The problem with empathy

Historical empathy terrifies teachers: you can’t do history without it, but it’s a risk. While it’s good to connect students to historical actors within the parameters of their personality and time period, what do you say when a student feels too deeply, or imagines an impossible version of the past?

Below, there’s a short essay I submitted as part of my History Learning Area studies within the Master of Teaching. In it, I summarise, synthesise and evaluate the work of three historians writing about historical empathy. In particular, I’m interested in the intersection between respect and anxiety in these chapters. If history teachers value empathy so much, why does it stress them out? By closely reading these scholarly works I hope to diagnose the problem with empathy.

empathy bear

Denis Shemilt opens his influential chapter on historical empathy with a metaphor borrowed from Epictetus: “like any beautiful woman, the theory of ‘empathic reconstruction’ excites the devotion of some and the censure of others,” he observes (p. 39). As we will see, such devotion and censure have only proliferated since Shemilt’s 1984 article. To this day, empathy remains one of the most contested elements of history education.

Even empathy’s definition is unclear. Is it an attitude, a mental faculty, a methodological procedure or an interpersonal skill? Shemilt doesn’t say, instead outlining three possible modes by which historians might interpret R. G. Collingwood’s dictum that “all history is the history of thought” (1946). In lieu of examples he offers archetypes – psyche-snatchers, time-travellers and necromancers – fantastical projections that have lent historical empathy a gothic resonance it has struggled to shake. But these characters are not invoked as models; instead, they are grotesques, sufficiently threatening to permit Shemilt to introduce rubrics by which the quality of historical empathy can be assessed.

Shemilt contends that, when encountering acts of historical empathy, “it is possible to advance criteria wherewith to arbitrate the merits of rival accounts” (p. 48). Coherence, consonance, efficiency and parsimony are proposed; later, four levels of empathy are outlined in detail, and include useful language for distinguishing recreation from reconstruction; empathetic analysis of perspective from empathetic reconstruction of period (pp. 77–78). Importantly, even in 1984, “genuine historical empathy” is defined by the use of historical evidence.

In a free gift to history teachers, twelve learning activities are described, ranging from on-site re-enactment to games and simulations. Sensing the approbation of historians, each of these is carefully inscribed with the language of evidence and reliability, again reinforcing the possibility of historical empathy as a cognitive activity. Or, to return to the metaphor of “our beautiful woman”: “to be more than a tawdry drab, she must be approached with more philosophy than poetry, more head than heart” (p. 79).

Stéphane Lévesque devotes a chapter of his seminal book Thinking Historically to the question of empathy, reviewing the concept’s own problematic history before finally declaring it “an achievement” (2008, p. 169). Much of his chapter is definitional, seeking “to clarify what historical empathy is (and is not)” within three fields, each vast in its own right: historical imagination, historical contextualization and moral judgment (p. 147). The chapter is bookended by anecdotes of students trying and failing to adequately perform historical empathy: one advises Primo Levi on how he should have escaped from Auschwitz; another explains the mass acceptance of Nazism by analogising Germany and supermarkets. However, following Levi himself, Lévesque tells these stories to support more rather than less deployment of historical empathy in the classroom, seeing it as essential to meaningful study of the past: “the only possible way to understand more about past actors is to mentally recreate – to imagine – what it was like to be in their position, even if historians may (and often do) lack some of the keys to the past” (p. 147).

The dissembling punctuation of that would-be declarative sentence is revealing. Even as Lévesque historicises anxiety about empathy, showing the ancient nature of debates about historical imagination, he goes on to perform his own version of that signature pedagogy of the historian: hand-wringing concern about the risk of – citing Collingwood but unconsciously sublimating Willy Wonka – “pure imagination.” After all, students must be “imaginative, but not imaginary”; the acknowledged “difficulty of mentally controlling the creativity of the historian” must be overcome (pp. 146–47). Tellingly, no scholarly examples are given to demonstrate the nature of this dangerous and “unmethodological” empathy. Instead, those monstrous archetypes inherited from Shemilt – the psyche-snatcher, necromancer, and time-traveller – are set up as straw men, and toppled.

Lévesque is strongest when describing rather than disclaiming. His three-fold definition of contextualization – the personal (inner), the sociocultural (outer), and the contemporary (present-day) – is both persuasive and useful. Likewise his willingness to tackle the fraught question of moral judgment and the “moral dimension” of historical empathy is commendable. In this long section, Lévesque proposes two criteria for judging the past: criticism of rational action and appraisal of common humanity. While this section takes a cerebral tone – “transcendent commonality between now and then” (p. 159) – it is followed by an eminently practical section on students and historical empathy, which includes concrete examples about how this key element of historical thinking can be “achieved” in the classroom.

Bruce A. VanSledright (2001) locates historical empathy within the same critical tradition as Lévesque – Ashby and Lee (1987) reading Shemilt; Shemilt reading Collingwood – but is more pessimistic than him or his intellectual forbears about the possibility of empathising with those in the past. For VanSledright, the highest of Ashby and Lee’s five levels of historical empathy is virtually unattainable, and none of Shemilt’s fantasy archetypes are achievable, let alone desirable. The reason is an inescapable presentism: we simply “have no place to stand outside our present bearings from which we could make sense of the past” (p. 58). VanSledright is serious enough to trace this assertion to its logical conclusion – the impossibility of historical empathy.

