Self-Transcendence Through relation

Varghese Maliakkal

  1. Introduction

The expression “self-transcendence” has become one of the basic expressions of philosophical anthropology. It indicates the capacity of human being to go beyond himself constantly in all that he thinks, wills, and all that he realizes. Some thinkers, mainly existentialists, gave a decisive importance to the concept of self-transcendence. They saw in transcendence the essence itself of the human being: an essence that consists effectively in being-outside-of self, existence projected constantly not to what it already is, not to the past and present, but towards the future possibilities. The being in which I in my finiteness am interweaved goes beyond me continually. It carries me continually beyond myself with the same continuity with which I decide of myself.1

In this context, I would like to present the concept of self-transcendence in Edith Stein in the back ground of the ontology of not-yet-being. The ontology of not-yet-being presents human being as a ‘project of existence. That is, man is able to realize his ontological potentialities and to carry out his vision of being through his activities directed towards self-realization. This kind of vision presupposes an ontology of human being as a something open and in the process of continuous becoming. We speak of “self-transcendence” in the anthropology of Stein because she presents the being of human person as a dynamic reality. Dynamism is not only the opposite of “stagnant” but also presupposes new types of being that can be attained. According to Stein “our own being is in continuous becoming and passing away, and as such always only on the way to true being”.2 Elsewhere in the same text she says: “the self recognizes in itself grades of reaching the fullness of being. […] By taking oneself to the possible grades that one can reach, up to the extreme limits of thinkable possibility, the self can reach the idea of a being which is all embracing and supreme in its intensity. From this it is clear that the continuing actuality of the self reveals grades with ascending character. This in turn gives the possibility of passing from an inferior grade to a higher grade”3.  Before considering the question of self-transcendence we have to discuss her ontology and the question of formation. This is because these two points which make the self-transcendence possible.

  1. Ontology of Stein

In order to understand how Stein was very particular about the idea of man as a project directed towards its full realization, first of all we have to take a look at her ontology. According to her ‘life can spring only from a hidden primordial source’4. This hidden primordial source is identified with the first being5. The name of this first or primordial being is ‘I AM HE WHO IS’, hence a being in person. It is he who created everything that is, especially man in his own image6. In the creation of man in the image of God a relationship of archetype and copy emerges7. God, the archetype, being a person is endowed with reason and free will. As copy of God the same reality is reflected in man,. That is why Stein defines human person as ‘conscious and free I’8. This explains the whole movement of becoming. According to Stein each living being bears within itself its essential determinateness as living form which tends to unfold itself in the life of the individual, a life which is the specific manner of its being9.

Once the basic idea ‘the unfolding of the individual being is based on its specific manner of being is evidenced, to speak about the becoming of man we have to understand the specific nature of man. It is temporality that shows the specific manner of being of human being. No passage from actual being to possible being is possible without temporality. This is because becoming is a passage from a now of the actual being, which in turn is a no-longer of the past, to the not-yet of the future. Thus a movement from actual being to possible being. In order to understand this transition we should study man from an anthropological perspective which is completely different from antropografy which is merely a description of human being as he is or zoo-anthropology in which man is studied just like any other animal from a natural point of view. In anthropology we study man as a spiritual person10.

About the nature of human being Stein says that ‘…he is a spiritual being who is consciously cognizant of himself and others and can act freely to develop himself and others. All these belongs to the human species, and what ever does not evidence this structure of being cannot be termed a human being11.

  1. Formation

Since human being has the capacity to become, to realize new possibilities, formation is an on-going life-long process. We cannot limit Steinian concept of formation just to the theoretical aspect of it. She had some particular vision about the formation of human individuals. Formation is important for the acquisition of new habits and values. But Stein approached the problem of education and formation, foreseeing a civilization of love and faith12. The contact with genuine faith in Jesus Christ can foster a new orientation for human life, a deep personal commitment which would be able to create a “culture of faith”. According to Stein each human being is called to be an “authentic” Christian13. All are called to be formed in the image of Christ, because God is revealed fully in Jesus Christ14. In education everybody should be trained to cooperate with grace and to bring forth the image of God in each in its fullness. Why Stein says all these is clear when we consider how an individual looks at the world, understands it, and responds to it. According to her “every individual who lives a spiritual life should have a world vision, many are not aware of it and only a few seriously involved in it”15. Everything that is truly absorbed into the depth of the soul educates and form the whole person16. Therefore, every contact with people, their example, their conduct, can have very strong effect upon formation. According to Stein ‘by our contacts with foreign members of the human race our own being is enriched and perfected17.

