Review of Thomas A. Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (London and New York: Routledge, 2020), ISBN: 978-0-367-42578-4, 166 pages, paperback, $44.95.

Historian Tom Kohut has written an excellent introduction to the role played by empathy in understanding human beings in the past. Kohut is the son of psychoanalytic self-psychologist Heinz Kohut and is himself a leading historian and psychohistorian. He is the author of two significant works of psychohistory: Wilhelm II and the Germans: A Study in Leadership (1991) and A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century (2012), as well as “Psychohistory as History” in the American Historical Review (1986). While Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past mentions and discusses the views of a wide range of historians, philosophers, psychoanalysts, sociologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists, its erudite survey of historiographical thinking is a concise, clearly written, and accessible handbook for both practitioners and students of history. It can be

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read with profit by anyone with an interest in human beings past and present and features an excellent bibliography and index.

Kohut defines empathy as “vicarious introspection,” which in psychoanalysis is the process whereby “the analyst seeks to identify and understand the meaning of that feeling for the analysand based on what the analyst knows about the patient” (p. 98). Following Dominick LaCapra, Kohut’s book emphasizes a reciprocal cognitive and affective “relationship that exists between the historian and the past, particularly past people,” concluding that we “do not simply project ourselves onto them; they project themselves onto us” (p. 99). For Kohut, there is a categorical distinction to be made between sympathy, “a response coming from the position of the external observer” (p. 128), and empathy, “a response reflecting the position of the historical subject” (pp. 128-129). In prioritizing the historian’s understanding of past human beings rather than the events and ideas of the past, Kohut contests philosopher of history Hans Georg Gadamer’s insistence that historians cannot escape the horizon of their own time and place. For Gadamer, historical work consists of recasting past answers to questions “to produce new answers connected with the past but transcending it to become relevant in the present day” (p. 104).

Kohut does not attempt to provide a critique of historical reason. He notes that Wilhelm Dilthey attempted—and failed—to establish once and for all the distinction between the human sciences and the natural sciences. Dilthey first posited the idea that “objective knowledge in the human sciences was possible because we and the people we study are fundamentally similar psychologically” (p. 11). He later adopted the “more Hegelian notion that historical understanding was possible because the historian and the past both partake of some ill-defined ‘objective spirit,’ which he called ‘life philosophy’” (p. 11). Dilthey’s desire to establish the possibility of objective knowledge of the past led him, as Jürgen Habermas observed, into somewhat of a wilderness of epistemological circularity. Nevertheless, he was influential on such thinkers as Benedetto Croce and Georg Simmel, who stressed his idea of “‘inferences by analogy’” (p. 85).

Both the virtues and the limitations of Kohut’s study are evident in Chapter 4, “Three Examples of Empathy in Historical Understanding.” First, Kohut tackles the question of the reasons for the failure of democracy in Weimar Germany. Part of the standard explanation, Kohut writes, was the failure of the Social

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Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) to challenge the established conservative economic and political culture in Germany. The SPD was content to create a parliamentary political system that was unable to survive two major economic crises in the 1920s because an alliance of traditional authoritarian elements in Germany with the Nazis eventually brought the Weimar Republic down in 1933. Kohut argues that this standard explanation has been “made from the position of the outside observer who knows what the historical participants did not, namely the ultimate consequences of their actions” (p. 57). This interpretation, according to Kohut, ignores the fear of German socialist politicians that events in Germany would follow those in Russia, where civil war among the revolutionaries had led to the Bolshevik seizure of power; so for the sake of stability and order, “the majority Socialists could not afford to break the power of the forces of reaction” (p. 59). An empathic point of view, thought Kohut, would understand the world as the German socialists saw it at the time. One might argue, however, that such an understanding would not come purely from the process of empathy, but as much as or even more from the traditional historical concern with the relevant individual, institutional, and cultural contexts unmentioned in Kohut’s account.

Kohut’s other two examples concern the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust. Practicing what Holocaust historian David Cesarani once called “cold empathy,” Kohut asks us to imagine the feelings of the participants at the Wannsee Conference in early 1942. Kohut focuses on the discussion at the meeting of how to define the Jews who would be subject to extermination. The SS leadership wanted to define the doomed in the widest possible terms while the political leadership was worried, especially in the wake of some popular unhappiness with the regime’s killing of mental patients, about “popular unrest, even protest, if Jews connected to non-Jewish Germans were to be deported” (p. 63). Finally, in what we might call the application of “warm empathy,” Kohut asks us to consider both the uniformity and the multiplicity of the responses of Jewish Holocaust victims. Kohut concedes there are dangers in venturing too far “onto the thin ice of speculation” in the attempt at balancing determinism with contingency (p. 69). Still, in a nice—if brief—section on his struggles with countertransference when writing about young Germans in the Third Reich, Kohut displays a post-Freudian insistence on the usefulness of empathy ensuing from the very awareness of countertransference.

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Authors:

Geoffrey Cocks

Geoffrey Cocks, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of History at Albion College. He is the author of Psychotherapy in the Third Reich: The Göring Institute (1985, 1997), The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust (2004), and The State of Health: Illness in Nazi Germany (2012). He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Cocks, G. (2023). Kohut’s fine exploration of empathy. Review of the book Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past, by Thomas A. Kohut (2020). Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 381-384.

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