If someone’s cat dies, you might feel sympathy for them. If someone’s cat dies just months after your cat has died, your feelings might be better described as empathetic. In other words, sympathy often refers to pity or a similar emotion that you feel for someone, while empathy more closely relates to the ability to put yourself right in someone else’s shoes. But that’s only one interpretation of the difference between the two words—and you could even argue that the way people use empathy today is basically how sympathy has been used for centuries.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sympathy first arrived on the scene in the late 16th century as a pretty open-ended term describing the relationship between two things that share certain qualities or affect each other in some way. Sympathy between your head and your stomach could mean that getting a headache always brought on a stomach ache. If that was a chronic problem, it might make you sympathetic to (i.e. agree with) the idea that the town doctor should offer a discount to frequent patients.
While sympathy didn’t have to be between people, it definitely could be. Writers mentioned it in conjunction with love, woe, or sorrow; and it often described an emotional connection born from parallel experiences. The idea of ‘putting yourself in another’s shoes’ soon followed. “Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in a good measure as he is affected,” philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1757.
When empathy was coined more than a century later, it referred to a different philosophical relationship: the one between people and aesthetics. It began as a German word, Einfûhlung, which philosopher Robert Vischer came up with in the 1870s to explain his theory of how humans derive pleasure from art and nature. Essentially, he suggested that we involuntarily react to seeing something inanimate—a painting, for example, or a mountain—by injecting our own emotions into it. It didn’t take long for other thinkers to take the concept and run with it. By the early 20th century, English philosophers had translated Einfûhlung into English and started using it to discuss how humans transfer their emotions onto each other.
In this way, empathy became a sociological term that sometimes mirrored what sympathy already meant. Modern academics have debated the difference between the two for decades. In the 1974 edition of the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, for instance, philosopher Charles Edward Gauss states: “In sympathy I feel with; in empathy I feel in.” In 1990’s Empathy and Its Development, psychologists Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer describe empathy as “feeling with” another person. Sympathy, they argue, is “feeling for” someone.
Basically, your decision to consider yourself empathetic or sympathetic in any given situation might involve years of psychological analysis and philosophical study. And even after that, some scholars might disagree with whichever one you’ve chosen. Since there’s no “right” answer—and language is ever-evolving, anyway—feel free to use either.
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