Edith Stein: A tentative look & some leads

This is an account of my attempts to discover and understand the 20th Century Jewish philosopher of the person, and especially of empathy,  Edith Stein. It is important to note that she was – and is – also Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Stein was never the secular philosopher who switched to religion. I think philosophy and spirituality were co-mingled in her, as in many others. I find myself bouncing Stein and Wittgenstein off one another.

My piece appends what I hope are fruitful leads. I re-hashed this piece 01/01/23

A few years ago, belatedly, I read the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s short intellectual biography of the foundations of Edith Stein’s thought. It’s invaluable not least because his journey to and within Catholicism parallels hers but especially because he understands that her philosophical writings are alien in all sorts of way to an untutored English reader (that’s me, a chronic auto-didact). I have also at last read her doctoral thesis, The Problem of Empathy (1917), and much of her extraordinary memoir, Life In a Jewish Family. It covers the years 1891 to 1916 and was written in her convent before her martyrdom by the Nazis in 1942. I don’t yet know her theological writing (especially her work on John of the Cross) and am looking forward to it.

Edith could have handled Cambridge analytic, linguistic and logical philosophy (as I could not) but was a vital if minor star of its main competitor, “Continental” philosophy, and especially the Phenomenology strand. I hope you will bear in mind that I am a failed Cambridge University “mature student” philosophy undergraduate of the very early 1970s. I couldn’t get my 25 year-old brain round the Cambridge style of philosophy but came away (a year into a three-year course) as rather a snob about Continental Philosophy. My pre-existing love of Wittgenstein, but not my understanding of him, deepened by the Cam.

Edith Stein was at the heart of the Husserl and Heidegger phenomenological project. It’s a small, influential modern (20th Century) tradition. I am not sure whether it more discusses (a) what can be said about the phenomena – the objects – we experience, or (b) the phenomenon of our experience of them. I think the phenomenon they discuss is the extraordinary conjunction of (a) and (b). Anyway, so far as I understand, it differs from most epistemological philosophy by not being a philosophy of mind as understood in the Anglosphere.

For Stein-fanciers, it is fascinating that the young thinker focussed on a particular issue. Some phenomenologists argued that empathy was important to our knowledge of the world. They posited that we know there is an outside world and that we know it is real partly because others report it, and we know we are sentient persons surrounded by broadly similar sentient persons, and – somehow – we couldn’t all be wrong. I don’t see that this is more than a gussied-up commonsensical view, and wholly circular. After all, we have no way of proving that the perceptions of other persons are not as flaky as ours may be.

Crucially, Stein also knew well the thought of Theodor Lipps, who posited the importance of empathy but did not really define what it was. She decided to deal with that lacuna head-on and the result, On The Problem of Empathy, is her stand-out work. In our age which is obsessed with a rather vulgar view of empathy, she ought to be a big deal. Had she been neither female nor Jewish, she would have been so even in her own lifetime: either attribute would have been a severe impediment. Being both a Jewish and a Roman Catholic martyr, and a pioneer of feminism amongst teachers, her life became signal indeed. But still, her philosophical work is not taken very seriously. Indeed, my take-away from reading On the Problem of Empathy is that she makes a poor case for empathy as a human faculty, and seems to come close to acknowledging her failure to do so. And yet, it is the intensity and seriousness of her intellectual endeavour which marks her out as an extraordinary figure of mind, spirit and heart.

I can’t help feeling that in Phenomenology and not least in the admirable Stein there is a good deal of wish-fulfilment smuggled onto the page in questionable verbiage. It is the essence of phenomenology that it disputes the rationalist, reductionist, empirical, view of experience espoused by the Three A’s of philosophy (the schools of Austria, America and the Anglo-Saxon world). I am almost sure that Phenomenologists mostly believe (and signally can’t prove) that there is some purposeful connection between the human consciousness and the physical world our senses receive and interpret. I think the right word here is probably “immanence”. If so, this explains why so many Phenomenologists were in important degree religious and why intellectual Roman Catholics were drawn to the creed. (See the Pope John Paul connection, mentioned again and appended below.) I think the essence of this immanence is that religious persons can make – as Stein did – a philosophy of the person out of it. In particular, the universe is God-imbued, and we are God-programmed to perceive it.

If this sort of thing is going on, one could say that the Three-A’s school of philosophy is precisely designed to expose it as mumbo-jumbo. Readers of other pieces of mine will know that I am pretty sure that one can subtract God’s purpose from much of this thinking and still find it powerful. The connection between human consciousness and the universe is that they are formed of the same matter (or should that be, “the same physics and maths”?). God is a handy shorthand for the ineffable mystery behind the whole thing. When and how and out of what did it start? What came first, The Word – some dimension of Mind – or the Big Bang?

The Three A’s school of philosophers wants to think about thinking, but is very strict about what is allowed as a rational argument. The relevant cliché here is Wittgenstein’s, “Wherefore you do not know, do not speak”. The point with Wittgenstein is mostly 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.

The Phenomenologists sought to explain – once and for all – the “real” world and our perception of it. They failed and were incomprehensible and waffly as well. But the Three-A’s schools of philosophy did hardly better. Their work seems to be little more than picking over our use of language and the workings of logic, a necessary self-denying ordinance forced on them because they understand that utterance and reasoning are about all that’s left if speculation is banned.

Viennese logical positivists (leaders in the Three-A’s way of thinking) spawned the philosophy of the Viennese Wittgenstein, expatriated in England. They were, like him, in some sense the product of a cultural zeitgeist. It has been elegantly argued, often, that the excessive duplicities and ambiguities of fin-de-siècle Vienna energised a response amongst the go-ahead young: they sought dissonance and minimalism as an approximation to honesty in a world in which crustatious ornament obscured brutal decay.

