Rethinking History : LUSENET : History & Theory of Psychology : One Thread

I have just finished reading Keith Jenkins' "classic text" 'RE-thinking History'. As a post-modernist Jenkins contests a number of historiographical norms which have been ingrained into me ever since I was a small school child. I am now doing my finals at University, and am studing a module of the same title. I am not trying to cheat by asking this question, I am merely after the opinions of people in the know.

Right, one of my main bones of contention in Jenkins' text is that he asserts that it is impossible for humans to be empathetic as there is no possible way that one person can get inside the head of another. His argument is that no-one can ever understand EXACTLY what another person thinks, as there is no way of sharing that persons EXACT thoughts or beliefs, as various social, cultural, economic, environmental (and so on) factors effect each individuals' perception/s of the world.

My question is this... is empathy really beyond the human psyche??

The reason I ask is because I disagree. For one, I believe that if Jenkins proves correct, then I have been wasting the past three years studying history because there is no possible way of reconstructing the past accurately. Secondly, as far as I am concerned (and this is using my own limited grasp of what I call 'pop-psychology') human beings have been more or less biologically identical for thousands of years, in that we have brains. We may not all possess identical brains, but we have an organ inside our head which is like a CPU on steroids. I also think/believe/guess that the vast majority of humans have base emotions or reactions to things. I seem to recall on some documentary I was shown at school that babies are aware that they should not open their mouth underwater, and that this is even true, even if the baby has never been submerged before. What I am getting at with this, is that if the human brain does have a set of base principles to it, then surely, to extent we are capable of empathy because we do share some common psychological characteristics.

Anyway, I hope someone can shed a bit of light on this. As I said, I'm an historian and I certainly don't pretend to be a psychologist. Incidently, I've never studied the history of psychology either.


-- Phil Marston (, May 25, 2004


The debate over the possibility of empathy is an old one in psychology, back at least to Theodor Lipps (1903) and the German term Einfuhlung, first coined by Robert Vischer (1872). Without being too cynical, my experience has been that those who want to argue for the impossibility of empathy start with with an impossibly strict definition and those who want to argue for its existence start with a loose defeinition (making it difficult to distinguish clearly from good old symapthy).

The theory that empathy is necessary for the study of history is not very well received these days. Although I have not read Jenkins' book, arguing for (a strong form of) postmodernism on the basis that true empathy with historical figures is not possible strikes me as knocking over a straw man. (1) Just because we can't "get into someone's head" doesn't mean there wasn't an objective "head" to "get into." That justifies postmodernism no more than noting that there are certain facts about the natural world that science has not yet "cracked." (2) We can learn lots about the past without "getting into people's heads." Indeed, a lot of history is not really about individuals (or their heads) but about the dynamics of socio-cultural groups, ideas, institutions, etc. which have no "heads" to "get into."

Certainly our common brain structure makes understanding certain aspects of past people's behavior easier, but brain structure is only a part of the story of how people act, react, feel, think, etc. All the things that you say above Jenkins' lists -- "social, cultural, economic, environmental (and so on) factors" -- play their part too. Do you *really* understand what it was like to believe, e.g., that there were gods on Mt. Olympus meddling in humans' affairs? Do you *really* understand what it was like to be haunted by the spectre of an early death by disease, to watch most of your relatives die before the age of 20, to have something like 1 in 4 women die in childbirth? How did they cope? Because you don't have to face it day in and day out, but only for as long as you care to read about it (and even then, only as a description, not as a concrete reality), you are never forced to develop the required coping mechanisms. Do you *really* understand what it was like to have the local parish priest be, far and away, the most knowledgable person of your acquaintance (and have his knowledge limited, more or less, to what was contained in the Latin Bible)? Do you *really* understand what it was like, e.g., to be an animist and think that all parts of the world are "alive" or even "divine" in some way? Do you understand *all* of the ramifications for this in day-to-day life? How does it change your view of, and tendency to, say, throw a stone, shape a stone into a tool, use fire to extract metal from stone, swim in a lake, catch and eat fish, watch and record the movements of the stars, etc. There are aspects of these belief systems that we can never fully "feel" in the same way as they did. That hardly makes history "a waste of time" (anymore than a failure of total empathy with our own contemporaries makes knowing them a waste of time). There is still lots to know. Knowledge is never total and never certain -- not in science and certainly not in history.

-- Christopher Green (, May 26, 2004.

You'll find a nice history of the term "empathy" at

-- Christopher Green (, May 26, 2004.

Hi Phil, I like Christopher's first response. I am optimistic about some empathy ability due to the similarity of human brains and survival advantage it would bring those that inherited the aptitude. You also might find it interesting to contrast typical healthy empathy ability with a more limited empathy ability characteristic of individuals with autism, Asperger's Syndrome, or certain other mental disorders. I hope this helps. Paul

-- Paul Kleinginna (, May 31, 2004.

Hey, thanks for the responses and sorry it's taken so long for me to acknowledge them. I've been revising like a crazy and this is the first opportunity I've had to post a response. I think I understand the points you have made, and I certainly intend to take them on board. From the various texts I've been reading, it would be naive for me to disregard anyone's point of view.

Thanks again,


-- Phil Marston (, May 31, 2004.

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