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From “Einfühlung” to empathy: exploring the relationship between aesthetic and interpersonal experience

Abstract

Is there a relationship between aesthetic and interpersonal experience? This question is motivated not only by the fact that historically experiences of both kinds have often been accounted for in terms of “empathy”, the English translation of the German term “Einfühlung”, but also by the fact that some contemporary theories refer to mechanisms underlying both aesthetic and interpersonal experience. In this Editorial introducing the special section titled “From ‘Einfühlung’ to empathy: exploring the relationship between aesthetic and interpersonal experience”, we briefly sketch these two motivations and the relationship between the different mechanisms that have been associated with both aesthetic and interpersonal experience.
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Cognitive Processing
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-018-0861-x
EDITORIAL
From “Einfühlung” toempathy: exploring therelationship
betweenaesthetic andinterpersonal experience
JoannaGanczarek1 · ThomasHünefeldt2· MartaOlivettiBelardinelli2,3
Received: 8 March 2018 / Accepted: 4 April 2018
© The Author(s) 2018
Abstract
Is there a relationship between aesthetic and interpersonal experience? This question is motivated not only by the fact that
historically experiences of both kinds have often been accounted for in terms of “empathy”, the English translation of the
German term “Einfühlung”, but also by the fact that some contemporary theories refer to mechanisms underlying both aes-
thetic and interpersonal experience. In this Editorial introducing the special section titled “From ‘Einfühlung’ to empathy:
exploring the relationship between aesthetic and interpersonal experience”, we briefly sketch these two motivations and the
relationship between the different mechanisms that have been associated with both aesthetic and interpersonal experience.
Keywords Einfühlung· Empathy· Aesthetics· Interpersonal experience
Introduction
Is there a relationship between aesthetic and interpersonal
experience? Historically, this question is motivated by the
fact that experiences of both types have been accounted
for in terms of the German notion of “Einfühlung”, which
Edward Titchener (1909) and James Ward (cf. Lanzoni
2012) translated as “empathy”, thus introducing the latter
term into the English language. Accordingly, it is possible to
distinguish between aesthetic and interpersonal “empathy”
in English in much the same way as it is possible to distin-
guish between aesthetic and interpersonal “Einfühlung” in
German, thereby suggesting a common psychological mech-
anism supposed to underlie both aesthetic and interpersonal
“empathy”. The notion of “Einfühlung” was theoretically
developed in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ger-
man aesthetics (cf. Curtis and Elliott 2014 for a historical
overview), especially by Robert Vischer (1873) and Theodor
Lipps (1903, 1906). The term “Einfühlung” literally means
“feeling into” and refers to an act of projecting oneself into
another body or environment, i.e.—in Vischer’s (1873, p.
7) terms—to an imaginary bodily “displacement” (“Verset-
zung”) of oneself into another body or environment, which
is aimed at understanding how it feels to be in that other
body or environment. In other words, it refers to some kind
of imaginary bodily perspective taking, which is aimed at
understanding what it would be like to be living another
body or another environment. Notably, the other body or the
other environment where one “feels into” needs not neces-
sarily be physically present, but it may as well be only rep-
resented, and it may even be only imaginary. For example,
by “feeling into” a painted or verbally described landscape
it is supposedly possible to understand what it would be like
to be in that landscape and thus to understand its particu-
lar emotional tune or “atmosphere”. Similarly, by “feeling
into” a portrait, a sculpture, or a tale of a human being, it
is supposedly possible to understand what it would be like
to be that human being and thus to understand its particular
emotion or mood. Furthermore, the other body or the other
environment where one “feels into” needs not necessarily be
human but may be potentially any kind of body or environ-
ment. Accordingly, it is supposedly possible to “feel into”
animals, plants, or even inanimate objects, whose bodies and
environments are radically different from one’s own human
body and environment. Therefore, the notion of “Einfüh-
lung” is historically closely related to panpsychist ideas. In
* Joanna Ganczarek
joanna.ganczarek@up.krakow.pl
1 Neurocognitive Psychology Lab, Pedagogical University
ofCracow, ul. Podchorazych 2, 30-084Cracow, Poland
2 ECONA – Interuniversity Center forResearch onCognitive
Processing inNatural andArtificial Systems, Sapienza
University ofRome, Via dei Marsi 78, 00185Rome, Italy
3 Department ofPsychology, Sapienza University ofRome,
Via dei Marsi 78, 00185Rome, Italy
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ordinary practice, however, the act of “feeling into” is usu-
ally applied rather to bodies or environments that are more
or less similar to one’s own body and environment. Accord-
ingly, it is usually applied to other human beings, but it is
also readily applied to works of art, thus giving rise to the
distinction between aesthetic and interpersonal “empathy”.
