• Mark Fagiano

The Real Difference between Empathy and Sympathy: Part One


Type "the difference between empathy and sympathy" into a search engine and you will find a host of differing opinions.


Actually, don't do that.


There is no "real," single difference between #empathy and #sympathy (sorry about the joke), but there are many differences between these notions.


Let's start with one similarity: each term is a social construct and people, over time, construct the meaning of terms for their own aims, interests, and purposes.


Examining the historical formations and reformations--the major transformations--of the meanings of empathy and sympathy is, nevertheless, quite revealing, if not amusing.


Historically, sympathy has meant to feel with another and/or to feel for another. To feel with another implies a grasping of another's experience. To feel for another means to care for another and act primarily for another's benefit.

Feeling with:To feel with another implies some type of grasping another's experience.

To feel with and/or for another does not mean that your "feeling" is a purely emotional experience. This idea was invented by dualistic-minded philosophers who once upon a time claimed that "rational" and "emotional" experiences were distinct from one another. Since William James's brilliance, we know they are not. Reason and emotion mingle and their relationship is messy.

Feeling for: To feel for another means that your care for another by acting primarily for her/his benefit.

Sympathy has also referred to a number of very different, perhaps odd, things.


In ancient Greece, sympathy was often understood in relation to an idea called cosmic sympathy. This, in short, refers to all the connections between things in the universe and the effects that these things have upon each other because of the ways in which they are connected.


This manner of defining sympathy gave birth a plethora of practices, namely divination, magic, and theurgy. Sympathy, throughout its history has been a magical idea and has implied sameness and unity but not difference.


Even when the great infidel and secularist David Hume dispensed with the magical dimensions of the meaning of this term, sympathy has most often referred to an experience of e.g., unity, sameness, similarity, togetherness, etc.


For example, think symphony (harmony and unity in sound); symmetry (similarity or sameness between different things); symposium (drinking together).


The historical meanings of "empathy," on the other hand, are different and allow for the notion of difference itself.





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