How a doctor, a philosopher, a poet, and a sculptor co-created the modern concept of empathy.
Empathy, an orientation of spirit decidedly different from sympathy, has become central to our moral universe. We celebrate it as the hallmark of a noble spirit, a pillar of social justice, and the gateway to reaching our highest human potential — a centerpiece of our very humanity. And yet this conception of empathy is a little more than a century old and originated in art: It only entered the modern lexicon in the early twentieth century, when it was used to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art in an effort to understand why art moves us.
That improbable origin and its wide ripples across the popular imagination are what Rachel Corbett explores in You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (public library) — a layered and lyrical inquiry into the personal, interpersonal, and cultural forces behind and around Rainer Maria Rilke’s iconic Letters to a Young Poet, a book so beloved and widely quoted in the century since its publication that it has taken on the qualities of a sacred text for secular culture. Out of its origin story Corbett wrests a larger story of “how the will to create drives young artists to overcome even the most heart-hollowing of childhoods and make their work at any cost.”
Recounting her revelatory first encounter with the Rilke classic, a gift from her mother, who had in turn received it from a mentor as a young girl, Corbett captures the singular enchantment that this miraculous book has held for generations:
Reading it that evening was like having someone whisper to me, in elongated Germanic sentences, all the youthful affirmations I had been yearning to hear. Loneliness is just space expanding around you. Trust uncertainty. Sadness is life holding you in its hands and changing you. Make solitude your home.
What gives the book its enduring appeal is that it crystallizes the spirit of delirious transition in which it was written. You can pick it up during any of life’s upheavals, flip it open to a random page, and find a consolation that feels both universal and breathed into your ear alone.
What most people don’t know, Corbett points out, is that as Rilke was bequeathing his poetic wisdom to the recipient of his letters, the nineteen-year-old cadet and aspiring poet Franz Xaver Kappus, he was also channelling his own great mentor — the French sculptor Rodin, for whom Rilke worked for a number of years and whom he revered for the remainder of his life. Despite their staggering surface differences — “Rodin was a rational Gallic in his sixties, while Rilke was a German romantic in his twenties,” Corbett writes, likening Rodin to a mountain and Rilke to “the mist encircling it” — the sculptor became the young poet’s most significant influence. But Rodin’s greatest gift to Rilke was the very thing that lends Letters to a Young Poet its abiding spiritual allure: the art of empathy.
The invention of empathy corresponds to many of the climactic shifts in the art, philosophy and psychology of fin-de-siècle Europe, and it changed the way artists thought about their work and the way observers related to it for generations to come.
Empathy may be a concept saturating today’s popular lexicon so completely as to border on meaninglessness, yet it was entirely novel and ablaze with numinous meaning in Rilke’s day. Its invention is the work of two unlikely co-creators — Wilhelm Wundt, a German doctor who “accidentally forged the birth of psychology in the 1860s,” and Theodor Lipps, a philosopher from the following generation. In seeking to understand why art affects us so powerfully, Lipps originated the then-radical hypothesis that the power of its impact didn’t reside in the work of art itself but was, rather, synthesized by the viewer in the act of viewing. Corbett condenses the essence of his proposition and traces its combinatorial creation:
The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.
Lipps found a name for his theory in an 1873 dissertation by a German aesthetics student named Robert Vischer. When people project their emotions, ideas or memories onto objects they enact a process that Vischer called einfühlung, literally “feeling into.” The British psychologist Edward Titchener translated the word into English as “empathy” in 1909, deriving it from the Greek empatheia, or “in pathos.” For Vischer, einfühlung revealed why a work of art caused an observer to unconsciously “move in and with the forms.” He dubbed this bodily mimesis “muscular empathy,” a concept that resonated with Lipps, who once attended a dance recital and felt himself “striving and performing” with the dancers. He also linked this idea to other somatosensory imitations, like yawns and laughter.
