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Review: Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past by Thomas A. Kohut

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Review: Thomas A. Kohut. (2020). Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past. London and New York: Routledge: (Taylor and Francis).Routledge (Taylor and Francis). (155 pp.)

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. 

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. 

Though this reviewer is not a historian, I have published widely on empathy, and Kohut’s is the book I wish I had written. Empathy is no rumor in Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Past. Empathy lives  in this book, and those who engage with it will be enriched historically and empathically.

Kohut properly begins by calling out the suspicion and skepticism of historians in relation to empathy. Empathy is fraught. Debates about the meaning of the term itself are legion. 

In the face of these issues, Kohut’s definition of empathy is a rigorous and

Cover Art: Paul Klee, The Magic Mirror (1934)

critical one. Empathy is a mode of observation that gives one access to the thoughts and feelings of other human beings as subjects. Key term: subjectivity. Empathy is the foundation of intersubjectivity and that intersubjectivity has a temporal horizon extending from the past into the future. 

In Kohut’s overview of the many definitions and debates about empathy, he distinguishes three approaches. They are: Theory of mind, simulation theory, and phenomenology of the Husserlian (and Edith Stein) flavor plus an admixture of Max Scheler. Without going into the details here, Kohut makes good use of the debate around the discovery in the mid-1990s of mirror neurons in monkeys and the implications of a parallel neurological mirroring system in humans, even if it is not exactly mirror neurons. 

Kohut, the historian, is a trained but not currently practicing psychoanalyst. He learns from psychoanalytic practice in a historical context by deploying vicarious introspection – a short version of the definition of empathy. More on that shortly. 

The innovation: Empathy is not only empathy of identity and similarity but even more importantly empathy is an empathy of differences. As the historian encounters otherness or alterity, the differences in experience call forth empathy. Empathy has a profound impact on historical thinking and experience, and, in a space of presence to humanity, enables a translation of meaning of affect and thinking. Ultimately this empathic engagement with other individuals and communities expands our historical understanding of humanity and deepens our own humanity. 

Human beings are complex. They are notoriously self-deceived. We humans have blind spots about what are our motivations and incentives – Marx’s false consciousness, Sartre’s bad faith, Freud’s unconscious. 

This means that even if the historian (or psychoanalyst) has access to another individual’s consciousness through their free associations (not available to the historian), journal entries, expressions in historical documents, art, artifacts, and traces of human life, as historians we may really be knowing how these individuals and groups have deceived themselves subjectively, not what authentically motivated them or how they experienced their life and predicaments intersubjectively. Yet such subjective and intersubjective data are of the essence. History often consists precisely in engaging with the unanticipated consequences of self-deception. 

Individuals and entire communities and nations subscribe to ideologies and interpretations that are breathtakingly inaccurate, of questionable morality, or just plain confused, with profound consequences for their neighbors and historical successors. While not a therapeutic practice in the narrow psychoanalytic sense, the study of history humanizes – it expands and deepens our humanity. This is so even if it sometimes appalls and disappoints us as to what human beings are capable of perpetrating. 

Kohut’s innovation is to assert that “empathy…recognizes and appreciates difference, even while attempting to know and understand it” (p. 41). 

Since both empathy and ethics emerge simultaneously out of the differences of the encounter with other individual and groups, empathy can be used for both good and evil. Empathy tells me what the other person is experiencing; ethics tells me what to do about it. Thus, the Nazis attached sirens to their dive bombers, the better to get inside the heads of the innocent civilians they are bombing and terrify them. 

The good news is that for the most part, civilized human beings use empathy to create a clearing of acceptance and tolerance for compassion, generosity, and prosocial affects to come forth and empathy training can expand such a clearing; but there is nothing intrinsically prosocial about empathy as such. At least, such is the position of Kohut the historian and psychoanalyst, as I read him. 

Kohut has many fellow travellers and teachers in empathic history writing. Elizabeth Lunbeck and John Demos deserve mention for their empathically attuned history writing. Kohut endorses Dominick DaCapra’s distinction of “empathic unsettlement,” which is “the historian’s pervasive experience of difference even while attempting to know and understand it” (p. 43). 

