Duncan Berry's Reviews > Einfühlung. Zu Geschichte und Gegenwart eines ästhetischen Konzepts

Einfühlung. Zu Geschichte und Gegenwart eines ästhetischen Ko... by Robin Curtis
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Jul 07, 2012

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bookshelves: architecture, art-history, bildwissenschaft, history-of-ideas, kunstwissenschaft, philosophy, psychology, theory
Read in July, 2012

This is a middling effort, and I'm slightly miffed that I bought this book unseen. Oh, well.

Such is the power of the topic, though, and I am grateful to have a decent and recent bibliographic compendium on the topic of "empathy."

Empathy derives from the German expression of Einfühlung, a typical Teutonic expression that condenses a multitude of semantic possibility in a single word. Philologically, it suggests a condition or capacity to feel "at one with."

In the Anglo-American world, we use the concept almost exclusively in a social sense, that is, to indicate that we are able to understand another person's feelings from within, through either deep connection or prior experience. It implies a deep interpersonal bond and a moral element of compassion.

The German word, however, refers to the aesthetic contemplation of objects, specifically, works of art and architecture. Although the basic concept had been in use at least since Herder's essays of the late 1790s, it came into its own in the emergence of what was called "psychological aesthetics" in the 1870s and after. With the work of Friedrich Theodor Vischer and his son Robert Vischer, the notion of Einfühlung came to take on a life of its own both in the emerging discipline of psychology, aesthetics and the fine arts — specifically architecture.

The continuing appeal of this body of thought is not only due to the sheer explanatory potency in delineating our visceral reaction to works of art, or to the phenomenological experience of architectural space, and their combination in an emergent taste for pure form (ca. 1890) and thus the rise of a modernist aesthetic — this is all very much a standard, if significantly underweighted, element in the known historical trajectory of the arts.

What continues to fascinate us most is its uncanny anticipation of the neuroscientific discovery of mirror neurons, and how Vischer, père et fils, Theodor Lipps, Wilhelm Worringer and countless other empathy theorists managed to provide a compelling rationale and a philosophical explanation for the processes by which we integrate aesthetic stimuli that matches the phenomenological explanations put forth most recently by Marco Iacoboni, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, in his Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others (for example, pp. 108 f.). I have the same feeling for the introspective power of Silvan Tomkins's spectacularly powerful "script theory" and the emergence of Jaak Panksepp's model for affective neuroscience.

As for the Curtis and Koch selection, Robin Curtis's introduction is "competent," demonstrating modest familiarity with a few concepts that have emerged from the MN revolution. The contribution by Kirsten Wagner on the impact of empathy theory on architecture is actually a step backward from the work of Prof. Harry Mallgrave, who not only issued an English anthology of the key works of German psychological aesthetics some twenty years ago in his Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893, but also provided a brisk synthesis in his magisterial Modern Architectural Theory: A Historical Survey, 1673 1968. Joseph Imorde's somewhat clipped essay on the impact of the empathy concept(s) on the practice of art history is too short to do much other than skim across the surface, though it is a handy starting point for a more thorough examination. I personally think there is much to be done with this particular theme. Schwartz applies a "theoretical" examination of the concept as it applies to art historical practice, and pretty much covers the same ground he tilled in Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany almost eight years ago. Surprisingly, the most enjoyable essays were the least conceptual — the final three contributions that describe the impact of the theory in explaining the works of the Munich variant of Jugendstil, applications to simple façade design issues, and a discussion of the impact of empathy in early film theory.

If any of this is of interest, you will want to access a more philosophically and scientifically robust pendant volume (mercifully in English, for those who do not read German) edited by Amy Coplan entitled Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives.
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