The humanities have much to teach our adversarial culture about empathy

by Alexander Bevilacqua Aeon Jan 15, 2019

Recently discovered prisoner writings on the wall of Lyon’s notorious Montluc prison from which résistant and historian Marc Bloch was taken and executed by the Nazis on the night of the 16 June 1944. A noted historian, Bloch wrote: ‘The task of the historian is understanding, not judging.’ Photo by Bony/AP/Rex.


As anyone on Twitter knows, public culture can be quick to attack, castigate, and condemn. In search of the moral high ground, we rarely grant each other the benefit of the doubt. In her Class Day remarks at Harvard’s 2018 graduation, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed the problem of this rush to judgment. In the face of what she called ‘a culture of “calling out”, a culture of outrage’, she asked students to ‘always remember context, and never disregard intent’. She could have been speaking as a historian.

History, as a discipline, turns away from two of the main ways of reading that have dominated the humanities for the past half-century. These methods have been productive, but perhaps they also bear some responsibility for today’s corrosive lack of generosity. The two approaches have different genealogies, but share a significant feature: at heart, they are adversarial.

One mode of reading, first described in 1965 by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur and known as ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’, aims to uncover the hidden meaning or agenda of a text. Whether inspired by Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche or Sigmund Freud, the reader interprets what happens on the surface as a symptom of something deeper and more dubious, from economic inequality to sexual anxiety. The reader’s task is to reject the face value of a work, and to plumb for a submerged truth.

A second form of interpretation, known as ‘deconstruction’, was developed in 1967 by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It aims to identify and reveal a text’s hidden contradictions – ambiguities and even aporias(unthinkable contradictions) that eluded the author. For example, Derrida detected a bias that favoured speech over writing in many influential philosophical texts of the Western tradition, from Plato to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The fact that written texts could privilege the immediacy and truth of speech was a paradox that revealed unarticulated metaphysical commitments at the heart of Western philosophy.

Both of these ways of reading pit reader against text. The reader’s goal becomes to uncover meanings or problems that the work does not explicitly express. In both cases, intelligence and moral probity are displayed at the expense of what’s been written. In the 20th century, these approaches empowered critics to detect and denounce the workings of power in all kinds of materials – not just the dreams that Freud interpreted, or the essays by Plato and Rousseau with which Derrida was most closely concerned.

They do, however, foster a prosecutorial attitude among academics and public intellectuals. As a colleague once told me: ‘I am always looking for the Freudian slip.’ He scours the writings of his peers to spot when they trip up and betray their problematic intellectual commitments. One poorly chosen phrase can sully an entire work.

Not surprisingly, these methods have fostered a rather paranoid atmosphere in modern academia. Mutual monitoring of lexical choices leads to anxiety, as an increasing number of words are placed on a ‘no fly’ list. One error is taken as the symptom of problematic thinking; it can spoil not just a whole book, but perhaps even the author’s entire oeuvre. This set of attitudes is not a world apart from the pile-ons that we witness on social media.

Does the lack of charity in public discourse – the quickness to judge, the aversion to context and intent – stem in part from what we might call the ‘adversarial’ humanities? These practices of interpretation are certainly on display in many classrooms, where students learn to exercise their moral and intellectual prowess by dismantling what they’ve read. For teachers, showing students how to take a text apart bestows authority; for students, learning to read like this can be electrifying.

Yet the study of history is different. History deals with the past – and the past is, as the British novelist L P Hartley wrote in 1953, ‘a foreign country’. By definition, historians deal with difference: with what is unlike the present, and with what rarely meets today’s moral standards.

The virtue of reading like a historian, then, is that critique or disavowal is not the primary goal. On the contrary, reading historically provides something more destabilising: it requires the historian to put her own values in parentheses.

The French medievalist Marc Bloch wrote that the task of the historian is understanding, not judging. Bloch, who fought in the French Resistance, was caught and turned over to the Gestapo. Poignantly, the manuscript of The Historian’s Craft, where he expressed this humane statement, was left unfinished: Bloch was executed by firing squad in June 1944.

As Bloch knew well, historical empathy involves reaching out across the chasm of time to understand people whose values and motivations are often utterly unlike our own. It means affording these people the gift of intellectual charity – that is, the best possible interpretation of what they said or believed. For example, a belief in magic can be rational on the basis of a period’s knowledge of nature. Yet acknowledging this demands more than just contextual, linguistic or philological skill. It requires empathy.

Aren’t a lot of psychological assumptions built into this model? The call for empathy might seem theoretically naive. Yet we judge people’s intentions all the time in our daily lives; we can’t function socially without making inferences about others’ motivations. Historians merely apply this approach to people who are dead. They invoke intentions not from a desire to attack, nor because they seek reasons to restrain a text’s range of meanings. Their questions about intentions stem, instead, from respect for the people whose actions and thoughts they’re trying to understand.

Reading like a historian, then, involves not just a theory of interpretation, but also a moral stance. It is an attempt to treat others generously, and to extend that generosity even to those who can’t be hic et nunc – here and now.

For many historians (as well as others in what we might call the ‘empathetic’ humanities, such as art history and literary history), empathy is a life practice. Living with the people of the past changes one’s relationship to the present. At our best, we begin to offer empathy not just to those who are distant, but to those who surround us, aiming in our daily life for ‘understanding, not judging’.

To be sure, it’s challenging to impart these lessons to students in their teens or early 20s, to whom the problems of the present seem especially urgent and compelling. The injunction to read more generously is pretty unfashionable. It can even be perceived as conservative: isn’t the past what’s holding us back, and shouldn’t we reject it? Isn’t it more useful to learn how to deconstruct a text, and to be on the lookout for latent, pernicious meanings?

Certainly, reading isn’t a zero-sum game. One can and should cultivate multiple modes of interpretation. Yet the nostrum that the humanities teach ‘critical thinking and reading skills’ obscures the profound differences in how adversarial and empathetic disciplines engage with written works – and how they teach us to respond to other human beings. If the empathetic humanities can make us more compassionate and more charitable – if they can encourage us to ‘always remember context, and never disregard intent’ – they afford something uniquely useful today.

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