As history continues to be devalued by today’s educational system, many prominent historians point to empathy as (one of its many) saving graces.  John Lewis Gaddis writes that “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions – their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.” John Cairns adds, empathy “is the passport to gaining a genuine entry into the past as a foreign land, and something distinct from our time.” Through historical thinking, empathy allows people to unite themselves with mankind, and understand on a deeper level what it means to be human.

However, the teaching of empathy is not without its caveats. Paul Bloom’s recent book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, is one example. In an interview, Bloom explains,

“But empathy is surprisingly bad at making us good. It’s a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others. It exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.”

Interestingly, Bloom’s notion of empathy seems to be completely disconnected from the one that historians advocate. Historian John Fea clarifies,

“Empathy differs from sympathy. Empathy is all about understanding. It is an attempt to discover why a particular individual in the past acted in the way that he or she did. It might even mean exploring such actions in an attempt to grasp how he or she reflects the mentality of all of those living in that time and how such mentality differs from our own. Sympathy, however, carries a deeper moral component than empty. The sympathetic person develops an emotional attachment – such as a desire for the other person to be happy – that can sometimes make empathy difficult and might even get in the way of an accurate historical interpretation.”

Fea’s notion of sympathy seems to align much more closely with Bloom’s idea of empathy. Perhaps poor definitions for these words undergird much of the controversy surrounding them. In fairness to Bloom, however, it seems questionable as to whether or not empathy can truly be devoid of moral and emotional attachment. There is an emotionalism – or sympathetic bent (to use Fea’s definition) – that seems inherent to empathetic thinking. While this is certainly problematic for all of the reasons that Bloom writes about, history provides its own solution: perspective.

The answer coming from historical thinking should not be a vain attempt to remove emotionalism and morality from empathy – or to discourage empathy altogether. Rather, it should be an increased emphasis on perspective (and the Five C’s that support it). Bloom himself believes that people should be cultivating their ability to “stand back” in order to provide a more rationally effective programme of care. Historical methodology is unique in its ability to do this. It teaches empathy at its best, not its worst.

History not only allows people to place themselves into the shoes of historical actors – to identify with them emotionally (even morally) – but also allows people to remove themselves from particular events, seeing them within the scope of a much larger narrative. It balances the immediacy of emotional attachment with the rationalistic nuances of a removed perspective. Today’s society, it seems, needs more of both. Perhaps, as more people begin to see the dangers of one approach without the other, they will increasingly turn to historical instruction for the solution.


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