Edith Stein: A tentative look & some leads

This is an account of my attempts to discover and understand the 20th Century Jewish philosopher of empathy,  Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). It includes (listed below) what I hope are fruitful leads. I came across her as part of my work on the Carmelite order, in which she became a professed nun until the Nazis found and killed her.

I have at last read the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s short intellectual biography of Stein. It’s invaluable, not least because his journey to and within Catholicism parallels hers but especially because he understands that her pgilosophical writings are alien in all sorts of way to an untutored English reader. I have also at last read her doctoral thesis, The Problem of Empathy, and much of her extraordinary memoir, Life In a Jewish Family. I don’t yet know her theological writing and am looking forward to it.

I hope you will remember that I am a failed Cambridge University philosophy undergraduate of the very early 1970s. I couldn’t get my brain round analytic philosophy but came away as rather a snob about Continental Philosophy. My love of Wittgenstein, but not my understanding of him, deepened by the Cam. Edith could have handled the former and was a minor star of the latter. My love of Wittgenstein, but not my foggy understanding of him, deepened by the Cam.

Edith Stein was, philosophically speaking, a phenomenologist. It’s a small, influential modern (20th Century) tradition in what the Anglosphere calls Continental philosophy. I am not sure whether it more discusses what can be said about the phenomena – the objects – we experience, or what it is in us which does the experiencing. Anyway, so far as I understand, it differs from most epistemological philosophy by not being a philosophy of mind as understood in the Anglosphere. It had a particulatr issue: it one point it argued that empathy was important to our knowledge of the world. It posits that we know there is an outside world and we know it is real partly because others report it, and we know there are other sentient beings like us because, well, we are surrounded by persons. Phenomenology is associated with the big names of Husserl and Heidegger, and Stein was a student and colleague of both. But she also knew well the thought of Lipp, who posited the importance of empathy, but did not define what it was. She decided to deal with that lacuna head-on. 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. Had she not been both a Jewish and a Roman Catholic martyr, she might have been even less appreciated now than she was indeed in her own life, except amongst important cognoscenti.

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. Indeed, Stein took on the subject of empathy (asking for a start, what sort of thing it is), not least because her philosophical mentors insisted that our capacity for empathy, and the empathic abilities of others, are crucial to what we know about the world and ourselves.

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 in philosophy the less mystery – or potential for metaphysics – there is, the better. Anglosphere academic philosophy sees people as beings of thought and speech. Their view can now be over-simplified, but usefully, as being about the logarithms not the silicon chips of our beings.

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.

As different as they were, Wittgenstein and Stein were determined not to be side-tracked by science. Philosophy is thinking about thinking, it isn’t about the science of the physical machinery in which it happens. But Stein does not trouble herself with wondering whether there is some sort of reality out there, or whether we know something about it.  She takes it as obvious that we know there is a non-human reality, and that there are other conscious persons out there, and that those consciousnesses must in some sense be like ours. Indeed, she takes it from Lipp that we know there is a reality out there because its existence is constantly reported to us – its existence is substantiated – by other persons who are conscious roughly in the way we know ourselves to be. The problem of empathy, she seems rightly to say (I say, rightly, because this is the problem of empathy which is so intriguing to me), is this: just how much can we know about the interiority of others? I insist – though Stein does not – that one way of gauging our vast ignorance of the interiority of others is to be frank about just how ignorant we are about our own. But Stein is clear that we do not actually know all that much about the details of other people’s consciousness though I think she assumes we can be confident that it is rich and complex, like our own.

We do know quite a lot about Wittgenstein (if not, of course about his interiority): he came from a famous and much-discussed family, and was admired (and sometimes disparaged) by many famous observers of the philosophical scene. Of Stein we know a very great deal because she wrote a memoir of our own life and milieu which is amongst the most detailed accounts of any human life. It stands alongside others, not least those of Woolf or Sontag. I am halfway through its 500-odd pages, and thus about halfway through her life, and I can report that Stein seems intense but not neurotic, 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 shows us how little we can know ourselves or others. So much for empathy.

Actually it is plain that Wittgenstein’s 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 even richer for us had he indulged himself in some philosophical impurity.

I am almost sure that Wittgenstein’s approach is the polar opposite to that of the phenomenologists’. Wittgenstein disdained to speculate; Edith Stein seems not always to know the difference between speculation and the paring-down which is philosophy. Certainly, there is something very attractive about Wittgensetin’s purist approach. It seems like the height of reasonableness. His thoughts and writings have mystified and thrilled his readers about equally, and many of us are very grateful to him for that.

But suppose Wittgenstein’s very sparseness led a follower of this creed to nervous breakdown or madness? I mean: suppose the craving for explanation is profound and can be disciplined so as not to be merely whimsical or wilful? 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. Stein wanted to understand vastly difficult things, and seems to me to make a rather lovely stab at it. In their very different ways, Wittgenstein and Stein made extraordinary lives for themselves and there is not much point in wondering which was the greater intellectual.

The Viennese  logical positivists who spawned the philosophy of the Viennese Wittgenstein were, like him, in some sense of function of the cultural zeitgeist. It has been elegantly argued, often, that the excessive duplicities and ambiguities of fin de siecle Vienna energised a response amongst the go-ahead young: they sought dissonance and minimalism as an approximation to honesty in a world in which encrustatious ornament obscured brutal decay. Equally, the wider central Europe also spawned a desire for moral regeneration – or moral construction, even if that risked faith, and speaking of whereof one cannot know. Many of Stein’s mentors and colleagues had been born or became devout and their rigorous philosophy of the person and personalisation 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 Therese of Liseux and her world.)

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. These are mirror images of two versions of cleverness. The one will not risk talking nonsense, the other will not risk nihilism.

It is possible that knowing a lot or a little about 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.

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 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 at least sometimes 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 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 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

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’s 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

Archbishop de Jong: The Cost of Speaking Up

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

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Publication date

01 March 2018


Mind & body; On books