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Empathy II May 2, 2006

Posted by The Truth in WARNING: Heavy Reading Ahead.
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WARNING: HEAVY READING AHEAD. May cause indigestion, migrane, heart palpitations, unhealthy philosophical reflection, mental instability, drowsiness (DO NOT DRIVE OR OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY) or tired dry eyes. But you’re a champion if you try to understand it.

Here begins, ladies and gentlemen, an attack on empathy by linguistical means. Through language (more specifically, nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, et cetera,) the world gains form and meaning – but word and world are two completely different things. Applying this to history, we should say that the past is a foreign country – how can we tell if the etymology of the words have evolved with the times? In fact, we only have to cross national boundaries to discover that people actually speak and think differently in other countries; this should make the abovementioned statement even more so plausible for you.

Collingwood has proposed that the discourses of the time (with whatever limited vocabulary our forefathers may have possessed) had to do with their desires and needs. Pure history, then, if there is such a term, should then be concerned purely with this question:

Why did these people need all these things?

Histeriography, then, should be concerned with the study of the implications of these needs and desires. (Philosophically and psychoanalytically, one would notice that they had to do a lot with a love of power: perhaps this is one thing the modern man can empathise with.) Either way, to know the Zeitgeist of the past, we'll have to get into historical artefacts and items, as well as cultural remnants, to know what drove the ancient civilisations. Sounds idealistic? It should be…perhaps a lot of ideology is incorporated into this idealism. It's paradoxical, that something as personal as ideology is used to deal with something as factual as history.

Much empathy is to be found in liberal ideology. How so? Let's look at John Stuart Mill's idea of liberalism.

Men are allowed to do whatever they want, as long as whatever they do does not curtail the freedom of others.

Of course, this probably implies an inordinate amount of empathy, because it would be demanded of one to put him/herself in the shoes of others, to imagine the emotional impact or ratifications of one's actions, in order to have a balanced, pragmatic viewpoint on one's options. Unfortunately, this rationalism and balancing has a side-effect: When we begin to empathise, especially with people in the past, to try to see things from their perspective, we (unfortunately) bring our modern arsenal of tools along – maybe they were never rational people, but we assume they were.

Hence, what have we seen? Education, idealism and ideology all contribute to empathy. Generally, it looks like this:

Education gives a base of knowledge about the specific discourse to be studied. However, in certain discourses like history or maybe philosophy or literature, this base of knowledge is skewed towards one end unconsciously. Hence, education here serves to skew the student of this particular discourse towards one end, generating bias without emphasizing on the need for an open mind.

Now, for pure idealists, they tend to apply whatever they've learned in an attempt to understand those who have lived in the past, maybe Pericles of Athens, or maybe Friedrich Schiller, or Shakespeare. Empathy, empathy. But there are some blanks which are filled in by their imagination…whatever logically fits should work here for these idealists. However, empiricists, who demand facts, have blasted this idealistic methodology. But, to make their accounts sound as plausible as possible, they have to do a certain amount of imagining as well. And you ought to know the risk of imagination by now: applying today's methods to yesterday's people…So…if our forefathers thought really strange thoughts, how are modern historians to even begin to empathise with them? How are we going to ensure that historians give historical figures 'the right human nature?'

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