Mind your language

Was everyone a psychopath before 1909?

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

My husband is enjoying Do No Harm, the arresting memoir of the brain surgeon Henry Marsh who was on Desert Island Discs last week. Having confronted the terrible consequences of human error in this alarming speciality, the author mentions the bathetic absurdity of an NHS training presentation by ‘a young man with a background in catering telling me I should develop empathy, keep focused and stay calm’.

Empathy is the great thing, it seems. Without it you’re a psychopath; with it you’re the carer we all want. Yet the word has only been in use in English since 1909. Was everybody a pitiless solipsist before that?

Empathy translates the German Einfühlung (‘in-feeling’), a term used by Robert Vischer in 1873 with regard to aesthetics. One could enter into an architect or artist’s feelings, he thought. By the time it was translated into English, Einfühlung had been transformed by Theodor Lipps, a thinker much admired by Freud, as a marker of social interaction.


A couple of weeks ago an NHS employee was found guilty of spending on clothes and restaurant meals £62,000 meant for survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. ‘Instead of showing empathy to the victims of the fire this individual saw our predicament merely as a chance for personal financial profit,’ a survivor told the court.

Elsewhere in the NHS, hospitals have spent money on ‘obesity empathy suits’ which staff can don in order to understand what being fat feels like. This sounds like empathy failure. Empathy is supposed to make you feel for those suffering something you have not experienced.

The notion has been overwhelmed by explanatory fashions. Some scientists invent evolutionary reasons for empathy to have developed. Others see it as imitative behaviour by neurons provoked into ‘firing’ like those of another person in distress. Because empathy is impossible to measure, applicants for ‘caring’ jobs are encouraged simply to declare that they possess it.

Empathy is no substitute for acting in others’ interests. Empathy does a patient no good if what he needs is a drain removed from a surgical wound. It’s bound to hurt him more than it hurts you.

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