At another level, the authority of the past over us in the present is a strong motivator for Kohut’s approach. Kohut answers to the postmodern historian’s critique of Eurocentric history, is direct. High political history and dead white male leaders (p. 18) may have monopolized the empathic conversation, but it need not be that way. Marginalized peoples and oppressed individuals who make an empathic claim on us – as historians – to engage, articulate, and call out the experiences of alterity and otherness. 

The use of empathy in cultural history is pervasive and provides further evidence that the role of empathy requires rehabilitation and extension. 

But what of history written from the so-called objective observational perspective, which tends to emphasize broad trends and sweeping generalizations about politics and society – Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Modernity, the Nuclear Age, post Modern Society – in which individuals and entire countries are caught up? 

Kohut acknowledges that such history is wide spread and is a paradigm that contributes to historical understanding. What it does not do is give us a sense of what it was like to be alive in such times. When done badly, such writing is little different than reading a rail road time table, and, even at its best, entails the risk of sending us down a deterministic labyrinth that produces problematic narratives.  When done well, such sweeping, broad historical panoramas can and do enrich our humanity, but precisely by deploying and applying empathic methods. And that is a point that Kohut drives home: historians are unwittingly – and thus uncritically and rigorously – employing empathy and they may usefully take their method up a level and do so explicitly, rigorously, and critically. 

I do not know if Kohut would agree with me, but I was inspired by him to assert that there are at least two kinds of non-empathic history writing. Non-empathic history can be a chronology. Names and dates. This is important and a foundation, and not a trivial matter, to be sure, yet not ultimately what makes a difference in terms of meaningful human understanding and development. 

Alternatively, if one is unambiguously committed to deterministic trends in history such as in certain caricatures of Marxism, then one goes down the causal dead end as determinism is regularly refuted by experience when the inevitable deterministic outcome fails to show up. History has come to an end so many times only then to demonstrate in the ongoing course of events that the ending of one individual or group’s history is the beginning of another’s. 

The third alternative is that, yes, such sweeping, broad trends may indeed be significant, even indispensable, but if you read the historical text carefully, empathy is richly present intermittently and all-too-often on a scattershot basis. But that is what makes the text come to life. Perhaps not present on every page, but there is inevitably a report of an individual or a personal anecdote or an imaginative experiment by the historian; and it is precisely those moments and passages that act like a lightening rod to bring vitality and aliveness to the narrative. The sweeping history of historical trends without empathy lacks vitality and human significance.  It is empty of humanity. It is like plate tectonics or geology – nothing wrong with plate tectonics as such – but as a model of history writing, it lacks relatedness to human meaning or value. 

This speaks directly to Kohut’s point that historians frequently use empathy but they use it implicitly and unconsciously. It is wroth repeating: Kohut’s intervention is to urge that the historians must take their practice up a level and be explicit about when they are deploying empathy or not. Under Kohut’s skillful treatment, empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Meanwhile, the shadow of the tribal falls over the historical. The use of empathy that seems to affirm structures of domination and false consciousness (e.g., Foucault) only gets traction if one’s definition of empathy is restricted to that of an empathy of identity. Though not called out by Kohut, Ian Hacking’s notion of historical ontology belongs here, inspired as it is by such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Willard Quine. However, if one allows for an empathy of differences, empathy is the encounter with the other individual or community who is different than I am and who one grasps in the other’s alterity [othrness], then the objection of tribalism fails to get traction and falls way. 

This speaks directly to Kohut’s point that historians frequently use empathy but they use it implicitly and unconsciously. It is wroth repeating: Kohut’s intervention is to urge that the historians must take their practice up a level and be explicit about when they are deploying empathy or not. Under Kohut’s skillful treatment, empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Meanwhile, the shadow of the tribal falls over the historical. The use of empathy that seems to affirm structures of domination and false consciousness (e.g., Foucault) only gets traction if one’s definition of empathy is restricted to that of an empathy of identity. Though not called out by Kohut, Ian Hacking’s notion of historical ontology belongs here, inspired as it is by such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Willard Quine. However, if one allows for an empathy of differences, empathy is the encounter with the other individual or community who is different than I am and who one grasps in the other’s alterity [othrness], then the objection of tribalism fails to get traction and falls way. 

