1st Edition

Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past

By Thomas A. Kohut Copyright 2020
    166 Pages
    by Routledge

    166 Pages
    by Routledge

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    Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past is a comprehensive consideration of the role of empathy in historical knowledge, informed by the literature on empathy in fields including history, psychoanalysis, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and sociology.

    The book seeks to raise the consciousness of historians about empathy, by introducing them to the history of the concept and to its status in fields outside of history. It also seeks to raise the self-consciousness of historians about their use of empathy to know and understand past people. Defining empathy as thinking and feeling, as imagining, one’s way inside the experience of others in order to know and understand them, Thomas A. Kohut distinguishes between the external and the empathic observational position, the position of the historical subject. He argues that historians need to be aware of their observational position, of when they are empathizing and when they are not. Indeed, Kohut advocates for the deliberate, self-reflective use of empathy as a legitimate and important mode of historical inquiry.

    Insightful, cogent, and interdisciplinary, the book will be essential for historians, students of history, and psychoanalysts, as well as those in other fields who seek to seek to know and understand human beings.

    Introduction;  Chapter 1:  Historical Excursus: Empathy in the Debates over Knowing in the Natural and in the Human Sciences; Chapter 2: The Principal Contemporary Definitions of Empathy;  Chapter 3: Narrower Definitions of Empathy and their Relation to Historical Inquiry;  Chapter 4: Three Examples of Empathy in Historical Understanding;  Chapter 5: How We Know in Empathy;  Chapter 6: Is Historical Empathy Unique?;  Chapter 7: The Authority of the Empathizing Historian;  Chapter 8: Concluding Remarks;  References;  Index


    Thomas A. Kohut is the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Professor of History at Williams College, USA. A historian with psychoanalytic training, Kohut has published on topics in German history and on the relationship between history and psychoanalysis.

    'Kohut’s book is a small masterpiece. It is penetrating, incisive, well-argued, wide ranging, thorough, scholarly, and ground breaking in its validation of empathy as a practice relevant to historical studies and research. History writing will never be the same after this work, which is why it needs to be better known.' - Lou Agosta, The Chicago Empathy Project, University of Chicago, USA

    ‘Thomas Kohut’s new book provides a comprehensive and focused treatment of empathy as a way of knowing generally and a way of knowing the past in particular. It elucidates a crucial concept that has recently returned as a key concern in history, psychoanalysis, literary studies, and clinical practice. ‘Empathy’ also appears frequently in the media and in public discourse, perhaps most prominently in the case of various truth and reconciliation commissions. In this context, Kohut’s admirably informed and strongly argued book makes a valuable contribution to social-scientific and humanistic disciplines as well as to the public sphere.’ - Dominick LaCapra, Bowmar Professor Emeritus of Humanistic Studies, Cornell University, USA

    ‘This book envisions and tracks a new and exciting encounter between history/historiography and psychoanalysis. Going beyond the well-known practice of psychoanalyzing historical figures or practices, in this book Thomas Kohut shows us how the practice of psychoanalysis – as a treatment and in relation to human subjectivity and motivation – enlivens and transforms the practice of historical analysis.

    As he argues throughout the book, this is not really new. He tracks the use of emotional empathy and engaged imagination that historians and theorists have deployed for centuries - but too often unself-consciously. Kohut’s gift and project in this book is to use contemporary psychoanalytic theory, self psychology and object relations theory, to track the power of analysis that can emerge in the conscious draw on empathy and deep imaginative reflection on the events historians address. This is most fascinatingly developed in a chapter on the 1942 conference at Wannsee, too often, Kohut argues, seen as the seamless and unproblematic inauguration of the final solution. That and more is unpacked if one tries to be present imaginatively in the complex events which occurred at Wannsee.

    In this book, Kohut seeks to expand the sensibility of the historian and to expand historical accounts to include what one learns from an imaginative entry into the experience of the other(s)’ - Adrienne Harris, Sandor Ferenczi Center, New School, USA

    ‘Thomas Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past is an enjoyable read. Moreover, it provides a sophisticated and nuanced argument for empathy as an essential tool for finding historical explanations and for imaginatively enlivening our knowledge of the past in light of the author’s own historical research and intimate familiarity with psychoanalytic theory and practice. There is no doubt in my mind that it constitutes a very important contribution to historical methodology and to the literature concerned with how to evaluate empathy as an epistemic means for knowing other minds.’ - Karsten R. Stueber, College of the Holy Cross, USA, and author of Rediscovering Empathy

    ‘Thomas Kohut's Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past will be of great interest to writers and readers of history everywhere. Like nothing else available, the book goes to the heart of all our efforts at understanding the human past: the process we call empathy, its major components, its derivatives, it's likely results, and, finally, it's absolute necessity. Kohut has combed through an extraordinarily wide range of thinking pertinent to this topic, added his own very trenchant insights, and created what amounts to a master synthesis.’ - John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

    ‘This book is a superb introduction to the study of empathy. At a time when empathy has become a key word in the humanities and in the social sciences such a thorough conceptual introduction is very much needed. Kohut's crystal clear analysis of this concept's philosophical capacities, the debates surrounding it and its historiographical uses are brilliant and eye-opening. This book is a must not only for historians who are interested in historical methodology but also for all students and scholars of empathy.’ - Amos Goldberg, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel 

    ‘Thomas Kohut’s new book entices and requires us to see what we are doing when we read or write history.  He teaches us to hear and feel the voices and lives of the others of the past in their own terms. History comes to life in this superb interdisciplinary account, intermixing historical, psychoanalytic, and philosophical questions about the nature and functioning of empathy. For him both reading and writing history become an ethical project of understanding the historical others, no matter how abhorrent their behavior.’ - Donna M. Orange, New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, Relational Track, USA

    'An important, timely and very accessible book that expertly guides the reader towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of empathy. With a clarity of prose and purpose, Kohut provides rich insight into the meaning of empathy and its many applications. This is a vital contribution to the field.' - Roger Frie, Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University and Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia

    "Thomas A Kohut’s book is an important one, even ground breaking, for several disciplines including history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and psychology. However, the book is an even more important one for – empathy." - Lou Agosta, PhD, Listening With Empathy

    "Thomas A. Kohut has written a book that he describes as a primer on empathy for historians. I see it as the definitive exploration of empathy. Though written with historians in mind, it is of equal value for the large majority of readers of this journal who are psycho-analysts and psychoanalytic therapists." - Psychoanalytic Psychology, 39(4), p. 350