Mette Lebech

The Silesian Philosopher Edith Stein is best known for her philosophy of the person. Her engagement with the relationship between personal and social identity is often overlooked however, along with her refined phenomenology of the social world, resulting from this engagement. We shall in this paper first look at how her said engagement is rooted in her own experience of controversial social identity (as a German Jew in Silesia/Schlesien/Śląsk), and how it in turn forces us to understand her, beyond local boundaries, as a European philosopher (1). We shall then look at the European roots of her philosophy, in particular the traditions stemming from Husserl and Aquinas (2). Finally we shall attempt to show how her Christian Philosophy is founded on her phenomenological engagement with social identity, and may be seen an attempt to solve the problems arising from various forms of colliding nationalism (3). 

  1. Stein as a European

Growing up in Silesia marked Stein’s thought significantly. Although she saw herself as a Prussian, the changeable history of Silesia was nevertheless her background. After the First World War some members of her family moved from Polish speaking areas of east Silesia to Berlin, as these areas ceased to be German territory. Silesia has also been under Austrian rule (1526-1742) and it was earlier still Bohemian (1335-1526). In the early Middle Ages the country formed part of greater Moravia and Poland, under which it is for most of its extent again today. The shifting territorial boundaries drifting over the landscape like clouds made Stein realise, much earlier than most young people, that the state is a reality that is not essentially linked to a specific landscape or even to a specific people. Her being Jewish contributed, probably significantly, to this realisation, which she was able to write down after the observation of the impact of the First World War on the political landscape of her Heimat in her An Investigation concerning the State (1926). This work was written mostly in Wrocław in the years just after the end of the First World War and reflects the complicated conditions of her home country in such a manner as to facilitate the determination of the essence of the state. The possibilities of eidetic variation brought out by the seismic political changes during and after the war allowed her to understand the state as sovereignty. That the state is sovereign means that it can determine and uphold positive law in principle and in reality. When it cannot do that (as when it is taken over by another state or divided among states), it ceases to exist. The people, which perhaps constituted the community which allowed the state to come into existence in the first place, does not by this fact cease to exist, it has its own principle of constitution, determined among other things by a common culture, history  and language. The state can both foster and hinder the development of this community with the power that expresses its sovereignty. Towards the inside, the state subjects and organises its citizens under its law by means of its power in order to consolidate itself. Towards the outside, the state affirms its sovereignty among the other states and defends its territory. In so far as the defining characteristic of the state is its sovereignty, the state is neither good nor bad. It is sometimes good, as when it organises the human community in such a way that that human community can flourish and express itself though its life, art and culture. But it is sometimes bad, as when it sacrifices human life, destroys families and thwarts the creative unfolding of cultural life, in order to protect its sovereignty. It was possibly Stein’s understanding of the value-neutrality of the state that made her chose not to engage with politics as a career path, something she may have toyed with before the war. It may also have been this insight that made her ask for baptism, (An Investigation concerning the State is the last work written by Stein before her conversion), in so far as it forced her to realise that there had to be communities engaging at a deeper level than the state. It may also have been this insight that made her realise that her life’s work were to consist in education: in being human and in bringing out the human being in others, no matter their nationality or citizenship.

Understanding that the state provides no final destiny, Stein was free to be Silesian, German, Jewish, Polish, European, Christian and indeed human. She could be all these because she chose to identify on the type of the human being, subordinating all other types of collective identity to this one. It also opened her eyes to the possibility that a state, trying to consolidate itself as a nation state by a ‘final solution’, could disregard all collective identities other than the ones it took to form the basis of its social integration. Stein’s greatness as a European consists in the fact that she did not despair of human life or cease to contribute to the development and unfolding of the people to whom she belonged, be these Silesian, German, Jewish, Polish, European, Christian or simply human.