Since this is not a softball review, I suggest that Kohut bends so far backwards to accommodate tenuous objections to empathic practices that he sometimes unwittingly ends up underestimating and being unfair to the powers and importance of a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Kohut is generous and gracious in addressing every imaginable objection – possibly from some hair-splitting reader or editor – generous to a fault. Yet once a thinker (not Kohut!) embraces a Cartesian fragmentation of human relatedness by locking the historical individual up in the warm room with Descartes sitting alone by fire, yet without relating to him, all the paradoxes about how to build a bridge back to the other consciousness come forth. 

One point that is flat out missing from Kohut’s is a treatment of retrospective grasping or understanding (Nachträglichkeit) – “afterwardness” – a key distinction in Freud and the understanding of the past. This is important because empathy is needed to grasp the change of meaning between what the event meant in the past and what it comes to mean at a different, later time. 

For example, a child of tender age is exposed to adult sexuality, whether accidently seeing the parents engaging in such or through a boundary violation such as molestation. The child does not grasp what happened, and does not like it, but is not traumatized. Years later the child becomes an adolescent, remembers the incident, and then falls ill with hysteria or an obsessional neurosis. Did the child experience the boundary violation in the sense that the child was present in the room? Yes. Did the child fall ill at that time. No. What happened? Retrospective understanding!

Likewise, in history, the Nazis systematically and with malice of forethought exterminate – slaughter – murder – some six million Jewish people, including some homosexuals, gypsies, handicapped, socialists, and so on. Years later one of the architects of the genocide, Adolph Eichmann, is captured, put on trial, and executed for the crime. The killing of the six million is redescribed as the Holocaust during and shortly after the trial. Were the people killed? Yes. Did “Holocaust” exist as a distinction in language or reporting before Eichmann’s trial? Not as far as we know. What happened? Nachträglichkeit! The description is grasped and validated retrospectively. 

Meanwhile, as noted by Kohut, the result of “cultural Cartesianism” (p. 119) is that the shadow of tribalism falls upon the historical. Consciousness encompasses but is not reducible to its expressions such as historical documents, works of art, architecture, and traces of all kinds of peoples’ marks upon the land. 

Anything that qualifies as an expression of the life of a human subject and gets embodied in a fixed form and survives in a transmittable form becomes the raw material for empathically processing the thoughts and feelings that are embodied in the resulting historical narrative. The result is a narrative that imaginatively enlivens the artifacts with empathic vitality and evokes the world that generated them.

Kohut’s is a slim volume (a pervasive problem in publishing in this post hard copy era), and he does not have the word count to lay down his obvious commitment to rigorous historical practice in any detail. He repeatedly suggests that those who go to the archives may usefully [must] bring their empathy with them. That is one of Kohut’s recurring themes: Explicitly bring your empathy. Archives, documents, ruins, artistic artifacts, archeological digs, etymological traces in language, dusty old bones with hatchings in museums, and all manner of expressions of human life, form the basis for the historical narrative and interpretation that becomes the rigorous study of history and humanity. 

Anything that qualifies as an expression of the life of a human subject and gets embodied in a fixed form and survives in a transmittable form becomes the raw material for empathically processing the thoughts and feelings that are embodied in the resulting historical narrative. The result is a narrative that imaginatively enlivens the artifacts with empathic vitality and evokes the world that generated them.

Kohut’s is a slim volume (a pervasive problem in publishing in this post hard copy era), and he does not have the word count to lay down his obvious commitment to rigorous historical practice in any detail. He repeatedly suggests that those who go to the archives may usefully [must] bring their empathy with them. That is one of Kohut’s recurring themes: Explicitly bring your empathy. Archives, documents, ruins, artistic artifacts, archeological digs, etymological traces in language, dusty old bones with hatchings in museums, and all manner of expressions of human life, form the basis for the historical narrative and interpretation that becomes the rigorous study of history and humanity. 

Empathy is called forth by the expressions of human life whether in the presence of a person in the same room just now or the artistic and documentary artifacts left behind. It is a tactical advantage in the theory of knowledge (epistemology) that one can ask such a present person, “What do you mean by that?” However, absent a four-year psychoanalysis, she is not going to have any better access to her blind spots, self-deceptions or ambivalences than the person writing in her diary a century ago. Extra data is remarkably useful; yet sometimes more data is just more data. Empathic interpretation is needed to bring it to life and make it speak and contribute to our understanding. 

