Edith Stein: A first look & some leads

This is a premature account of my attempts to discover and understand Edith Stein. It includes (listed below) what I hope are fruitful leads (those I intend to follow-up myself).

It is impertinent of me to write this without (at the very least) having bought and read the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s short intellectual biography of the saint and philosopher, not least because his journey to and within Catholicism parallels Stein’s. What’s more, I have only glanced at her most obviously pertinent philosophical book, The Problem of Empathy, and know even less of her spiritual and theological writing.

However, writing these preparatory words cleared my head, and they may be useful to other newcomers to this martyr, hero and thinker – and the culture of her world.

Edith Stein was, philosophically speaking, a phenomenologist. It’s a small, influential modern (20th Century) tradition in what the Anglosphere calls Continental philosophy. It discusses what can be said about the phenomena we experience. So far as I understand, it differs from most such philosophy by not being a philosophy of mind, but rather an argument about what it is to be a creature which experiences the world, including other conscious beings. It’s associated with Husserl and Heidegger, and Stein was a student and colleague of both.

Stein is philosophically famous, if at all, for having posited a slightly different sort of phenomenology to that of Heidegger. I do not yet know whether her differences with him hinged on differences in their view of empathy, but I do know that discussion of empathy mattered to her.

Empathy is a major theme in modern (21st Century) discussion. It matters to phenomenology because the business of how we experience (and understand) other persons is obviously a ripe curiosity.

I think the essence of phenomenology is that it disputes the rationalist, computational, reductionist, empirical, view of experience. The Three A’s of philosophy (the schools of Austria, America and the Anglo-Saxon world) believe that the less mystery – or potential for metaphysics – there is, the better. Anglosphere academic philosophy sees people as complicated bits of kit who, or which, handle data. People are fragments of and elements within a biological world, of a chemical world, and a social world. Thinking about thinking is tough, and there are awful gaps in our understanding (what, for instance, is the machinery of consciousness?) but it is more important to leave the unanswerable unanswered than to start inventing handy fantasies to fill the voids.

As much (or as little) as we know of our own interior life, on what basis can we assume we know something of the interior lives of other people? The reductionist approach would be to say that it is safest to assume that it is quite a leap to say much about the interiority of other people. Best leave it alone, perhaps until neuroscience gives us better clues.

The relevant cliché here is Wittgenstein’s, “Wherefore you do not know, do not speak”, or whatever it was.

The point with Wittgenstein is not just that he was giddily exciting in the briskness and bleakness of his insistence that there was little to say and that most philosophical mistakes arose from attempting to say the unsayable. Actually it is plain that his own head and heart rattled with rather rich, ordinary, conflicted metaphysical, moral and even plain religious matters. He was at least sometimes a very sad and unsettled person, who sought distraction in morality tale Westerns. It might have been healthier for him and richer for us had he indulged himself in some philosophical impurity.

Certainly, there is something very attractive about his purist approach. It seems like the height of reasonableness. But suppose its very rationality led a follower of this creed to nervous breakdown or madness? I mean: suppose the craving for explanation is profound? Suppose also that the precautionary approach of thinking and saying nothing (for fear of talking nonsense) was intellectually cowardly as well as psychologically dangerous? Maybe the risk of talking nonsense is a necessary part of understanding ourselves.

Ah, say the reductionists (echoing the atheists) you just won’t see the beauty in the mystery of the science which builds our universe. It is plainly exciting to know what we know and to be deliciously respectful of what we do not know.

It happens that the phenomenologists were as much a part of an intellectual zeitgeist as were the logical positivists. Of the latter one might say that the excessive duplicities and ambiguities of fin de siecle Vienna energised a response amongst the go-ahead young: they sought dissonance and minimalism. Of the former, one might say that wider central Europe also spawned a desire for moral regeneration. Husserl, Heidegger and Stein were part of an attempt at rigorous philosophy of the person and personalisation, and it suited the thinking of advanced Roman Catholics of the day. Several phenomenologists were religious all along, others became so.

In short, as much as Wittgenstein denied metaphysical narratives (but loved movies) Edith Stein seems to have been drawn to the intense narrative power of Catholicism and could see it fitting her thinking about the person.