  1. The rootedness of Stein as a thinker in European philosophy

To live as a human being in a place, in a landscape and in a culture means to live with these in a constant exchange. It means to take root in these and to be marked by these. It also means to contribute to this place, this landscape, this culture. Stein became a European philosopher in precisely this sense: she stands in the European philosophical tradition, in the stream of European cultural life. She is penetrated by both of these and contributes something essential to both. This did not happen by accident: her precise descriptions of the spiritual participation in a community shows clearly that she regarded the reception, interpretation and creation of cultural objects, reading and writing, as participation in this cultural community. A spiritual community sources its energy and nourishes itself from such participation. Stein’s ‘method’ for such participation is also the ‘method’ of her life: it is thinking about, thinking through, thinking on, learning from those who went before about the matters they thought about – not staying at their thought, but looking through it to the things themselves, and judging it in the light of these things. It is to share life with the human beings around you. The influence of Dilthey on Stein’s phenomenology makes her specific kind of phenomenology seem particularly hermeneutical. Whenever Stein is doing phenomenology, she is in fact also doing hermeneutics, being aware, as she is, that all objects motivate by their value and are constituted fully (i.e. identified and understood) only when they are also constituted in their value. Constituting things in their value involves the person in its entirety, in the hermeneutic process which constitutes the spiritual breathing of the cultural community and of the individual person alike. Precisely this hermeneutic feature allows her to enter into thought structures that otherwise are of a different kind compared to phenomenology and even to modern philosophy. It allows her to follow thinking that has a very different point of departure compared to her own, to think it through and to continue it according to its own principles. This process is in fact the process we assist at, when reading her texts. The difficulty associated with reading Stein’s philosophy has, as far as I can see, to do with this style of interpretation, which remains very close to the texts themselves. Stein interprets those texts by thinking them through herself, she thinks that the texts with which she concerns herself in turn concerns something that has an intelligible form, which one must explore in order to understand its necessity and essence. When one has done that, one has understood not only the text, but also something essential about the structure of the world, and one has not fully understood the text until one has understood what the text is about. This is the ultimate goal of philosophy, according to Stein: the understanding of the world. The understanding of the world through a text cannot, however, happen without gaining awareness of one’s own standpoint, as will be later underlined by Gadamer and Ricoeur. This, to Stein, forms part of the structure of the world, in so far as the understanding of the structure of the world has a depth, so that some of this structure remains hidden for the superficial awareness, while other parts of this structure is revealed only to the soul living out of its own depths. Living in the cultural world and breathing its spirit according to one’s worldview and personality thus allows one to access depths in the soul that otherwise might remain hidden. Facilitating and assisting this process in others, with a view to bringing their humanity out fully is the goal of the educational process. Hence the need for an understanding of the human being that can carry this task: Stein is as interested in a proper philosophy enabling this task as in the task itself.

It is well known that Stein’s philosophy is particularly rooted in the thought of two other Europeans: in the thought of the twentieth century philosopher Edmund Husserl on the one hand, and in the philosophy of the thirteenth century philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas on the other hand. Behind these two stand many other European philosophers: behind Husserl stand in particular Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Brentano, behind Thomas in particular Aristotle, Plato, and Dionysius the Areopagite (who perhaps was Syrian, perhaps Byzantine). The Europe of Aquinas was moreover essentially determined from the outside, and thus it happens that his philosophy was formed under the influence of not only the Arabians Averroes and Avicenna, but also of the North African Augustine. Besides this broad spectre of European philosophers and philosophers that contributed to the development of European philosophy stand other European thinkers, like Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Scheler, Alexander Pfänder, Adolph Reinach, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Roman Ingarden, Martin Heidegger, Hans Lipps, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, thinkers who had a direct influence on Stein’s philosophy, by whom she was inspired or with whom she directly exchanged and discussed.

We shall concentrate on the main influences on Stein and examine her roots in the thoughts of Husserl and Aquinas to see the effect these two writers in particular had on her philosophy.

In Husserl it is the phenomenological project that so fascinates Stein that she moved from Breslau to Göttingen to participate in it and contribute to it. This project, to found the sciences anew, in order to bring clarity and concision where insecurity and confusion ruled, is one of the oldest European intellectual projects, taken up by Husserl in a new manner to overcome the tensions after the reformation and to reconcile the modern epistemological concerns with the classical project. For Stein this new manner was convincing, because it offered a point of departure in something that could not be doubted: experience as such. This point of departure in experience as such is the phenomenological starting point, as Husserl developed it from Descartes’ insights that in the experience of doubt the very certainty is hidden of the doubting self, the certainty of the existence of the experience of the doubting itself. With this experience of the experience that cannot be doubted the entire field of phenomenological investigation is opened: all that is experienced can as such also be investigated, and the precise and meticulous description remains within the sphere of the indubitable.

Stein appropriated this phenomenological programme early in her life, with the effect that she later could not or would not think without it. Therefore one must also say she has an understanding of the modern project, which made this program and this starting point necessary; the response to the sceptical challenge posed and provided by Modernity was a response to a challenge Stein understood as her own, and indeed as philosophy’s own, but it did not mean she could not or would not also investigate pre-modern projects for what they contributed in terms of insights into being. Before the modern project, very systematic attempts existed, but their methodology and their starting point, which amounts to the same thing, were less well thought through. To reconcile systems with one another – whether pre-modern or modern – and to evaluate them, a methodological starting point is necessary, as otherwise the fundamental concepts of such systematic attempts must remain dogmatic and unfounded. This is how and why Stein stuck to the phenomenological starting point.

