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Empathy and Historical Understanding

September 29, 2023 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm EDT


Empathy, for Kohut, always involves an awareness of difference, of the distinction between the empathizing self and the empathized other. Since empathy is decidedly not sympathy, we can and must—Dr. Kohut argues—empathize with people we find decidedly unsympathetic.

Dr. Kohut will demonstrate that history written from an empathic perspective, that is, from the perspective of the historical subject, is different from history written from the perspective of the observing historian. To illustrate this difference, he will consider the notorious Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, a key moment in the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe. He will conclude by emphasizing that historians and others seeking to know and understand human beings must be self-aware and self-reflective in their use of empathy, to constantly be aware of when they are empathizing and when they are not.

A historian with psychoanalytic training, Thomas Kohut is the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Professor of History at Williams College.  From 2000 to 2006, Kohut served as dean of the faculty at Williams.  He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Austen Riggs Center for nearly twenty years and is currently a member of the Council of Scholars which advises the Erikson Institute at Riggs.  Kohut is also president of the board of the Freud Foundation US, which supports the work of the Freud Museum in Vienna. Kohut is the author of three books, most recently, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past.  He has also published articles on a number of historical and psychological topics, including on the German humorist, Wilhelm Busch, on letters from German soldiers at the battle of Stalingrad, and on psychoanalysis and history.