It does seem quite sensible to try to describe what having consciousness feels like. And then to hypothesise about what might explain our experience of experience

We know for a start that we very quickly and unconsciously grasp a great deal – we make workable sense of – a huge amount of data from the outside world. I think one vital question then becomes: is this extraordinary ability of ours going to turn out to be a matter of physics and chemistry and biology, or will there be some sort of ghost in the machine, as religions suppose? The phenomenologists were, of course, more tolerant of the ghost in the machine than the logical positivists of Vienna.

One might neutrally say that the ghost in the machine must be rather inefficient, granted how much we do not know or understand about other people.

It is possible that knowing the Other rather misses the point. One might say that we can guess enough about the Other to be more useful to him or her than most of us usually choose to be. Where we are deficient is in love – or at least in generalised agape. Even logical positivists might argue that knowing as little as we do is no argument, outside the philosophy seminar, against the need for love.

The two camps do not wholly exclude each other. One can have a mostly mechanical view of the universe but concede that there might be a role for an uninvolved God in setting up the machine; one can hold that God may have set up a universe in which he is everywhere, and tinkering daily.

Phenomenonologists and logical positivists could hold either view: their difference is about what it is possible to talk philosophically about, not what is actually going on.

Either way, and irrespective of whether I have characterised this debate well, it is clear that thinking about consciousness (our own and that of others) is fearfully difficult and interesting.

For my part, I can say that I am no good at philosophical discussion. The terse, vertiginous logical positivist kind makes me feel slightly sick and nightmarish; the dense, turgid phenomenological discussion of Stein and others seems boring and quite possibly silly (much as Wittgenstein would have said).

I find that, intellectually, I can flirt briefly and promiscuously with both Wittgenstein and Edith Stein. I can imagine that their views of the person might be quite similar, had they been chatting as friends in a cafe.

Both came from Jewish business families, though with rather different experiences of both Jewishness and business. Both were active and young in WW1 (he as an artilleryman, she as a nurse). His experience of Nazism was as a hospital worker in London helping to look after its victims; her experience was to be gassed in its death camps, killed, along with many other Catholic Jews, in retaliation for the Church’s support of Jews.

I suppose my point is that the lives and thoughts of these two people are powerfully interesting, very beautiful and moving. Both sought to live moral lives. Both seem valuable.

Some research leads
I have listed only leads which strike me as either essential or tantalising, and from sources which at first or second blush seem decently thoughtful or well-informed.

Pope John Paul II (a phenomenologist himself) on Stein


The Transposition Of Edith Stein: Her Contributions to Philosophy, Feminism and The Theology of the Body, John C. Wilhelmsson (Amazon reviewers  like this, and they are seldom wrong.)

Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics

Edith Stein’s critique of Martin Heidegger: background, reasons and scope, by Ripamonti, Lidia (2013)

Edith Stein: The Origin and Development of Her Thought, Alasdair MacIntyre
Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922 Paperback – 15 May 2007, Alasdair MacIntyre

New Advent: Neo-Platonism

New Advent: Plato

On Human Being: A Dispute between Edith Stein and Martin Heidegger, by Rafal Kazimierz Wilk (Project Muse)

A selection of Edith Stein writing

Lively blog on Phenomenology and Catholicism

Introduction to Max Scheler, a forerunner in Phenomenology

This may well be a good guide to ES’s spirituality, by a thoughtful academic, Dianne Marie Traflet

This usefully puts ES in the context of other intellectual women of her period and predicament, by Rachel Feldhay Brenner

Introduction: Empathy and Collective Intentionality—The Social Philosophy of Edith Stein, by Thomas Szanto, Dermot Moran

A useful review of Alasdair’s MacIntyre’s view of Stein
Alasdair MacIntyre and Edith Stein: Apophatic Theologians? by Adam A. J. DeVille

The Hidden Life of Wisdom, by Christopher O. Blum (Review of MacIntyre’s Edith Stein: A philosophical prologue

The Hidden Life of Wisdom

The circumstances behind the killing of ES, by Pablo Migone

The last months of ES and her companions, by Paul Hamans




Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Publication date

01 March 2018


Mind & body; On books