An Empathy Tradition
in the Theory of Art
In these crucial four decades from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, a further trend emerged in the theoretical reflection on art that became increasingly dominant in earlytwentieth-century thought. Strange as it may seem, this trend is difficult to define precisely in a single word or short phrase; no simple label fits it exactly, it does not go under any “ism.” The cluster of ideas and conceptual endeavors of which it is constituted is far more diverse than those making up other contemporary trends in art criticism. These difficulties of labeling are confusing. One surely cannot speak of a “doctrine” here. One cannot even envisage the pertinent statements as parts of a common tradition. It is often not clear whether the same trend of thought is being referred to in the different attempts to understand the emotional life and art that are to be considered here.
Ye t no serious student following the stages of the movement we shall present, would doubt its intrinsic unity and coherence. What the different attempts, seemingly worlds apart, have in common is, first of all, a dominant theme, and even some specific ramifications following from the overall subject. Closer investigation may further reveal some common attitudes. In the following discussion we shall call this theme “empathy,” and will speak of an empathy tradition in the theory of art. The term “empathy” should not be understood as an indication of a tightly closed conceptual framework defining the theme of our discussion. Rather, it should be understood as the designation of the main core, of the mere center, of these variegated attempts to solve the riddle of art.
The history of what we here call the empathy trend is complex and intricate. Before we begin our story, it may therefore be useful to indicate