In fact, works of art, in general, and works of figurative art,
in particular, call for the act of “feeling into” another body
or another environment for two main reasons: (1) all works
of art are human artefacts, i.e. they have been produced by
other human beings living in other historical, cultural, and
personal environments, and (2) works of figurative art repre-
sent bodies or environments, and in particular often human
beings or human environments. Aesthetic and interpersonal
“empathy” therefore differs mainly in that interpersonal
“empathy” concerns other human beings, whereas aesthetic
“empathy” concerns human artefacts, especially those rep-
resenting human beings or human environments.
This brief introduction into the notion of “Einfühlung”
highlights several essential aspects of the psychological
mechanism that supposedly underlies both aesthetic and
interpersonal “empathy”. In particular, it evidences (1) the
fundamental role of perspective taking, (2) the essential
role of embodiment and bodily situatedness in perspec-
tive taking, and (3) the essential role of the affective, and
more precisely qualitative (i.e. qualia-like), effects of such
bodily perspective taking. To further illustrate the psycho-
logical mechanism that is thus supposed to be involved in
both aesthetic and interpersonal “empathy”, it is helpful to
consider Robert Vischer’s (1873) first theoretical account
of the notion of “Einfühlung”. For Vischer, in fact, “Ein-
fühlung” is only one of a whole set of different kinds of
affective responses to objects (see Table1). In particular,
Vischer distinguished “Einfühlung”, or “feeling into”, from
two other kinds of “feeling” with respect to an object, which
do not involve the imaginary bodily perspective taking, or
bodily “projection” into an object, that is characteristic of
“Einfühlung”. These two other forms are “Zufühlung”, i.e.
the “feeling towards” the sensory properties of an object
(e.g. its brightness and colour), and “Nachfühlung”, i.e. the
“feeling along” the motor properties of an object (e.g. its
actual or potential movement). Notably, corresponding to
these two different kinds of “feeling” which do not involve
imaginary bodily perspective taking, Vischer distinguished
two different kinds of “Einfühlung”, i.e. two different kinds
of “feeling” which result from imaginary bodily perspec-
tive taking, namely “sensory empathy” (“sensitive Einfüh-
lung”), i.e. the “feeling into” the sensory properties of an
object, and “motor empathy” (“motorische Einfühlung”),
i.e. the “feeling into” the motor properties of an object.
Furthermore, corresponding to the resulting four different
kinds of “feeling” with respect to an object, Vischer distin-
guished four different kinds of “sensation” (“Empfindung”),
namely “Zuempfindung”, “Nachempfindung”, and sensory
and motor “Einempfindung”. For Vischer, “feeling” differs
from “sensation” in that it is less “primitive” and “more
objective”, i.e. it is a somewhat more elaborate mental state
that involves being aware of others having similar feelings
as oneself. Thus, Vischer’s (1873) first theoretical account
of the notion of “Einfühlung” does not only illustrate the
fundamental role of imaginary bodily perspective taking in
“empathy”, but it also illustrates two further features that
are somewhat in contrast with some contemporary notions
of “empathy”. In fact, it implies that “empathy” needs not
necessarily be related to the motor properties of an object
and it implies that “empathy” involves the awareness that
there are others who have similar mental states as oneself.
