A Nice Derangement of Empathies

In the wake of JAS-BIO (which I mentioned earlier and which Joanna thoroughly recapped last week), Nathaniel Comfort over at PACHSmörgåsbord has been continuing his ongoing thinking about what academic history of science is good for.

After beginning with a query (“Who Cares about the History of Science?”), Comfort shifts gears to ask (and provide a few answers for) why anyone should care. His first stab was about “History as a Way of Knowing.” In that post, he paints scientific and historical reasoning as the contrast between determinism and contingency, simplification and complication. He ends with a plea to reach out to broader audiences, to engage ourselves and to change people’s minds.

After JAS-BIO, Comfort takes what looks like a sharp turn. His third installment answers the question about why we should care more polemically: “Maybe we shouldn’t.” Here, he’s arguing against careerism and in favor of passion. He adopts a similar stance in his latest post (“Toward a Poetics of HSMT”), which, as the title suggests, makes the case for attention to beauty and to the aesthetic qualities of our scholarship more generally.

I’m basically on board with Comfort’s perspective, but today I’d like to carry this aesthetic strand even further and talk a little about empathy. The concept doesn’t really come up in Comfort’s posts, but it’s an important one, and has come up on this blog in discussions of audience and the ability of actors (or those who take themselves to be their successors) to “recognize themselves” in our work (for snippets of this discussion, see here and here.)

I’m obviously in no position to attempt a definition or a history of empathy (as usual, for better or for worse, the SEP provides a good starting point). What I’d like to focus on is (a) two principal ways historians justify their work in terms of empathy and (b) a suggestive conclusion one might come to through their synthesis.

The first “use” of empathy comes in historical practice. It’s akin to the “estrangement as historical Verstehen” Daston mentioned in her Critical Inquiry piece: it’s understanding through attempted embodiment, rather than through inference of analogy. I won’t belabor the historicio-hermeneutical sense of empathy we get from Dilthey through to Gadamer (which is fascinating in its own right), but will instead suggest the difference between what I’m picking out here and the issue of “fair representation” into which our previous discussion morphed (see here).

A call to empathy is not about giving actors a fair shake: that’s an ethical mandate that precedes the sense of empathy I’m highlighting. Empathy and understanding, in the early-twentieth century, were contrasted with objectivity and explanation – the latter were the province of the natural sciences, while the former delimited special terrain for the newer human sciences. To access the meaning of an idea to its early proponents, we have to embody the experience of developing, holding, and communicating that idea in its time.

Though it overemphasized the individual mind, this sense of empathy as understanding-through-embodiment (“transposition,” for Dilthey) found a new voice in Quentin Skinner’s famous early essays. He and others of the “Cambridge School” developed a practicable sense of “ideas in context” that drew on the phenomenological approach to “meaning” and “understanding” while putting flesh, in the form of the narrative approach already familiar to historians, on those philosophical bones.

There are a bunch of fascinating parallels between Skinner and contemporary philosophers like Gadamer and Davidson – but I’ll now move on to the second sense of empathy I promised to touch on , which may be of more interest to readers of this blog.

Where the first use of empathy was practical, the second is pedagogical. It, too, is expressed in terms of dislocation – a call to embody and experience the full weirdness of the past – but its purpose is less about getting the past “right” and more about inculcating certain habits of mind in students. Both are noble aims to which I’m sympathetic, and they often go together – especially, as Comfort notes, in the self-justification of those who study earlier periods.

This is a point Daston emphasizes as well, and it’s worth noting given the audience of this blog. According to Daston, “only specialists in the twentieth century can allow themselves to take their subject matter for granted,” by which she means that everyone else, by necessity, is “concerned with what science is, as well as how it works.”

I’d imagine (or at least I’d hope) that historians of recent science – by which I mean science practiced by folks who are still alive, or near to it – might push back here, but rather than double down on that point, I’d like to use the case of twentieth-century science to sharpen my thoughts on empathy.

Being empathetic doesn’t mean being uncritical – far from it. But it also isn’t just an effort at fair representation – something like “empathy to the best explanation.” Rather, empathy is a tool for understanding. Questions like “How could person X have simultaneously held views A and B?” often require us to first admit that (A&B) would’ve “made sense” to person X, and to then attempt an understanding of how this could’ve been by gathering in all the relevant pieces of X’s lived experience.

Let me close with two related points:

Empathy is risky. In our effort to “make sense” of how a particular constellation of views or answer to a problem could’ve “made sense” to an actor, we don’t want to import our own context-dependent, historically-contingent assumptions and categories. There is a neat parallel with Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” here: while we aren’t trying to assume an “original position” (much the opposite, in many ways), we do have to decide what features we take with us as we begin the thought experiment. This is tricky business, since cries of “Whiggism” rain down on she who fails to check her preconceptions at the door to the time machine.

Empathy runs both ways. While the previous point about checking one’s assumptions is a truism for historians, I would argue (and have before) that we also have to watch out for how inflated ideas of our own agency infect our accounts of the past. That is, some use the language of empathy to urge us to grant more agency to our actors: they argue that we’re too dependent on larger-than-life forces in our historical accounts, given that we deny or deflate the importance of such forces on us.

What I’d rather do is reverse the process – let empathy flow uphill. If we agree – and I think we do – that our privileged vantage helps us see the wider patterns and powers (ideological, institutional, or otherwise) determining day-by-day behavior in the past, then we might import that sense back into the way we account for our own activities. This is a sort of methodological actualism, albeit one run in reverse. Whereas in geology (for example), actualism forbids the invocation of anything not presently in play to explain past phenomena, I want to rely on the recognized strength of historical explanation to limit the stories we allow about our own lives.

Why empathy? Because I think it really is something that good historians have to offer accounts of both past and present – which means it’s a valid answer both to Comfort’s question about what history’s good for as well as to questions we asked a while ago (here, here, and here) about how or why historians might raise their voices in current debates, political or otherwise.*


*It’s also an interesting complement to the distinction, proposed by Donald Davidson in the essay from which I bowdlerized the title for this post, between “prior” and “passing” theories in communication. For Davidson, understanding between speaker and hearer isn’t about a shared language (“There is no such thing as a language,” he famously concludes), but rather about the production of a “passing theory” out of unshared “prior theories” and present data. His sense of constant, ongoing adjustment parallels the hermeneutics I dealt with earlier as well as the sense in which empathy, as a tool, should urge us to write and rewrite our own theories of how the world works as we put past and present into dialogue.


One thought on “A Nice Derangement of Empathies

  1. springgreeney


    Your latest post brings to mind Jill Lepore's “How to Write a Paper [For This Class],” which perhaps you'll have seen? She alludes to the same type of empathy you mention, though of course in her snappy staff-writer-at-The-New-Yorker prose:

    “To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people. You'll be dead one day, too, so please play fair, and remember: never condescend. It's probably bad enough being dead without some smart aleck using your life and times to make a specious claim.”

    Hope you're goose-stepping your way around any such claims you might be tempted towards.



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