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The Problem With Einfühlung
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The Problem With Einfühlung

We need empathy. But we use it badly.

Activists gather on Washington Square to protest against police brutality after the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)


In case you didn’t know, “ciao” can mean either hello or goodbye in Italian. Why French (salut!), Hawaiian (aloha), German (servus), Hebrew (shalom!) and many other languages have single words that can be used for both greetings and farewells while English doesn’t is a question I will leave to others. [Suddenly, Kevin Williamson laid down his gun and the 10-gallon jug of acid and felt a compulsion to opine…]

I like using “ciao” here because I’m starting this in Italy but by the time you read this I will be in London, so it’s sort of like I’m using the linguistic version of Schrödinger’s cat and naming it “Ciao,” which is a good name for a cat. Maybe Purina can do something with that? 

I’m going to save the big story from this trip for another day, maybe for The Remnant. Suffice it to say, crossing the alps from Austria to Italy was more exciting than we planned. 

But I’ve had a lovely time over here, despite some bananas weather and a pretty devastating 48-hour head cold. 

We started in Munich. And it was great to hear the euphony of the Teutonic tongue in all her glory. Like no other nationality, the Germans have the ability to speak onomatopoetically with one voice as if to say, “I can’t talk … choking on a chicken bone!” There’s so many Ks and Chs married to Ts and Gs, like someone loaded all the mid-tier Scrabble tiles into a caulking gun and set it to rapid fire.  

I kid because I love. I’ve even acquired a minor reputation for lexicological Germanophilia. But spending a few days in Germany and Austria reminded me that what actual German I learned in college is forever lost. 

Still, I do love me some German words. As longtime readers know, my most cherished is probably futterneid. It means “food envy”—like literally envying someone else’s food. 

I use it often. The Fair Jessica and I are pretty competitive about ordering at restaurants, especially when we travel. Rarely will a meal go by without one of us boasting, “I ordered better than you.” So, if I get a wonderful tagliatelle with sausage and peas—which I did the other night—and the missus gets some disappointing fish thing, she will feel futterneid over my superior meal. And as much as I love my wife, her futterneid will fuel my schadenfreude. If I gloat too much, however, my wife will look at me like I have sudden-onset-Backpfeifengesicht—literally a face that needs a fist, or as they might say in Texas, “a face that needs slapping.” Of course, this is merely a temporary condition. (I’m not, say, Jason Miller, who has a chronic case of Backpfeifengesicht.) And if I do my “I ordered better than you” dance, my daughter will likely be overcome with Fremdschämen

On empathy.

One German word I’ve often struggled with is Einfühlungsvermögen, or simply Einfühlung. It literally means “feeling into,” as in using your feelings to explore and understand things. I know what you’re thinking: That sounds a lot like Obi-Wan’s advice to Luke for mastering the Force—a discussion for another day. I’ll spare you most of the twisted etymological roots and the zig-zagging intellectual and psychological history of the term. Instead, I’ll pick up where it started a new life in the United States and changed its name to “empathy,” presumably so it could get into the better clubs.  

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the word “empathy”—which describes an eternal human emotional state—is that it didn’t exist until 1909. It’s derived from the Greek empatheia, which was translated into Einfühlung by the German philosopher Rudolf Lotze in 1858 as a mode of art appreciation. It gets a little more convoluted because the word kind of played catch-up to the concept. Earlier in the 18th century, this whole “feeling into” thing played a big part in the debates over absolutism—or universalism—versus relativism. The in-crowd believed that social organization, especially economics, fell under relativism. The rules of political economy were particularistic, unique to the history and culture of each nation and society. The label “Austrian school” was coined as a term of derision by German economists to describe the foolish non-relativists in Vienna who thought that things like market principles are pretty much universal.  

As you can probably tell, I’d like to go down this rabbit hole more. But I gotta finish before the plane lands. So part of my struggle with this empathy stuff has to do with complicated philosophical and historical topics I can’t dwell on here. But the other part of my struggle with empathy is that empathy is often a problem because it hinders reason and distracts from hard-learned principles. (I should also probably stop using the phrase “my struggle” in a discussion with this much German.)