Equally, but also contrariwise, the wider central Europe also spawned a 19th Century desire for moral regeneration – or moral construction, even if that risked faith, and speaking of whereof one cannot know. (Isn’t this very like the extraordinary revival of religious feeling and its linked social action in Britain in the 19th Century?) Many of Stein’s Phenomenological mentors and colleagues had been born or became devout and their rigorous philosophy of the person suited the thinking of advanced Roman Catholics of the day, including, a bit later, Pope John Paul II and President Mitterand. (They stood in some contrast to the conservative Catholicism of Stein’s predecessor as a Carmelite, Thérèse of Lisieux and her world.)

I like the thought that Stein and Wittgenstein are each true to their very different views of the discipline of philosophy. But both also transcend them. Partly, this is a biographical matter. We know a very great deal about the facts of their lives. Stein wrote a memoir of her upbringing and milieu which is amongst the most detailed accounts of any human life. From its pages I can report that Stein seems intense but not neurotic. One assumes she was introspective but there is little evidence of it. She is not one to indulge in whatever introspective anxieties and conflicts she felt. She was obviously very clever and diligent, loyal and noble. But she seems also something else – and this makes me feel what I admit is an almost silly fondness for her. Edith Stein is unflinching in her assessment of others and even of herself, but she is revealed as lacking any ironic sense at all. She is priggish, wholesome, dignified; almost but not quite proud. She has at least one period of intense suffering but does not dwell on it or describe it except very sketchily. I think she was widely admired, liked and loved (she certainly says she was), but does not self-obsess or indulge in self-love. She is meticulous in writing about her life (not least because she was asked to do it by a religious superior) and yet what we see is almost hilarious, and is certainly touching, in what she does not or more probably cannot say. She seems barely to know herself.  Oddly, she shows us how little we can know ourselves or others. So much for empathy. It would be vastly presumptuous and rather silly to say that one could ever know the essence of Stein, or indeed of anyone else. She presents herself – implicitly, not explicitly – as uncomplicated, and that can’t be true. But her very earnestness – the depth of her longing to be fully human and Godly – is beautiful and I find it heartening.

Isn’t there something very similar to be found in our admiration of Wittgenstein? His 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, a lofty, perplexing, genius who sought distraction – or maybe meaning – in morality tale Westerns. He could not have been a more powerfully influential thinker and even spiritual inspiration even if he had been more explicit or clear. He pokes us into thoughts and feelings that derive from his being so enigmatic.

It’s a fair to say that Wittgenstein’s approach is the polar opposite to Stein’s. He disdained to speculate, whilst she seems not always to know the difference between speculation and the paring-down which is philosophy. Certainly, there is something very attractive about Wittgenstein’s purist approach. It seems like the height of reasonableness. Not that his thinking is clear. His thoughts and writings have mystified and thrilled his readers about equally, and many of us are very grateful to him for that. Does it come to this? We value Wittgenstein because he refuses to confuse the business of finding a meaning in life with the philosophical mission of clarity of thought? We value Stein because she insists that one can push philosophy toward the great spiritual imponderables, and even if she was a weaker philosopher than plenty of others, very few writers can claim to have been so valuable to her fellow mortals.

In short, as much as Wittgenstein denied metaphysical narratives but loved movies, Edith Stein, never seeming to abandon Phenomenological speculation, was nonetheless deeply and latterly drawn above all to the narrative power of Catholicism. These are two versions of cleverness. The one will not risk philosophical nonsense, the other will not risk spiritual nihilism.

There is no real problem with empathy, unless we insist we can see inside other people’s heads. It is the impossibility of empathy which teaches us something important. One might reasonably and modestly 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. Either logical positivists or Phenomenologists might argue that knowing as little as we do is no argument, outside the philosophy seminar, against the need for love.

Even theologically, the two camps do not wholly exclude each other. One can have a mostly mechanical view of the universe but concede that there might have been a vital role for an uninvolved God in setting up the machine. Or one can hold that God may have set up a universe in which he is everywhere, and tinkering daily. Either way, we have to leave philosophy out of these matters of faith, which precisely is about the bits we can’t know. Even if we are imbued with faith, philosophy can only get to work if we take the faith bit of the argument as read and apply reason to what’s left.

Phenomenologists and logical positivists could hold any of these views, and then get on with the philosophy bit in which practitioners critique the intelligibility and even the knowability of whatever is under discussion.

Irrespective of whether I have characterised these debates 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 seems boring and quite possibly at least sometimes silly (much as Wittgenstein would have said, though Stein is clearer than most of her school).

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, or at least comprehensible to both of them, had they been chatting as friends in a cafe.

Both of these heroes were of Mitteleuropa. Both came from Jewish business families, though with powerfully 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 of it was to be gassed in a death camp, 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.

1 Pope John Paul II (a phenomenologist himself) on Stein
2 The Transposition Of Edith Stein, by John C. Wilhelmsson
3 Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
4 Edith Stein’s critique of Martin Heidegger, by Ripamonti, Lidia (2013)
5 Edith Stein: The Origin and Development of Her Thought, by Alasdair MacIntyre
6 A useful review of Alasdair’s MacIntyre’s view of Stein:
The Hidden Life of Wisdom, by Christopher O Blum
7 Introduction to Max Scheler, a forerunner in Phenomenology
8 Rachel Feldhay Brenner: Stein in the context of comparable women
9 Empathy and Collective Intentionality: The Social Philosophy of Edith Stein, by Thomas Szanto & Dermot Moran
10 Edith Stein and Companions: On the Way to Auschwitz, by Paul Hamans

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Publication date

01 March 2018


Mind & body; On books