guilford Press pp. 677–691.
Happ C. Melzer A. & Steffgen G. (2015). Like the good or bad guy-empathy in antisocial and prosocial games. Psychology of Popular Media Culture 4 80–96.
Harvey G. (2015). The handbook of contemporary animism. London England: Routledge.
Hoffman M. L. (1982). The measurement of empathy. In C. E. Izard (Ed.) Measuring emotions in infants and children (pp. 279–296). Cambridge (MA): Cambridge University Press.
Hoffman M. L. (1991). Is empathy altruistic? Psychological Inquiry 2(2) 131–133.
Johnson D. R. (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy prosocial behavior and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences 52 150–155.
Johnson D. R. (2013). Transportation into literary fiction reduces prejudice against and increases empathy for Arab-Muslims. Scientific Study of Literature 3(1) 77–92.
Jolliffe D. & Farrington D. P. (2006). Development and validation of the basic empathy scale. Journal of Adolescence 29(4) 589–611.
Kaufman G. F. & Libby L. K. (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103(1) 1–19.
Keen S. (2007). Empathy and the novel. New York NY: Oxford University Press.
Kidd D. C. & Castano E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science 342 377–380. doi:10.1126/science.1239918
Koopman A. & Hakemulder F. (2015). Effects of literature on empathy and self-reflection: A theoretical-empirical framework. Journal of Literary Theory 9.1 79–112.
van Lissa C. J. Caracciolo M. Duuren T. V. & van Leuveren B. (2016). Difficult empathy. The effect of narrative perspective on readers’ engagement with a first-person narrator. DIEGESIS. Interdisciplinary E-Journal for Narrative Research/Interdisziplinäres E-Journal für Erzählforschung 5.1 43–63.
Mallgrave H. F. (2012). The architect’s brain: Neuroscience creativity and architecture. Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Mallgrave H. F. (2013). Architecture and embodiment: The implications of the new sciences and humanities for design. London England: Routledge.
Mar R. A. & Oatley K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science 3 173–192.
Mar R. A. Oatley K. & Peterson J. B. (2009). Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications: The European Journal of Communication 34 407–428.
Mar R. A. Oatley K. Hirsh J. dela Paz J. & Peterson J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus Nerds: The social abilities of fiction and non-fiction readers. Journal of Research in Personality 40 694–712.
Misselhorn C. (2009). Empathy with inanimate objects and the Uncanny valley. Minds and Machines 19(3) 345–359.
Mori M. (1970). The uncanny valley. IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine 19(2) 98–100.
Molnar-Szakacs I. & Overy K. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: From motion to ‘e’motion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 1(3) 235–241. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl029
Nelems R. J. (2018). What is this thing called empathy. In R. J. Nelems & L. J. Theo (Eds.) Exploring empathy: Its propagations perimeters and potentialities (pp. 17–38). Leiden Netherlands: Brill-Rodopi.
Nussbaum M. C. (1995). Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. Boston MA: Beacon Press.
Nussbaum M. C. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge England: Harvard University Press.
Nussbaum M. C. (2003). Upheavals of thought. The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge: MA: Cambridge University Press.
Oatley K. (2016). Fiction. Simulation of social worlds. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20.8 618.
Prinz J. J. (2011). Is empathy necessary for morality. In A. Coplan & P. Goldie (Eds.) Empathy. Philosophical and psychological perspectives (pp. 211–229). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pinotti A. (2016). L’empathie: Histoire d’une idée de Platon au posthumain. Paris France: Vrin.
Pinotti A. (2017). A question of character. Analogy and the empathic life of things. In V. Lux & S. Weigel (Eds.) Empathy: Epistemic problems and cultural–historical perspectives of a cross-disciplinary concept (pp. 245–269). London England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rifkin J. (2009). The empathic civilization: The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis. Cambridge MA: Polity.
Rizzolatti G. & Sinigaglia C. (2008). Mirrors in the brain: How our minds share actions and emotions. Oxford England: Oxford University Press.
Rooksby E. (2007). Email and ethics: Style and ethical relations in computer-mediated communication. New York NY: Routledge.
Sacks O. (1995). An anthropologist on Mars: Seven paradoxical tales. London England: Picador.
Sakamoto D. & Ishiguro H. (2009). Geminoid: Remote-controlled android system for studying human presence. Kansei Engineering International 8(1) 3–9.
Salgaro M. & Van Tourhout B. (2018). Why does frank underwood look at us? Contemporary heroes suggest the need of a turn in the conceptualization of fictional empathy. Journal of Literary Theory 12(2) 345–368.
Sbriscia-Fioretti B. Berchio C. Freedberg D. Gallese V. & Umiltà M. A. (2013). ERP modulation during observation of abstract paintings by Franz Kline. Plos One 8(10) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075241
Schramme T. (2017). Empathy and altruism. In H. L. Maibom (Ed.) The Routledge handbook of philosophy of empathy (pp. 203–214). London England: Routledge.
Schroeder R. (2002). The social life of avatars: Presence and interaction in shared virtual environments. London England: Springer.
Singer T. Seymour B. O’Doherty J. P. Stephan K. E. Dolan R. & Frith C. D. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature 433 466–469.
Slote M. (2010). Moral sentimentalism. New York NY: Oxford University Press.
Sopčák P. Salgaro M. & Herrmann B. J. (Eds.). (2016). Transdisciplinary approaches to literature and empathy (special issue). Scientific Study of Literature 6(1) 174.
Stansfield J. & Bunce L. (2014). The relationship between empathy and reading fiction: Separate roles for cognitive and affective components. EFPSA Journal of European Psychology Students doi:10.5334/jeps.ca
Titchener E. B. (1909). Experimental psychology of the thought processes. New York NY: The Macmillan.
Wallmark Z. Deblieck C. & Iacoboni M. (2018). Neurophysiological effects of trait empathy in music listening. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 12 66. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00066
Wang Y. Davidson M. M. Yakushko O. F. Savoy H. B. Tan J. A. & Bleier J. K. (2003). The scale of ethno-cultural empathy: Development validation and reliability. Journal of Counseling Psychology 50(2) 221–234. doi:10.1037/0022-0220.127.116.11
Wispé L. (1986). The distinction between sympathy and empathy: To call forth a concept a word is needed. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50(2) 314–321. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1684