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Please join us in celebrating Adam Sutcliffe's Professorship appointment.

Does the study of history promote empathy? If so, with whom? And how does this aspiration sit alongside other historical values such as balance or objectivity? Historians have long grappled with these questions, despite expressing them in different terms (the word ‘empathy’ is a twentieth-century coinage).

This lecture will explore the history of historical empathy from the eighteenth century to the present. David Hume, the leading Enlightenment theorist of ‘sympathy’ – the eighteenth-century term for morally improving fellow-feeling – vaunted this virtue as the key hallmark of civility. He contrasted this with the callous barbarism of religious ‘fanatics’, such as Puritans or Irish Catholics, with whom he had no sympathy whatsoever. Nineteenth-century historians often similarly contrasted the civilized fellow-feeling of the British with the supposedly heartless cruelty of their colonial subjects. In recent decades the cultivation of empathy has been widely invoked as a defence of historical study, especially in fields such as Holocaust education. Empathy has also, though, become a terrain of conflict between competing camps and causes, and in culture-war political disputes. Exploring the history of empathy in historical writing, this lecture will seek to show, usefully helps to disentangle our contemporary confusions over this idea.

The lecture will be followed by a drinks reception.

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Adam Sutcliffe joined the King’s History Department in 2005 as Lecturer in Early Modern European History, served as Head of Department from 2012 to 2016, and was promoted in 2018 to Professor of European History. His research interests range across the early modern and modern history of ideas, Jewish history, and the history and politics of historiogaphy and historical memory.

His most recent book, What Are Jews For? (Princeton University Press, 2020), traced the idea of Jewish world-historical purpose in both Jewish and non-Jewish thought from the seventeenth century to the present. In addition to his two single-authored books he is the co-editor of four volumes, most recently The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Modern World (CUP, 2018, with Jonathan Karp), and History, Memory, and Public Life: The Past in the Present (Routledge, 2018, with Simon Sleight and Anna Maerker).

Event details

The Great Hall
King's Building
Strand Campus, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS