Historians Need to Write and Teach with Empathy

Since empathy has many definitions, we first need to clarify its usage here. The following description is most apt: “[It] is a tool for understanding the way another person thinks, feels or perceives. It enables us to comprehend another’s mindset, driving emotions or outlook, without requiring us to share the other’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, or, indeed, approve of them. An empathic approach involves the assimilation of diverse information, including social, historical and psychological details, and a conscious effort to see the world through that person’s eyes.”

Note, what we are talking about here is not just attempting to feel as others do, but also to experience how they think. Empathy is a holistic concept encompassing not just the affective region but also the cognitive one…

Rather than “projecting one’s own feelings onto others” as Herf indicates but which historian Zachary Shore calls “the worst approach to empathy,” good empathizers attempt to do almost the reverse—experience the other’s feelings and thought process. In their approach to history, whether in research, writing, or in the classroom, historians need to empathize.  

by Walter G. Moss