Historical Empathy

Subjects such as history are examined via various processes, skills and concepts, which allow for both a broader and deeper understanding of people, places and situations.  The application of such concepts to historical information permits individuals to thinking critically.

[Image 1 - Stack of Books, n.d.)

What is Historical Empathy?

 In the historical context, the concept of empathy is much more than just seeing a person, idea or situation through the eyes of another, but rather is a much deeper understanding of the circumstances and concepts surrounding the event. Questioning how and why someone acted in a particular way would need to involve knowledge circumstances and an understanding of bias. Moreover, there would need to be an inquiry into the author of the text and an idea of the time and place in which the event occurred, while also considering changing social practices and ideals over time. Evidently, it is an empathetic understanding rather than just an emotional understanding; an individual must instead adopt a third person view where it is not what they personally would do in the situation, but what the individual in question did in relation to their own circumstances. Such positioning would encourage a more balanced, equitable view of history, which allows for a greater depth of understanding and insight into the content which is being discussed.

Barton and Levstik (2004, as cited in Brooks, 2008) defines historical empathy as being a ‘process of understanding people in the past by contextualizing their actions’. Moreover, Lee and Ashby (2001, as cited in Brooks, 2008) identify the concept to concern ‘where we get to when we know what past agents thought, what goals they may have been seeking, and how they saw their situation, and can connect all this with what they did’.

[Image  2 - Adolf Hitler, 2011]

Foster (1999) finds that historical empathy possesses six qualities:

  1. Historical empathy is a process that leads to an understanding and an explanation of why people in the past acted as they did
  2. It involves an appreciation of historical context and chronology in the evaluation of past events
  3. It is reliant upon a thorough analysis and evaluation of historical evidence
  4. It involves an appreciation of the consequences of actions perpetrated in the past
  5. It demands an intuitive sense of a bygone era and an implicit recognition that the past if different from the present.
  6. Requires a respect, appreciation and sensitivity in relation to complex human actions and achievements

Moreover, the concept of historical empathy can further be linked to other historical aspects:

  • Evidence (examining and interpreting evidence to come to a conclusion or investigate an empathetic point of view)
  •   Significance (consulting evidence to determine what is relevant to the investigation)
  • Continuity and change (knowing that socio-cultural practices change and evolve over time – where some things are acceptable in one time or place, this may not be the case for others)
  •  Cause and effect (what has impacted upon or caused the actions of an individual or occurrence of the event)
  •  Perspectives (recognition of the establishment, change and development of different views)
  • Contestability (of evidence)
(Hoepper, 2009)