And I don’t just mean highfalutin principles, but real everyday ones. As I often argue around here, being a good parent often requires feeling hypocritical. You understand how and why your kid wants to do X because you did X at their age. But with the benefit of time and experience, you now understand that X was not a good thing to do. “Do as I say, not as I did” is often the unstated law of parenthood.

Another way of saying this is that being a good parent often requires restraining your empathy. “Good parenting,” Paul Bloom writes in his wonderful book, Against Empathy, “involves coping with the short-term suffering of your child.” That can apply to everything from making them eat their vegetables to taking their cancer drugs. 

We’ve all heard or read stories about horrible parents that want so desperately to be cool and for their kids to be cool that they enable or participate in horrendous behavior. That’s often because they let empathy take over. 

But it’s also true for the highfalutin stuff too. 

For instance, Barack Obama famously argued that “empathy” was the key quality he was looking for in judges. “I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook,” he said. “It’s also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives—whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.” When he appointed Sonia Sotomayor, he said that the “quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles” was the essential qualification he was looking for. 

Now, depending on the situation, I think those considerations are entirely appropriate for legislators and, to some extent, presidents. They’re also important for police, prosecutors, priests, policy wonks, poets, journalists, screenwriters, novelists, and the broader category of people we call “human beings.” But judges and justices are bound by oath to keep their empathy in check and follow the law. They swear to “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon” them. It’s not hard to see how bad law stems from too much empathy for a specific plaintiff—never mind a category of people—on the wrong side of the law. 

Moreover, as Paul Bloom—a bleeding-heart liberal in most respects—argues, empathy is just as likely to lead to bad decisions as good ones. “When some people think about empathy, they think about kindness. I think about war,” Bloom writes. That’s because when we empathize with the plight of some, that empathy often causes us to hate others. Empathy for Palestinians often ignites hatred of Israelis—and Jews. Empathy for Israelis often does the same for Palestinians—and Arabs or Muslims. 

I think a lot of the tribal rage of our politics can be understood in these terms. On a daily basis, we pick victims “our” team can relate to and that gives “us” permission to hate “them.” Empathy for George Floyd aroused hatred for police—and a lot of other American institutions—that made no rational sense. Empathy for cops gives permission for a lot of ridiculous rhetoric. Donald Trump would not be the GOP frontrunner if not for the fact that a lot of people have been suckered into believing he’s a victim, martyr, or avatar for them. 

At the same time, we need empathy. I just think we use it badly. Empathy is vital for understanding where people are coming from on various topics. In some ways, it’s essential to debating in good faith. If you can empathize with the emotions of your opponents, it makes it much easier to believe they’re arguing sincerely. 

I’ve been following the debates over Oppenheimer and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I can’t get into all of that here. But it’s been remarkable to me how many people can just dismiss the possibility that American officials, from Harry Truman down, were operating in good faith, and that the rationales they offered at the time were in fact they’re real motivations. So many people have to believe that America is not only villainous, but that American leaders choose to be villains. This is the sort of thinking that comes from weaponizing empathy. You so totally identify with the victims—usually projecting feelings more than interpreting them—that you can’t imagine the victimizers don’t know exactly what they’re doing and are doing it for exactly the reasons you imagine.  

Perhaps the point is that it’s good to be empathetic, but if the only thing you derive from your empathy is hatred of the people you wanted to hate anyway, you’re probably doing it wrong. 

But hold on. I’m not 100 percent on that either. I mean I’m not going to sit here and argue that you should never hate Nazis, Klansmen, rapists et al.  I told you: I struggle with empathy. So perhaps the actual lesson is, if you’re making important decisions based solely on empathy and not on anything else—reason, facts, logic, law, principle, etc.—you’re probably going to make some bad choices.  

That said, if you hated this “news”letter, please have some empathy for me. I’m writing while on vacation. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.