Empathy is a word often heard in today’s world, as in we need more of it. It is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

I was intrigued to learn about the origin of this word in this Brain Pickings article. To summarize, the word empathy came into being in the late 1860’s when philosopher Theodor Lipps wondered why art affects us so powerfully. He hypothesized that the impact of a piece of art isn’t in the work itself but rather, is found in the act of viewing. This was a radical notion at the time.

“The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.” ~ Rachel Corbett, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin

Lipps discovered that the process of projecting emotions, ideas or memories onto objects enacts empathy. He called it “inseeing” — where when you consciously observe something, you go beyond the surface of a thing to its heart. You feel into it.  This feeling manifests in different ways. It could be a resonance or vibration throughout the body. It could feel like a punch in the gut or a tug at the heart.

“The act of observation was not one of passive absorption, but of lived recognition.” ~ Rachel Corbett

We experience inseeing when our attention is drawn to something in particular. Our own lived experiences are activated in the process. Lipps outlines four types of empathy, depicted below through my own photographs.

4 Types (Lipps)

1. General apperceptive empathy: when one sees movement in everyday objects.

Sweeping lines suggest movement, even though the scene is static.

2. Empirical empathy: when one sees human qualities in the nonhuman.

Arms reaching out.

3. Mood empathy: when one attributes emotional states to colours and music, like “cheerful yellow.”

I call this happy/sad.

4. Sensible appearance empathy: when gestures or movements convey internal feelings.

The arm gently resting and the man’s expression suggests gentle tenderness and care.


Try finding the four types in your own photographs.

Further Reading: Empathy Library

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