Self Psychology Psychoanalysis

Empathy: Abstract & Operational

Probably no term or concept that Kohut (1959, 1971, 1975, 1977, 1981, 1984) wrote about has been more misunderstood by friends and foes alike than that of empathy.

As has been frequently noted, he was so exasperated by those who felt he was advocating the use of empathy as some sort of "psychotherapeutic perversion," - some way of being "nice," "kind," and "curing one's patient's through love" - that he dedicated his final address just days before his death to a fuller clarification of the term.

In essence he spoke of empathy on two different levels: the abstract and the operational.

Abstract Empathy By the abstract definition of empathy he meant the role of empathy in defining the science of psychoanalysis.

In other words, any science is defined by an object of study and a method by which the data of that science is collected.

For example, the physical sciences have as their object of study the discernible world that can be observed via the senses and those instruments that enhance the senses.

On the other hand, psychoanalysis has as its object of study the inner life of man (the data of human experience) while the method by which the analyst makes his observations is introspection into oneself and vicarious introspection or empathy into another.

In other words, empathy is nothing more than the "tool" or "instrument" that permits psychoanalysts to collect their data, which over time can be translated into explanations in the clinical setting and abstract constructs in the theoretical realm.
It was this methodology that made it possible for Freud to discover transference, countertransference, defenses, and resistance.

As Freud moved away from the empathic mode of data collecting, he introduced constructs and assumptions that belong to other sciences.

One example is that of the "drive," which was assumed to be on the borderland between the psyche and the soma. Thus "drive theory" psychoanalysis could no longer be viewed as a pure psychology but rather as an amalgam of psychology and biology, that is, a psycho-biology or bio-psychology.

Operational Empathy By the operational definition of empathy Kohut is referring to the clinically relevant definition of empathy as "the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person" (Kohut, 1984, p. 82).

Derived from the German term Einfuhlung, empathy evolved in its meaning to connote "feeling into" or "searching one's way" into the experience of another (Basch, 1983).

For Kohut, empathy is simply what allows an individual to know another's experience without losing one's objectivity.

In other words, empathy is experience-near observation and nothing more. Return to top