Stein could learn from Neo-Kantianism, Idealism and Hegelianism with Husserl, because she relied on this starting point to test the epistemological foundations of the thought systems and concepts of these respective thinkers. Later she made aspects of Aquinas’, Aristotle’s and the Neo-Platonists’ thought her own, because she already had a methodological approach that allowed her to reflect on their fundamental concepts and to compare their foundations with other possible foundations and bring them into concert with each other. Although she expanded her philosophy in this manner, i.e. by substantiating the formal and material ontologies of her phenomenology by means of classical analyses, she did not fundamentally change her phenomenological starting point. In this resides Stein’s originality as a European philosopher: her contribution to a unification of the European philosophical project will probably be explored much more in the years ahead.

Her departure from Husserlian phenomenology, if one can speak about departure, happened already from the outset, with the emphasis on empathy being the indispensable foundation for an inter-subjective understanding of objectivity. With her analyses of empathy Stein obtained the possibility to understand and analyse the structure of the social world. As she did the latter in her Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities she established a basis from which to judge inter-subjective judging itself. In so far as judging only is possible as affirmation of being – according to an insight into the phenomenology of judging which she inherits from Reinach and Conrad-Martius –, these investigations of the social structure and the corresponding worldviews also yields a deep analysis of the social conditions for a possible ontology. As philosophy is impossible without judgement such an analysis is a good preparation for ontological investigations, such as Stein later will conduct. To deem something real can only the one who has tested all and taken all experiences of others into consideration as well. Even if that for us finite creatures perhaps is not completely possible, it is equally impossible to refrain from this claim to objectivity and still be doing philosophy. If thus a search for wisdom exists, then we also have to accept on the one hand that we in fact can learn something and on the other that what we can learn always can be revised and that it in a new context may appear completely different. To do ontology means for Stein always to be a learner among learners, an insight that marks in particular her later work. Precisely this insight, supported through her interest in mysticism, she learned originally from Husserlian phenomenology.

From Aquinas Stein learnt about the necessary openness to being in another way. That one cannot do philosophy without judging is here rooted in the Aristotelian analysis of essence: something is what it is, otherwise we could not speak about it. But precisely Aristotle’s understanding of essence is so linked with his criticism of Plato, that it isn’t immediately reconcilable with the phenomenological one. Therefore it has to come to a confrontation between two conceptions of beings and essence, something which occasions a radical critique of Aristotle. Stein criticises Aristotle for having a concept of essence that pursues two different and irreconcilable goals: on the one hand the essence should secure substance as fundamental, in its concretion and empirical observability. On the other hand it should also express a purely intelligible structure, not only independent of matter but also opposed to it. Then matter must, however, play two mutually exclusive roles: it must make that, which is, intelligible but in doing so it must remain itself in principle unintelligible. Here, however, we have a contradiction, as its characterisation as ‘making that, which is, intelligible’ already is intelligible and thus cannot be in principle unintelligible. Stein has an explanation for this contradiction and sees therefore also a way out it. She sees the Platonic idea of matter’s meaninglessness, which comes back, paradoxically, in Aristotle and in many forms throughout the history of philosophy – also in Thomas –, as expression of our fallen nature, which views the concrete world as opposition, instead of meeting it as God-given. In contrast, redeemed humanity does not see matter as unintelligible or as in principle meaningless. Stein thus asks for the meaning or intelligibility of matter, as it so successfully has been asked for in modern science and with so many technological achievements resulting. That this intelligibility seems best tamed by means of mathematics does not diminish it, it may just characterise it. That the question of the nature of matter has received partial answers in modern times does not mean, of course, that modern humanity has been redeemed by it – that should be clear from the goals to which the technological advances have been put – it does mean, however, that it is possible, and also productive, to regard matter as intelligible, and that this may well constitute a progress in understanding. And from this it follows that it is not meaningful to regard matter as meaningless.

If matter is considered intelligible, or at least as not in principle unintelligible, then the concept of essence does not need to serve two contradictory aims, but can be considered as admitting of grades, without the concrete essence having to approach unintelligibility. Then it is possible to have insight into the essence of the individual (according to Thomas this is only possible for angels and for God) and we can affirm what love has always affirmed, that human individuality as such is infinitely intelligible and discoverable and does not in principle withhold itself from our intellect (although we may never grasp it in its fullness). In this way other creatures and things can also be known in their individuality, there being no obstacle to this knowledge.

