I define the word empathy as follows:
Empathy is a word invented to explain our relational potential to experience an event, where we feel as if we are embodying or understanding the context of an other. The feeling is often referred to as one of connection, resonance, flow, or oneness.
To be clear, I did not define the word to claim authority over it. I did it to minimize misunderstandings. In Chinese, the word for “name(名)” is made of two characters. The top character denotes “moon(夕)” and means “darkness.” The lower character denotes “mouth(口)” and means “to make a sound.” One interpretation of the word goes as follows: when it gets dark out, you have to call out your name so that others can know who you are. The implication being that when it’s bright out and we can see each other, a name is no longer needed. I feel the same way about definitions. Given that there is no clear consensus on the precise definition of the word,1 I’d only be doing myself a disservice by not being up front about the operational definition I have chosen to use.
There are also reasons why I have decided to define it this way and not any other. First of all, I wanted to acknowledge the fact that empathy is a word that tries to explain a phenomenon. This kind of self-awareness is something I find important to have in the definition of the word itself.2 Second of all, I wanted to make clear that I use the word to denote a potential, and not an experience. Why is that significant? Because there are a number of experiences we can have when our empathy is realized in relation to an other. We may feel connected to them. We may become attached to them. We may feel attuned to their emotion. We may become affected by their emotion. We may feel as if we understand them. I would like for us to be able to talk about all these events separately, instead of merely saying that we “felt empathy,” which does nothing but obfuscate the meaning.3 Thirdly, I explicitly put in the word as if to make clear that the experience we can have through empathy is first and foremost a subjective experience. As for the other reasons, I will unpack them as this blog unfolds.
If your definition is not in agreement with mine, I invite you to take a moment to become aware of the disagreement, and request that you kindly indulge me in the use of this definition in my own writings.
1 Batson, Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related But Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Edited by Jean Decety and William John Ickes. Cambridge, MA: mit press, 2009. 3–15. 4.
2 If you are interested in this idea, I highly recommend you check out Gregory Bateson’s metalogue titled “What is an instinct.”
3 In fact, phrases such as “I feel empathy for someone” often end up confusing people into thinking that empathy and sympathy are the same thing. Just to be clear, sympathy and empathy are not the same. Sympathy is where we feel sorry for an other. It is a form of judgement, which is actually something that empathy helps minimize.