The idea that “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” has never convinced me. Explanation is not vindication; it’s often the opposite. Historical analysis does not always or even usually result in more sympathetic characters. And scholars who draw on ever more extensive archives to revisit the deeds and thoughts of the great and dead are more likely to be accused of vilification, these days, than of over-praise. Such accusations, to be sure, often allege that the scholars in question have failed to empathize and contextualize the figures they study. But when push comes to shove the “context” invoked is usually vague and transparently apologetic — “everyone was racist back then”. Empathy is mistaken for forgiveness, or at least forgetfulness. Such rhetoric aside, it has long been axiomatic to the practice of history that the person who has struggled with sources has a better basis for assessing context than one who merely bloviates about how it all was “back then”.
At the same time, I dislike the idea of history as a courtroom. So I can empathize, to a limited extent, with critics who attack what they see as prosecutorial exercises in scholarship. I don’t think proving that historical figure X “was a racist”, to take one common version of the critique, is a very interesting historical endeavour. But my empathy stops there, because I don’t know any practising historian who does. On the other hand, showing how person X’s racism (or ideological commitments, material concerns, religious beliefs, etc) informed his or her worldview, played out in his or her actions, or reflected or contributed to the events and processes in which he or she played a part, shaping a legacy we inherited — well, that is interesting. Explaining how and why things happened, what they meant, and what their consequences were is the core of the historical enterprise. And even if “everyone was racist” (perhaps especially if this were the case), that still doesn’t explain why they were, how their views shaped their world, and with what effects. It would make investigating the historical dimensions of racism not less important, as those who proclaim it intend, but vastly more so.
So I think that attacking professional historians for “indicting” past heroes involves a basic misreading of what both historical empathy and historical analysis are about. Often this is wilful, and sometimes it is disingenuous. To wave history away with the gnomic pronouncement that “everyone was racist” in order to move on to other things is to imply that the past is not your real concern. What offends is not the idea that your heroes were racist, but rather the idea that their racism was integral to their “heroism” — to their place in history, and thus to the words and deeds that you celebrate now. And this may seem to imply — though at this point we have left the realm of historical analysis — that you are complicit in their racism by honouring them with statues, holidays, flags, parks, streets, schools. In other words, it is not really a grounded objection to a mode of historical scholarship, to “academic history”, or to “theory”, but a cry of pain at what that scholarship implies for the present, and a howl of mourning for superannuated stories of the past. Empathy is invoked, but sympathy is sought.
But what about the historian’s empathy with the historical subject?
Of course, empathy is an essential part of historical thinking and research. To understand a figure’s motivations, to make sense of his or her words or actions, a historian must enter as far as possible into the subject’s head, occupy his or her situation, grasp his or her ideals, ambitions, attachments, and worldview. There is a vital sense in which thinking oneself into the past in this way means forgetting the present — leaving out of account, for purposes of interpretation, all that the subject could not have known, felt, believed, or expected. Moreover, spending several years with a subject — particularly if that subject is a person — inevitably leads to various kinds of identification with it. In part this is imposed from without: studying William Petty (1623-87) for my dissertation, I became the “Petty” guy at conferences or seminars; a rivalry might even (jokingly) be imagined between me and historians of Petty’s seventeenth-century foes. The same thing probably happens when a student of Hamilton meets a scholar of Aaron Burr.
But this identification quickly becomes more than just a convenient or amusing shorthand. To be the “Petty” guy as a graduate student, after all, is to be the “Petty” guy on the academic job market and in academic journals, too. And so, in a manner justified less obviously by the needs of historical method than by the mechanics and culture of academic hiring and publishing, the historian’s professional fate comes to be bound up with the subject’s stature and reputation. You now have a stake not simply in grasping your subject, that is, but in establishing and defending its significance, standing up for it — for what you have made of it — in a way that to the untrained eye can look partisan if not positively filial. Like people and their dogs, historians and their subjects sometimes grow to resemble each other; but people feed their dogs, while subjects feed their authors. The debt this incurs may be repaid in the shape of a career. Squint at a conference and you can see not the historians but their subjects — dressed in their authors’ words and girt with their authors’ theses — meeting and greeting their friends, shunning or badmouthing rivals.
Methodologically necessary, empathy bleeds. As you enter your subject’s head, your subject enters yours. Perhaps especially if you are working on your dissertation or first book, your subject’s vantage point becomes your principal window on the past, as well as on your own discipline. This is not to say that empathy implies sympathy or agreement in any ordinary sense. Grasping a subject’s views in their context and adopting them for purposes of interpretation does not mean validating them, even conditionally, much less justifying them in the present. In my experience, exploring fully the grounds and implications of past belief is more likely to clarify differences than to suggest similarities between then and now. (It may be that studying more sympathetic figures would change this, but I doubt it.) And I have yet to encounter a figure whose views were wholly and universally shared in his or her own time.
But if it is easy to see the boundary that separates historical empathy as a methodological strategy from positive agreement with a subject’s views, the line between taking up a subject’s position for the purpose of understanding a source, on one hand, and seeing the wider world of the past from that same vantage point, on the other, is much less clear. In this sense empathy — or, more precisely, the constrictions of worldview, logic, and knowledge that it demands and instills — bleeds less uncontrollably from the past into the present than from one investigation of the past into another, from one article to the next, and from the archive to the classroom. At what point do mental habits that crystallized around one subject distort another? Here, I think, is where the ends of empathy are hard to discern — in the sense of what matters in this strange past world, of what it is like, how it works, what needs exploring in it. These will owe much to the figure through whom you first entered, and who helped you gain the footing in both the past and the profession that you call, perhaps mistakenly, your own.