Empathy and Sympathy: Dictionary Definitions

People seem to get very confused about the difference between empathy and sympathy in conflict. Indeed in one notable conflict on this blog last year, my correspondents seemed utterly unable to distinguish between my having a theory of mind of the participants in a legal conflict that allowed me to try to see what their interests were, and sympathy for their actions and/or positions. So I thought it might be good to simply post dictionary definitions to help understand the difference without my commenting further, though I do like Adam Smith’s approach in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’, the book he valued above his more well known ‘The Wealth of Nations’. See also this interesting discussion: http://www.iep.utm.edu/emp-symp/#SH3b

Empathy:The power of imaginatively entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his or her experiences; the power of entering into the feeling or spirit of something, especially a work of art, and so appreciating it fully. (Greek: en: in, and pathos: feeling)

Chambers Dictionary

Empathy: ‘The power of projecting one’s personality into and so fully comprehending the object of contemplation. (German Einfuhling: ‘in feeling’) 

  1. Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscles. This is I suppose a simple case of empathy if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfuhling. All such feelings normally take the form in my experience of motor empathy.
  2. (Lipps) propounded the theory that the appreciation of a work of art depended upon the capacity of the spectator to project his personality into the object of contemplation. One had to feel oneself into it. This mental process he called by the name of Einfuhling or empathy as it has been translated.
  3. This is a silent music, a matter of tensions and resolutions, of movements (but again not rhythmical movements) sustained or broken, of ease or effort, rapidity or languor. What we mean in fact is empathy
  4. It is true that in both sympathy and empathy we permit our feelings for others to become involved.

OxfordEnglish Dictionary

Sympathy: Community of feeling; power of entering into another’s feelings or mind; harmonious, understanding; compassion, pity; affinity or correlation whereby one thing responds to another; agreement; a feeling of agreement or support or an expression of this. (Greek sympatheia from syn: with and pathos: suffering)

Chambers Dictionary

Sympathy: A real or supposed affinity between certain things by virtue of which they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence, affect or influence one another or attract or tend towards each other.

  1. Agreement, accord, harmony, consonance, concord; agreement in qualities, likeness conformity or correspondence.
  2. Conformity of feelings, inclinations or temperament, which makes persons agreeable to each other; community of feeling; harmony of disposition.
  3. The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow feeling. Also a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.
  4. The quality or state of being thus affected by the suffering or sorrow of another; a feeling of compassion or commiseration.
  5. To agree in nature or qualities. 
Oxford English Dictionary
One of the kindest of men, Adam Smith:
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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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