Nowadays, the historical and conceptual roots of the
concept of “empathy” and the related historical account of
the relationship between aesthetic and interpersonal expe-
rience have got partially out of sight. Yet, there are also
some contemporary proposals that refer to a common, fun-
damental mechanism underlying both aesthetic and interper-
sonal experience. Vittorio Gallese’s (2001) shared manifold
Table 1 Different kinds of affective responses to objects according to Vischer (1873)
Affective response Concerning an object’s sensory
properties
Concerning an object’s
motor properties
Not involving perspective taking
Without awareness of others having similar feelings as oneself Zuempfindung
(sensing towards) Nachempfindung
(sensing along)
With awareness of others having similar feelings as oneself Zufühlung
(feeling towards) Nachfühlung
(feeling along)
Involving perspective taking
Without awareness of others having similar feelings as oneself sensitive Einempfindung
(sensing into) motorische Einempfindung
(sensing into)
With awareness of others having similar feelings as oneself sensitive Einfühlung
(feeling into)
= “sensory empathy”
motorische Einfühlung
(feeling into)
= “motor empathy”
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hypothesis is one of the most important approaches that
explicitly deal with the issue in question. Gallese proposes
that our brains are hard-wired not only for understanding
other people’s emotions, actions and intentions but also for
understanding artworks. While the mirror neurons system
is supposed to be the neural base allowing such understand-
ing, embodied simulation is supposed to be the psycho-
logical mechanism responsible for it. Embodied simulation
entails activation of internal representations of body states
that correspond to the observed body states. This mirroring
mechanism gives rise to the “as if” experience, i.e. simula-
tion of being involved in a similar emotion or action. In
the interpersonal context, Gallese proposes that embodied
simulation is a basic mechanism for social identification and
intentional attunement (Gallese 2009). In the aesthetic con-
text, it is considered a basic mechanism for experiencing
the content (i.e. depicted actions, emotions and sensations)
and form (i.e. visible traces of artist’s creative gestures) of
artworks. Besides mirror neurons, Gallese argues that also
a second class of neurons, namely canonical neurons, could
be crucial for embodied simulation in response to objects
depicted in artworks. Canonical neurons, contrary to mir-
ror neurons, are not active during action observation but
are active when looking at objects. Gallese proposes that
canonical neurons allow viewers to simulate a possible inter-
action with observed objects. Importantly, despite the fact
that these two classes of neurons are activated in different
situations, both of them underlie the same mechanism, i.e.
embodied simulation. Even more importantly, while the
author admits that other factors influence aesthetic as well as
interpersonal experience (e.g. context, familiarity), he argues
that embodied simulation is the common basic mechanism.
The idea of embodied simulation thus differs from “Ein-
fühlung” insofar as (1) it doesn’t require imaginary bodily
perspective taking, i.e. the imaginary bodily “displacement”
into an object and, (2) it is necessarily related to the motor
properties of an object (e.g. its real or potential motion, its
affordances, and possibly its being an artefact) but not to
its sensory properties (e.g. its brightness or colour). What
instead connects the notion of embodied simulation with
“Einfühlung” is the stress on embodiment in terms of activa-
tion of associated bodily states and their role in perceivers
affective experiences.
Another proposal which makes a direct connection
between interpersonal and aesthetic experience is the imita-
tive decoding theory developed by Vezio Ruggieri (1986,
1997, 2001). The theory was initially based on studies on
imitation of facial expressions, but soon it was also applied
to the domain of art. The shift from interpersonal to aes-
thetic experience was accomplished through the notion of
imitation that is believed to be a mechanism underlying both
types of experiences. The theory states that perception and
decoding of external forms of objects or people involves
an imitation—via muscular tension—of the lines of tension
that these forms depict or imply. This imitation represents
an even stronger claim of embodiment with respect to Gal-
lese’s account of embodied simulation. Whereas embodied
simulation relied on brain-based representations of body
states, Ruggieri’s account of imitation relies on actual
modifications of muscular tension. These modifications of
muscular tension cause affective experiences which influ-
ence the perception of objects. In other words, viewers feel
certain bodily sensations which are attributed to the per-
ceived object. Moreover, Ruggieri proposes that besides the
imitative mechanism existing in both interpersonal and aes-
thetic situations, these two contexts share one more aspect.
He argues that there is an important precondition necessary
for a successful contact with a person or an artwork. This
precondition relies on a preliminary attitude characterised
by an optimal level of basic muscular tension that one must
assume in order to come into contact with an external object
and imitate it. Once this initial precondition is satisfied, the
imitative decoding can take place. Imitative decoding thus
differs from “Einfühlung” in that, similarly to Gallese’s the-
ory, no particular imaginary bodily “displacement” is nec-
essary, but it is enough to “resonate” with an object. What
connects imitative decoding with “Einfühlung” is the focus
on the bodily experience of perceivers and the link between
bodily muscular response and affective experiences.
Other approaches referring to mechanisms underlying
both aesthetic and interpersonal experience contribute fur-
ther to the issue in question. For example, Van de Cruys
and Wagemans (2011) see predictive coding as a common
mechanism allowing synchronisation in aesthetic and inter-
personal situations. In their view, perception of artworks and
other people is linked with expectations about the incoming
information which leads to generation of predictive models
of, for example, intentions. If the models meet reality, i.e.
if a viewer understands someone else’s intention, empathic
attunement can occur causing affectively coloured interac-
tion with an artistic or social stimulus. In a similar vein,
Leder etal. (2004) propose that the aesthetic and interper-
sonal experience converge when viewers elaborate on an art-
ist’s intentions. Other authors stress that emotional sharing
might be important in both contexts: experiencing sadness
or fear with other viewers is similar to sharing emotions in
everyday life (Egloff 2017). Others again argue that the trait
empathy which facilitates interpersonal experiences, might
also facilitate the experience of emotions in art (Gerger etal.
