Illustration of people at a city intersection
By Thomas Kohut Illustration by Diana Ejaita

The lessons of Reinhart Koselleck.

Many of us have been feeling unsettled in recent months. A framework that I use and that I teach my students to use to empathize with and understand people of the past might help us understand ourselves and our own state of bewilderment in the face of Covid-19.

Historian and philosopher Reinhart Koselleck developed two concepts applicable to historians’ use of empathy. In empathizing with past people, we seek to reconstruct what Koselleck called their “space of experience” and “horizon of expectation.” “Space of experience” characterizes the historical subjects’ past as it was alive in them. “Horizon of expectation” characterizes the historical subjects’ hopes, fears and sense of what will come in the future. Experience and expectation exist only in the moment and are constantly changing. Interplay between experience and expectation as they change over time produces change in history.

We can use space of experience and horizon of expectation to articulate and understand the pandemic’s traumatic impact on us. Given its unprecedented nature, we cannot integrate Covid-19 into our space of experience—nothing from our past has prepared us to understand this pandemic. Given our uncertainty about its future course, we also cannot integrate Covid-19 into our horizon of expectation. We may have hopes (for a vaccine) or fears (that lockdowns will never end), but we currently lack the ability to form realistic expectations about the future. That’s disquieting.

Koselleck would likely have understood why. He explained that the interplay between space of experience and horizon of expectation helps us make sense of the world and then, having made sense of it, to act in it. But in the time of Covid-19, we are cognitively and emotionally disoriented, unable to situate the virus in our sense of the past or the future. Unable to integrate Covid-19 into our experience or expectation, we are left feeling confused and adrift.

What’s more, this disorientation is not unique to us as individuals; it’s shared by the culture of which we are a part. Under normal circumstances, knowing that we are not alone alleviates our suffering. Here, however, the fact that everyone else is equally unable to integrate the virus into their experience or expectation actually increases our sense of personal disorientation.

With the passage of time, as the virus acquires a history and a trajectory for us, we may develop a space of experience and a horizon of expectation that includes Covid-19. For the moment, however, we feel helpless, not quite knowing what to think or what to do. Hopefully, we (and ultimately future historians) will be able to look back on this time and empathize with our plight, and how we experienced the days of Covid-19, when the virus passes into our personal and collective history.

Portrait of Tom Kohut
Thomas Kohut is the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Professor of History at Williams and the author, most recently, of Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (Routledge, 2020).