By presenting this outstanding insight of Stein our scope is to argue that through the idea of self-transcendence, she gives an inclusive, comprehensive and holistic idea of human being which can be presented in two main aspects: humanization of human being and divinization of human being. This is because a study of the Philosophical Anthropology of Edith Stein gives us the conviction that she was able to evaluate and understand human being from natural and supernatural points of view bringing home his nature and value. Thus she reaffirms his dignity, uniqueness and worth by placing him in the cosmic totality as corporal being and by extending him to the sphere of spiritual beings thanks to his spiritual nature. Being finite he is called to Eternity. In short, the human being envisaged by Stein is a being in relation: in relation to himself, to others, to the world around and finally to God.

  1. Humanization of human being: Intersubjectivity

This is a continuous process of self-transcendence achieved through various forms of relationships. The key idea in the humanization of human being is the enhancement of a person in his values and stance taking through various forms of relations. Stein explains these forms of relations as a process of refinement. These forms of relations are: relation to oneself, as self-knowledge, interpersonal relationship that unfolds between two persons in a I – you relation and web of relations that exists in numerous groups, communities and state. These forms of relations help an individual in the process of becoming. According to Stein, we can speak of various levels of the soul and various types of the profundity of lived-experience. Hence we can speak of various levels of luminosity in the self-knowledge. The clarity and dimness depend level on which the soul finds itself18.

Importance of the self-knowledge lies in the fact that self can be identified and formed. Knowing oneself has both theoretical and practical consequences. This is because Stein saw human being as an immense possibility that can be realized with proper care and formation. So self-knowledge means becoming aware of the possibilities. The nature and process of becoming depends on the self-knowledge.

Relational and dialogical aspects of human being forms one of the major themes in the contemporary philosophy. Stein too considered this important philosophical problem at length. Her first philosophical investigation itself was the analysis of empathy, a powerful means to understand other persons. Having established that a human subject is able to understand and comprehend another human subject through empathy, she undertakes the subtle analysis of the nature and characteristics of various forms of interpersonal relations. Thus in her writings we have the study of: empathy as a means to know the other, mass, society, people, community and state at large. Now let us try to understand how Stein comprehended these human realities as the expression of human spirit and how they contribute to the development and realization of human subjects. Our intention to carry out this investigation is not just limited to showing how interpersonal relationship is possible, but rather we concentrate more on showing how openness to others helps an individual to transcend oneself to a higher level of existence. 

Relation between community and the individual is clear by the mere fact that community is the natural and organic relation of the individuals. Without the reciprocal relationship of the individuals no community is possible19. Relationship, which is the underlying principle of community is positive and constructive not only to the community but it is so for individuals also. In her endeavour Stein depicts how the openness of the individual to the community becomes an opportunity for him to go beyond the petty world of ego-centred existence to the world of great ideals and values with the support and encouragement of others. This results in the enhancement of personality.

In the analysis of state the necessity of the solidarity and mutual relationship in the formation, integrity and life of the state are highlighted by the recalling of the Aristotelian concept of philia. Philia is to be understood as a relational mode of comportment wherein there is a genuine and universal bond permitting persons to dwell together in a suitable and well-ordered fashion. If we understand philia as the personal disposition of the self towards the other and the community of others, then philia becomes the condition of the possibility of any significant dialogue and personal interaction20. Her own personal experience justifies this. “It was suddenly crystal clear and evident to me: today my individual life has ceased, and all that I am belongs to the state. If I survive the war, then I will resume it (life) as newly granted to me21. These words of Stein are a perfect example how a person can feel himself one with the nation in which he lives and can dedicate selflessly himself for the service of the state.

The importance of the Steinian analysis of these relations consists not just in speaking about these relations or showing them as values to be made one’s own, but in showing them as integral and undeniable constitutive parts of the very human nature by digging deep into the structure of human being. All these different kinds of relations possible for the human person can help him for the full development of the personhood. While the absence of any relation build walls around the person by making him a windowless monad and blocks any further growth, relationship helps him to enlarge the horizon, to imbibe new values, which project him to more global outlook. It is here that we see the humanization of human being.

  1. Divinization of human being. God-man Relation

Stein does not limit her concept of self-transcendence in the of human being in the ego-centric or socio-centric dimensions only, she presents a theocentric transcendence too. To reach at a theocentric transcendence we need a metaphysical enquiry of the eternal truth. Each one finds in his interior the trace of something which is above himself and all that exist, and on which the existence of everything depend. Investigating this reality, which is God, is something pertaining to the very being of human person22. Had she not dealt with the religious experience the anthropology of Stein would have been incomplete. She would not have respected her project for a philosophical anthropology whose intend was to know the structure of human being. Her investigation does not limit in the analysis of faith and reason. She examines mainly three ways to know God: the way of reason, faith and mysticism. Though they have different characteristics they do not exclude each other, they are complementary. 

In her effort to know God she does not limit herself to the rational investigation alone, but considers supernatural ways too. Supernatural ways open one to knowledge of God which is not accessible to reason. Supernatural way can be divided into two, ordinary and extraordinary. Faith is the ordinary way of arriving at the supernatural knowledge of God. The extraordinary way of arriving at the supernatural knowledge of God consists in mystical experience23. We may also speak about beatific vision as a way to know God, even though it takes place after the terrestrial existence of a human person. All these ways lead one to a progressive understanding of God. While the natural light of reason reveals God through the created world, in the beatific vision one sees God as He is.