2017) and in particular the experience of negative emotions
in art (Menninghaus etal. 2017).
Considering these views on the relationship between
aesthetic and interpersonal experience, our aim was to
stimulate an interdisciplinary debate and provide a new
perspective on contemporary accounts of the relation-
ship between these two types of experiences. The papers
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collected in this special section address the relationship
between aesthetic and interpersonal experience from
a variety of different angles, demonstrating the impact
and versatility of both processes, on the one hand, and
their complexity, on the other. The contributing authors
propose multiple distinct theoretical approaches such as
philosophy, developmental psychology, psychophysiol-
ogy, experimental aesthetics and service design. Within
these contexts, they describe different mechanisms that
might be found in both interpersonal and aesthetic experi-
ence. Gerger etal. (2018) refer to simulation and its basis
in neural mirroring, following Freedberg and Gallese’s
account of embodied aesthetic experience (Freedberg
and Gallese 2007). They propose that a specific aspect of
empathic ability, i.e. emotional contagion, might have a
role in aesthetic experience. Stamatopoulou (2018) argues
from a developmental perspective that both aesthetic and
interpersonal experiences share the moment of sensori-
motor synchrony and spatiotemporal proximity which
allow more advanced processes of embodied perception
and imagination to take place. Taken together these pro-
cesses form the act of expressive symbolic communication
with another human being or a work of art. Esrock (2018)
argues that aesthetic and interpersonal experiences meet
in a particular process of projection called transomatiza-
tion. Transomatization occurs when viewers reinterpret a
component of their own bodies to serve as a correlate, for
something outside of the self, specifically, some quality of
an art work or its production. Importantly, the ability for
transomatization is based on early experiences of inter-
personal engagement and on development of intersubjec-
tive experiences throughout life. Brinck (2018) proposes
that aesthetic and interpersonal experiences meet in the
process of entrainment, i.e. in the tendency of physical
and biological systems to synchronise their actions and
movements. This motor synchrony allows viewers to
empathise with artworks or other people. It also allows
them to experience the affective qualities associated with
the movements. Finally, Xenakis (2018) argues that the
aesthetic experience can be embedded in an interpersonal
experience allowing construction of meaning, evaluation
and achievement of particular goals.
Already this brief presentation of the mechanisms
referred to by the authors contributing to this special sec-
tion shows that their claims regarding the relationship
between aesthetic and interpersonal experience differ on
many levels. They provide various answers to the ques-
tions regarding its roots, its character and its strength.
Thus, the papers presented in this special section invite
reflection upon various aspects of the relationship between
aesthetic and interpersonal experience. They present an
interesting and diversified picture that might inspire new
experimental studies and theories.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest The authors declare that they have no conflict of in-
terest.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Crea-
tive Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creat iveco
mmons .org/licen ses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribu-
tion, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate
credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the
Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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... Therefore, in this study we first discussed the definitions of empathy in medical education, and then clarified our own perspective on empathy. To broaden our viewpoint, we referred to the interpretation of empathy by scholars in other disciplines (Bubandt & Willerslev, 2015;Ganczarek et al., 2018;Hollan & Throop, 2011). This was followed by an examination of Japanese doctors' narratives regarding the influence of their illnesses on their medical practice, especially while interacting with patients, and the relationship between empathy and illness experience. ...
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... Edward Titchener [16] and James Ward (cf. Lanzoni [17]) translated this concept with the English word "empathy [12] ." ...
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... Un concepto que surge en la psicología y en la filosofía estética entre los siglos XIX y XX de la mano de autores como Robert Vischer y Theodor Lipps, según el cual se entiende el sentimiento como una acción libre que, a diferencia de lo que sucede con el pensamiento lógico, se rige sola y sin normas, y que toma las formas exteriores como símbolos de la propia vida. El término "Einfühlung" significa literalmente "sentir en" y se refiere a un acto de proyectarse en otro cuerpo o entorno, que tiene como objetivo comprender cómo se siente estar en él (Ganczarek, Hünefeldt y Belardinelli, 2018;Morgade Salgado, 2000;Rábago, 2013). ...
... The concept of empathy has changed over time and today is applied in several distinct disciplinary contexts because it is a proteiform construct encompassing mechanisms underlying experiences, from interpersonal to aesthetic ones (Ganczarek et al., 2018). In the last decades, empathy functioning has been progressively and more thoroughly investigated in psychiatric (Decety & Moriguchi, 2007) and neurological diseases (Pick et al., 2019). ...
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