Toward a Definition
Robert Vischer, as we have just seen, suggested a theory of empathy, though only in very broad and vague outline. He also coined the term Einfühlung, that was soon to become a household notion in the conceptual vocabulary of certain trends in psychology and in the theory of art. In the decades following the publication of Vischer's dissertation (1873), the theory of empathy underwent extensive development in several fields of study. This dissemination was particularly manifest in several sciences as well as in popular criticism, mainly of literature. It also affected some disciplines that had a bearing, direct or indirect, on the investigation of art and of the creative process. Before turning to the actual theories of art, it may therefore be useful at this stage to explore the main lines of the theory of empathy as it was developed in psychology and in philosophical aesthetics.
To put the original conception of what we now call “empathy” with extreme and crude brevity, we should say, first of all, that it consists in the projection of human feelings, emotions, and attitudes onto inanimate objects. As such it had already been presented by Aristotle. In his discussion of metaphors, especially as they were used by Homer (Rhetorics III, 11; 1411 b 33 ff.), he explored “the practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things,” and quoted such Homeric expressions as the arrow flew “eagerly” or “the spear in its fury drew full through his [the foe's] breastbone.” But although such projection of human feelings and emotions onto lifeless objects was known for millennia as a stylistic means, it was not until the late nineteenth century that it became the cornerstone of an aesthetic and psychological theory. It was also then that the term Einfühlung was coined, and was translated into English by Edward Titchener as “empathy.”
When considered as a way of experiencing works of art, empathy may be said to raise two major problems. One is the fact that human emotions have to be projected onto, or “read” from, such lifeless objects as a picture or a statue; the other is that the proper emotions—or, as we say, the “correct”