Is Historical Empathy Impossible?

If you ask the graduates of our department how their studies of history changed them, I’m sure the most common response you’d get is this: “I learned empathy.” We use that word all the time, proclaiming in our objectives statement that our students will “develop the imaginative understanding necessary to see the world as others see it.”

Fea, Why Study HistoryAnd we’re hardly unusual among historians in emphasizing empathy. One of John Fea’s recurring answers to the titular question of his book Why Study History? is that it teaches empathy, arguing that it is both essential to understanding the past in all its strangeness and a key contribution of historical study to the preparation of citizens in a democratic society. He quotes from Sam Wineburg, John Gaddis, John Cairns, and other historians who preach the centrality of empathy to their craft.

But they also point why, in Fea’s words, the “practice of empathy may be the hardest part of being a historian.” For Wineburg, it runs contrary to our “psychological condition at rest,” requiring us to suspend our assumption that the past can be encountered on our own terms, to suit our needs. For intellectual historian L. D. Burnett, on the other hand, the problem is that we can be too empathetic. In a 2013 blog post, she explains why she decided she’d rather not learn anything more about a woman who came up in her research and then disappeared:

I don’t want to know, because I don’t want to care.  Not because I lack empathy, but because as a historian and as a person I suffer from a surfeit of it.  Empathy, sympathy, the sense of commonality and kinship, the compassion we feel for these people we encounter in the archives, on the page — these ties that bind our subjects and ourselves are essential to our work.  They make it possible; they make it matter. But they can also make it hurt like a sonofagun.

(Having just yesterday warned that historians need to be aware of their relatively one-sided power over the dead, I appreciated that Burnett pointed to a different problem: “As a historian, I survey and weigh and rearrange what is left of other people’s lives.  That is a heavy weight to carry, and if I think very much about the particulars of those lives, I can’t carry that weight at all.”)

Still, these challenges don’t cause Burnett, Wineburg, Fea, or most other historians to abandon their commitment to empathy. (I came across Burnett’s post in Allen Mikaelian’s introduction to a series of articles on empathy in the October 2013 issue of Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association. While he warned that the “pitfalls of embracing an empathic approach to the past are enormous,” Mikaelian saw benefits and, in any event, noted “how hard it is to avoid empathy all together.”)

Paul Bloom
Paul Bloom – Yale University

But perhaps other fields of study should make us reconsider whether historical (or other kinds of) empathy is even possible. Writing recently for The Stone, the New York Times‘ philosophy blog, Paul Bloom draws on research from psychology and cognitive science to argue that the empathetic ability to imagine the world as others experience it is almost impossible. It certainly doesn’t come naturally:

People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance. Other studies find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.

Can we make ourselves better at it? With philosopher Laurie Paul, Bloom concludes that

it’s impossible to actually imagine what it would be like to have certain deeply significant experiences, such as becoming a parent, changing your religion or fighting a war. The same lack of access applies to our understanding of others. If I can’t know whatit would be like for me to fight in a war, how can I expect to understand what it was like for someone else to have fought in a war? If I can’t understand what it would be like to become poor, how can I know what it’s like for someone else to be poor?

Now, Bloom stops short of calling off the whole project:

Under the right circumstances, we might have some limited success — I’d like to believe that novels and memoirs have given me some appreciation of what it’s like to be an autistic teenager, a geisha or a black boy growing up in the South. And even if they haven’t, most of us are still intensely curious about the lives of other people, and find the act of trying to simulate these lives to be an engaging and transformative endeavor. We’re not going to stop.

But he suggests that the difficulty of achieving any real degree of empathetic engagement with the lives of others should underscore the importance of two other words prominent in the historian’s vocabulary: humility and listening.

These failures should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect — people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded — but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us.

What do you think? Is empathy central to the practice of history? Is Bloom too pessimistic about our ability to empathize? When have you come closest to imagining the world from another’s point of view? What teaching or writing practices do the most to promote empathy?

One thought on “Is Historical Empathy Impossible?

  1. I don’t think there is any more important reason to study history than to acquire empathy for victims. During high school in South Dakota I took an elective course on South Dakota history. Much of the course focused on the Native American population past and present (1970s). The second “Wounded Knee” event took place during my high school years and there was a riot at the county courthouse where the trial for the AIM (American Indian Movement) leaders were being tried. Most of my fellow South Dakotans seemed unable to empathize with the AIM people and their supporters but I and at least many of my classmates had acquired some degree of empathy for them from our study. I find today that the vast majority of the American population thinks only “gambling casinos” when they hear the phrase “American Indian” (or “Native American”). This is tragic. The fact is that we, America, almost succeeded in genocide in relation to American Indians. Another example is my study of the Holocaust including while living in Germany (1980s). I acquired from it a deep empathy for Jews who can sometimes seem paranoid unless one understands their history. The study of history should be about the victims of abuses of power. I find those who have studied history are much more prone to have a general empathetic attitude and consciousness toward the oppressed.

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