With a purified concept of essence another result of the fallen conception of matter as unintelligible falls away, namely the hierarchical model of the order of the world, originating in the polarity of act and potency with Dionysius the Areopagite and taken over by Thomas Aquinas as model for the analogia entis. The Neo-Platonic idea is dependent on the concept of matter’s unintelligibility in so far as it is precisely the unintelligibility that marks the potential as subordinated and as dependent on the actual. The analogia entis, as Stein sees it, is more complex in structure. To her it involves essentially different forms of being (nature, spirit and absolute being), standing in different relations and intelligible in their internal structure, so that for example also the being of essentialities and the transcendentals are accepted as having their own kind of eternal being. Stein’s analogia entis is more like biological classification than that of the Areopagite: there are degrees among beings and the different types of being, but these are not exclusively characterised through their degree of actuality. The different kinds of being do not form a simple ladder, they form a universe.

In her characteristic way Stein comes to complement or complete not only Husserl’s and Aquinas’ thought, but also the writings of the Areopagite, in her effort to interpret them, knowing the authors and texts ‘better than they do themselves’. To this end she (re?)writes a treatise on symbolic theology, which should have existed according to Dionysius. Her treatise, the ideas of which are brought together from the works of Dionysius which we do posses, and which thinks these ideas through according to their own principles, shows how the created world reflects and reveals God symbolically, and thus how the entire creation is praise and image of God. This song of praise of variety and manifoldness also belong to the understanding of the concept of analogia entis according to Stein, and thus to the understanding of her reception of Thomas Aquinas. The celebration of the infinite intelligibility of creation in its endless variety, reality and order resembles Aquinas’, except for its non reliance on a concept of matter to limit intelligibility. 

It remains that the most important that she learned from Thomas was that revelation can and must contribute something essential to philosophy, if philosophy want to remain faithful to its fundamental pursuit: to take account of everything, in order to work towards an understanding of the world.

  1. Stein’s turn to Christianity as a prolongation of her concerns with inter-subjectivity

We have already seen how Stein regarded the state as not only transient but also as value-neutral. Her understanding of community, is, in contrast, from her early phenomenological works onwards, that persons, by being value-valent, essentially are community relevant, i.e. not only capable of community and valuing it, but by their spiritual being immersed in it and essentially open to it. Thus community comes to share the very value of the person, because it results from its essence. In her final works Stein comes to see this as a reflection of God’s Trinitarian nature in the human being. In the intervening time, her reflection on the theme of community takes the form of reflection on education and education theory. Her main work in this area is her double work on philosophical anthropology, The Structure of the Human Person – What is the Human Being?, conceived as the foundation for a Catholic education theory, and thought out against the background of the incubation of the Third Reich. The Nazi ideology relied on national identity to implement its programme of a ‘final solution’ to its claim for sovereignty. Stein’s educational anthropology is a statement of the centrality and indispensability of the idea of the human person – to her national identity is but a possibility, and not necessarily one capable of a simple realisation, of the human person. To answer, finally, however, the question of the beginning and end of the human being, Stein concedes that recourse to revelation is indispensable, as no answer can be given to these questions by philosophy alone. This is how her Christian philosophy is inaugurated: by the idea that we cannot know who we are apart from the gaze of a God that is love. In this way Stein’s philosophy of the person and of community finds a foundation in a Christian philosophy having the Trinity as its centre, a Christian philosophy that comes to be as a result of the awareness of the transitoriness of the state and of other forms of associational social realities.

Mette Lebech 

is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth since 1998. She holds degrees in philosophy from the universities of Copenhagen, Louvain-la-neuve and Leuven. She has lectured and published widely on human dignity, friendship, various topics in bioethics and the philosophy of Edith Stein. Her most recent publications include On the Problem of Human Dignity. A Hermeneutical and Phenomenological Investigation, Köningshausen und Neumann, 2009, employs Stein’s phenomenology to explore the experiential necessity of the idea of human dignity. She is the founding President of the International Association for the Study of the Philosophy of Edith Stein (IASPES). Her current research interest is in phenomenological value theory. 

This lecture was held during the International Scientific Seminar “Edith Stein Connects” 8-10 June 2012 at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland.

© Author and Centrum Dialogu i Modlitwy w Oświęcimiu.