On the Possibility of Historical Empathy

Chris Gehrz has been churning out some great stuff lately at The Pietist Schoolman.  Anyone interested in history, historiography, Christian thinking, and church-related higher education should have the Pietist Schoolman bookmarked for daily reading.

In yesterday’s post, Chris explores the idea of “historical empathy” and wonders whether such a virtue is really possible.  Here is a taste:

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 what it 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.

Great stuff, Chris (and Paul Bloom).  As I suggested to the Christian readers of Why Study History?, perhaps empathy is only possible when one draws upon supernatural resources to achieve it. Now there’s something to chew on for a while! 🙂

One thought on “On the Possibility of Historical Empathy

  1. That is one of my daily sites and I find it amazing. Chris is clearly articulating concepts that are well researched. I am a bit surprised there is not more dialogue going on there.


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