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Szalita, A.B. (1981). The Use and Misuse of Empathy in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Psychoanal. Rev., 68(1):3-21.

(1981). Psychoanalytic Review, 68(1):3-21

The Use and Misuse of Empathy in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy

Alberta B. Szalita, M.D., D.P.H.

Since eyes are deaf and ears are blind to words in all their ways, I speak the sounds I write, hoping you see what somehow stays unheard and hear what never is quite clear at sight.

Samuel J. Hazo12

The word empathy has acquired such widespread use that it runs the risk of losing its meaning. The New York Times, which recently added “empathize” to its so-called enemies list of wrongly used or overused words, characterized the verb form as a “vague, faddish way of saying sympathize.” It is quite true that the term empathy, when introduced into the English dictionary in 1912, was modeled on the word sympathy, but there are significant distinctions in the meaning of the two words, as will emerge shortly.

The term empathy originated in aesthetics, the science of perception.22 Rather than a strict translation, “empathy” is a rendering into English of the German word Einfühling, coined by Theodor Lipps in 1885.23 The literal meaning of that German word is “feeling into,” whereas sympathy means “feeling with”—an important distinction.

At the time the term was introduced, there appears to have been a need for a theory that would clarify one's understanding of works of art. Our parallel need today is for a theory that would augment our understanding of our fellow beings.

Lipps, a contemporary of Freud, applied the concept of empathy to sculpture in particular. He elaborated a psychological doctrine


* The William Menaker Memorial Lecture, presented on April 19, 1980 to the Psychoanalytic Society of the New York University Postdoctoral Program for Study and Research in Psychology.

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