A Short Note on Empathy in Historical Practice

I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?

First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.

I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.



3 thoughts on “A Short Note on Empathy in Historical Practice

  1. Excellent distinction! Empathy breeds objectivity, while sympathy destroys it. I love reading the personal writings of individuals to try to get into their shoes, although then the challenge is staying objective after getting under their skin. Grant’s memoirs are easy to remain objective while reading because he is so straight forward and direct. Speaking of his memoirs, I just purchased Elizabeth Samet’s recent annotated edition. I don’t have the annotated edition by Marszalek and others that came out in 2017. Do you have any thoughts on the differences between the two? I’ve heard Marszalek’s is more factual and direct, while Samet’s is more cultural and artistic.

    1. Hi J.L.,

      Your description of the difference between Samet and Marszalek’s versions of the Memoirs is correct. The latter is fairly straightforward while the former looks at larger contextual framework. I highly recommend both and it just really depends on how much of an editorial/historical voice you want to accompany you while reading the Memoirs.

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