Kohut is the professional’s professional. He relegates to the footnotes his disagreement with Rudolf Makkreel, whose monumental (re)construction of Wilhelm Dilthey’s “Critique of Historical Reason” relies on an innovative reading [Makkreel’s reading] of Kant’s Third Critique. But, once again, since this is not a softball review, I have no such constraints (or footnotes).

Notwithstanding Makkreel’s substantial contribution, he is the one who is responsible for throwing empathy “under the bus” in the context of Dilthey, denying an entire generation of scholars an appreciation of Dilthey’s highly empathic methods. Though, admittedly, Dilthey never uses the word “Einfühlung [empathy],” Dilthey is a preeminent historian and philosopher of empathy, and Kohut properly treats him that way. 

Curiously “Einfühlung [empathy in German]” is now an English word. German historians and self psychologists having translated “empathy” back into German as Empathie. Curious also the vicissitudes of translation: the process of translation itself becomes a metaphor for empathic relatedness. The point is that Kohut’s command of the intricacies of translations (from the German) is second to none and his clarifications are penetrating and incisive. 

Dilthey’s invocation of Nacherleben [vicarious experience] and Nachleben [vicariously experience life or vicarious life] capture the process of empathic receptivity while Dilthey’s commitment to Verstehen [(human) understanding] do the work of [cognitive] empathic understanding as opposed to causal explanation [erklären].  So much for Makkreel, who seems to have forgotten to read Max Scheler.

Kohut makes the case that our relationship to the past is a dynamic one, and the dynamo – the driver – of the dynamic is empathy. The historian brings his methods and requirements to the past, but the astute historian soon realizes that the past also has requirements of him. Under the skillful treatment of Kohut, history becomes a kind of psychological transitional object or selfobject, infused and imbued with the shared humanity that connects us across time as psychoanalytic transference calls forth the meaning of the past for the present. Though Kohut properly plays it close to the vest, I think we have more than a little of that here. 

Kohut provides many examples of empathic history writing including his own work with the history of the Weimar Republic, the Wannsee Conference of the Nazis as well as John Demos’s research on witches, being kidnapped and raised by native Americans, and more. In every case, the facts are the facts, the trends are the trends, the debates are the debates, but it is empathy that brings to life the moving and frequently shocking realities of futures past and past futures. 

By the way, Kohut makes good use of Reinhart Koselleck’s (1974) distinctions of the horizon of experience and horizon of expectations [of the past]. Tom also makes good use of the ground breaking work of his father, Heinz Kohut, MD, who I would describe as a towering practitioner of empathy and who put empathy on the map and in the psyche of entire generations of psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, humanists, and thinkers, but not historians – until now. It is often not easy to be the offspring of an individual who invents an entirely new discipline, Self Psychology in the case of Heinz. For example, consider the struggles of Freud’s children and grand children – but Tom Kohut seems to have done just fine, thank you, to his credit – and Heinz’s.

History writing sometimes lacks empathy or is ambivalent about its empathy. However, without rigorous and critical empathic practices, as endorsed by Kohut (Tom), history goes off the rails as an anachronism – attributing to the past distinctions and ideas (e.g., childhood) that did not exist and could not even be imagined by the peoples of past times. 

Likewise, the past had distinctions (e.g., witchcraft) that we do not have or, more precisely, do have without experiencing the distinction similarly, and we have distinctions that were unknown in the past. Historical peoples had distinctions that we now know only as an abstract concept empty of the influence and experience the distinction had for inhabitants of the past world. 

Empathy comes into its own as an essential method in accessing a world lit only by fire (to recall William Manchester’s empathically attuned title), in which demons and spirits were abroad in the land, impacting everyday life in ways we can hardly imagine. With Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past, the reader’s imagination – and empathy – are expanded in his stimulating engagement with the uses of empathy for historical understanding. 

References

Reinhart Koselleck. (1974). Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, tr, and intro., Keith Tribe. Columbia University Press, 2004.

Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery. London and New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis), 2015. 


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