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Maddaloni, A. (1961). The Meaning of Empathy. Am. Imago, 18(1):21-33.

(1961). American Imago, 18(1):21-33

The Meaning of Empathy

Arnold Maddaloni

In his book, Listening With The Third Ear, Theodor Reik showed concern over the meaning of empathy. For instance, he writes: “… this expression sounds so full of meaning that people willingly overlook its ambiguity …. The word empathy sometimes meant one thing, sometimes another, until now it does not mean anything.”

Very little of significance has been written about empathy. It has been neglected in much of psychoanalytic literature and yet, as we shall take note, it remains the very core of psychologic understanding as distinguished from the merely logical and theoretical approach. It is the one concept that distinguishes the method of observation from that of the physicist. Empathic insight is the prerequisite for emphathic understanding of another's psyche. This essay attempts to clarify the meaning of empathy as it is used in psychoanalysis.

According to Theodore Lipps, empathy means “to feel” or “to read oneself into” another person, thing, or situation. In his Raemesthetik (1897), Lipps used the word “Einfuhlung” to describe this psychological process. He defined it as “the objectification of my quality into an object distinct from myself, whether the quality objectified merits the term ‘feeling’ or not. While I am in the act of appreceiving an object, I experience as though in it, or issuing from it, as something apperceived and present in it, an impetus toward a definite manner of inner behavior. This appears as given through it, as though imparted to me by it.”

To Lipps ordinary insight meant that one experiences an object as if “opposite” to it, or standing beside it.

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