Like Lévesque, VanSledright opens his chapter with an anecdote in which someone fails to empathise. Lynn – “an articulate, white, middle-class prospective elementary teacher” –stumbles over her complicity in the dispossession of the Cherokee people, and is taken to task by the historian (p. 52). “She seems to feel for the Cherokee,” VanSledright smirks, evidently relishing her inability to achieve anything more historical than sadness (p. 53). This anecdote then fuels his two-step dismissal of Ashby and Lee and Shemilt, whose models of historical empathy are seen as insufficiently cognisant of presentism. “We can only approach the past from the standpoint and deportment of where we are now,” VanSledright explains (p. 63). Lynn can’t empathise – because noone can.

This dismissal of empathy is strategic, allowing the historian to shift the goalposts. For him, the aim of the historian should not be understanding others but understanding her/himself. Moving via contextualization to self-understanding, VanSledright vanishes the problem of presentism by making the investigation of our own perceptions one of history’s chief goals. After calling on his colleagues to replace “mere antiquarianism” with the rigorous examination of themselves, he builds to a polemical defence of history as psychoanalysis. “This pursuit demands that we understand ourselves more fully,” he declares: “I can think of few better warrants for teaching and learning history” (p. 66).

The problem of presentism is treated in all three accounts, with retrospective projections of contemporary mores seen as risky enough to undermine the whole project of historical empathy. But, despite the risk, no critic makes a case for dismissal: the only thing more dangerous than empathising badly is not empathising at all. Indeed, seen properly, presentism is the opposite of historical empathy, which Shemilt dubs “a prophylactic against tempero-centrism” (p. 44). Lévesque concurs, insisting that “contextualized prudential judgments” are worth students pursuing if – with the help of a teacher – the risk of presentism is overcome (p. 156). VanSledright approaches the same problem differently. For him, the inescapability of the here and now is the whole point, allowing history to do its proper work of elucidating the present. On this Lévesque joins him, to an extent, arguing that “contextualization could not be complete (or at least adequate) without thoughtful consideration of those who study the past – that is, ourselves” (p. 151).

But the real spectre haunting discussions of historical empathy is not presentism (or necromancy) but English. Over and over again, historians express concern at the true risk of empathising too much, or too badly: the dissolution of their subject. “Can it even claim the status of a discipline?” asks Shemilt, about a history that “begins and ends with lay common-sense” (p. 45). Tellingly, he compares low-quality historical empathy with fiction: “is erotic and rhapsodic prose as valuable as cold analysis, however immature?” (p. 66). The threat of history dissolving into literature likewise haunts the other accounts, with Lévesque insisting “it is important to recognise the limits and boundaries between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ (p. 164) while VanSledright is horrified by student work that responds to historical issues as if “observing the closing scenes of the latest incarnation of Shakespeare’s centuries-old Romeo and Juliet” (p. 54). If Lévesque feels the need to explain “a major difference between poetry and history” you know that the threat is not to historical empathy, but to history itself (p. 165).

Interdisciplinarity offers an obvious solution to this impasse, but is curiously absent from all three accounts. If historical empathy walks a fine line between history and English then secondary schools teachers are well placed to collaborate, with English fostering creativity and history “historical thinking.” Scholars like Kevin Kee and Nicki Darbyson are already devising projects in which virtual environments are used to promote historical thinking in interdisciplinary modes (2011). Students stand to benefit from more such dissolution of the arbitrary boundaries that disciplinary traditions provide.

But even on its own terms, subject history is strongest at its least anxious. The work of Shemilt, Lévesque and VanSledright comes into its own in sections describing pedagogical possibilities for the history classroom rather than policing its boundaries. As I have outlined, all three offer practical and high-quality techniques for engaging students in historical thinking, including the risky but rewarding act of historical empathy. For the history teacher, it’s these techniques and activities rather than subject-based anxiety that make these chapters worthwhile.


Ashby, R., & Lee, P. (1987). “Children’s Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History,” pp. 62–87 in C. Portal (ed.), The History Curriculum for Teachers. London: Falmer.

Collingwood, R. G. (1946). The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kee, K., & Darbyson, N. (2011). “Creating and Using Virtual Environments to Promote Historical Thinking,” in P. Clark (ed.), New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada. Vancouver: UBC.

Lévesque, S. (2008). Thinking Historically: Educating students for the twenty-first century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Shemilt, D. (1984). “Beauty and The Philosopher: Empathy in History and Classroom,” pp. 39–84 in A. Dickinson, P. Lee, and P. Rogers (eds.), Learning History. London: Heinemann.

VanSledright, B. A. (2001). “From Empathic Regard to Self-Understanding: Im/Positionality, Empathy, and Historical Contextualization,” pp. 51–68 in O. L. Davis Jr., E. A. Yeager and S. J. Foster (eds.), Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.


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