Half a century later, Mark Rothko would observe: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” He was articulating the model of creative contagion — or what Leo Tolstoy called the “emotional infectiousness” of art — that Lipps had formulated. Corbett writes:
Empathy explained why people sometimes describe the experience of “losing themselves” in a powerful work of art. Maybe their ears deafen to the sounds around them, the hair rises on the backs of their necks or they lose track of the passage of time. Something produces a “gut feeling” or triggers a flood of memory, like Proust’s madeleine. When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body. Empathy was what made red paint run like blood in the veins, or a blue sky fill the lungs with air.
But although empathy originated in the contemplation of art, it was psychologists who imported it into popular culture, largely thanks to the cross-pollination of art and science in early-twentieth-century Europe. Corbett writes:
In Vienna, the young professor Sigmund Freud wrote to a friend in 1896 that he had “immersed” himself in the teachings of Lipps, “who I suspect has the clearest mind among present-day philosophical writers.” Several years later, Freud thanked Lipps for giving him “the courage and capacity” to write his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. He went on to advance Lipps’s research further when he made the case that empathy should be embraced by psychoanalysts as a tool for understanding patients. He urged his students to observe their patients not from a place of judgment, but of empathy. They ought to recede into the background like a “receptive organ” and strive toward the “putting of oneself in the other person’s place,” he said.
The concept, of course, was far from novel, even if the language to contain it was — half a century earlier, across the Atlantic, Walt Whitman had articulated the very same notion in his timeless treatise on medicine and the human spirit. But Lipps devised the right language to infiltrate the popular imagination and placed himself in the right place, at the right time. When he became chair of the University of Munich’s philosophy department in 1894, his students included the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who would later come to echo a number of Lipps’s ideas in his writings about the spiritual element in art, and Rilke, who enrolled in Lipps’s foundational aesthetics course as soon as he arrived in Munich from Prague.
Central to Lipps’s invention of empathy was his notion of einsehen, or “inseeing” — a kind of conscious observation which Corbett so poetically describes as “the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection.” She writes:
If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.
The concept struck Rilke as a particularly revelatory way of looking at not only art but life itself. He wrote in a letter to a friend:
Though you may laugh if I tell you where my very greatest feeling, my world-feeling, my earthly bliss was, I must confess to you: it was, again and again, here and there, in such in-seeing in the indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments of this godlike in-seeing.
Corbett captures the crux of Rilke’s insight:
In describing his joy at experiencing the world this way, Rilke echoed Lipps’s belief that, through empathy, a person could free himself from the solitude of his mind. At the same time that Rilke was studying at the zoo in Paris, Lipps was in Munich working on his theory of empathy and aesthetic enjoyment. In his seminal paper on the subject he identified the four types of empathy as he saw them: general apperceptive empathy: when one sees movement in everyday objects; empirical empathy: when one sees human qualities in the nonhuman; mood empathy: when one attributes emotional states to colors and music, like “cheerful yellow”; and sensible appearance empathy: when gestures or movements convey internal feelings.
Out of this dynamic dialogue between inner and outer arises the most elemental question of existence: What is the self? This invites an auxiliary question: If we ourselves can possess a self, how can we know that others are also in possession of selves? Corbett writes:
[This] was the question to which Rilke’s old professor Theodor Lipps’s empathy research eventually led him. He had reasoned that if einfühlung explained the way people see themselves in objects, then the act of observation was not one of passive absorption, but of lived recognition. It was the self existing in another place. And if we see ourselves in art, perhaps we could also see ourselves in other people. Empathy was the gateway into the minds of others. Rilke’s prodigious capacity for it, then, was both his greatest poetic gift and probably his hardest-borne cross.
In the remainder of the spectacular You Must Change Your Life, Corbett goes on to disentangle the intricate mesh of influences and interdependencies that shaped Rilke’s enduring legacy and its broader implications for the inner life of artists. Complement it with Rilke himself on writing and what it means to be an artist and the life-expanding value of uncertainty.
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