Stein develops a rational approach to God from two different perspectives with the characteristics of the Augustinian and Aristotelian ways24. Following Augustine she starts from the consciousness of our own individual, precarious and flowing being. In the analysis of this experience, she brings within the frame of the Aristotelian-Thomistic doctrine of potency and act.

From this certain knowledge of the ego Stein proceeds to a metaphysics of Eternal Being. For Stein, as in the case of Heidegger, our ego is temporal and reveals a dual aspect: that of being and that of not-being. Thus the ego is in constant change and becoming. What I am is a “now” between a “no longer” and a “not yet”. From this manifestation of the ego as a flow of being and not-being, as an entity in constant becoming, the idea of a pure being is revealed to us. In pure being there is no longer any admixture of not-being, nor any “no longer” and “not yet”. In short, pure being is not temporal but eternal25.

In the knowledge of God thus attained, God appears as a transcendental entity, a totally other, and as such escapes direct and immediate comprehension. Therefore we have to think about another more secure way through which we may reach a better understanding of God. Stein proposes faith as a means to understand God26. This is because; in faith God is “given” than “seized”. It is true that in faith, as it is the case of a spiritual being, there is life and movement, ascending into increasingly incomprehensible heights and descending into ever more mysterious depths, which gives understanding27.

While dealing with the use and source of life-power, Stein makes reference to a “resting in God”. She says that “there is a state of resting in God, of complete relaxation of all mental activity, in which you make no plans at all, reach no decision, much less take action, but rather leave everything that is future to the divine will, “consigning yourself entirely to fate”28. But much later she becomes more conscious of the possibility of mystical experience and takes it as a point of serious study through the study of the Spanish mystics Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila. In the experience of God one not only becomes aware of the great love of God but also acquires a more profound knowledge of God as love, as Trinity, as Communion and as Salvation29. Inhabitation of such a God in the proper soul becomes an experiential reality and it leads to a fundamental transformation of the person. Thus we can speak of the death of the “old man” through the dark night and the birth of a “new man” who lives in grace30. The “new man” has new vision of the reality, feels son/daughter of God, considers oneself as capable to be “one for all”, feels the obligation to accept, know and love the entire creation. This is seeing as God sees, willing as God wills, this is the result of union of will that come from union with God through love. It is here we see the divinization of human being. All these show the mystical experience helps the individual to transcend himself.


We have been trying to pinpoint how Stein shows the path of self-transcendence of human being through the implicit capacity to relate himself to others. Thus, in Stein human possibility to open himself becomes the means of self-transcendence. The consideration of these aspects is important due to various reasons. First of all these aspects are relational and they are unavoidable in the sense that relation to oneself makes one aware of his reality as an unfinished product and the new horizons to which he can grow. Relation to others similar to oneself helps one to go out of the prison of solitude and, appreciate and accept the greatness and values of others, and to form communities and states, where there is mutual acceptance and love. Relation to others makes one a social being and contributes to the cultural and political life. 

It is in the relation to the divine that one finds the real sense of his existence. This is because the being of a human person is null and void, it is not of itself, and by itself it is nothing. The being of a human person is a received being, given at every moment by an eternal and necessary being31. Relation to this eternal, divine being not only elevates human person to a higher and otherwise impossible realm but also provides meaning to his life. Human person proposed by Stein is a being who is fully aware from where does he come and to where does he go; as a being who knows well the greatness of his freedom and uses it for self-formation through freely chosen means; as one who knows his potentialities well and strives for the realization of them to reach at the apex of possible being; as a being who accepts the other as another I, and transcends himself by opening him to another, up to the extent of forming with him a community of love and sharing, and a state where supremacy of the state and individual freedom are respected; as a being who is able to enter into relation with God and enjoys heavenly bliss here on earth. Hence in the anthropology of Stein self-transcendence of the human being is holistic and integral. She includes the above mentioned egocentric, social oriented and theocentric views in the self-transcendence of human individual. This is realized through relation to oneself, to others and to God.

  1. Cf. Battista Mondin, Philosophical Anthropology. Man: An Impossible Project?, 198.
  2. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being: An Attempt at an Ascent To the Meaning of Being, 46.
  3. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 93.
  4. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 264.
  5. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 336.
  6. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 342.
  7. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 347.
  8. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 376.
  9. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 264.
  10. Edith Stein, Struttura della persona umana, 60.
  11. Edith Stein, Woman, 182.
  12. Cf. Freda Mary Oben, “Edith Stein as Educator,” Thought 65 (1990) : 117.
  13. Cf. Edith Stein, “Formare la Gioventù,” La Vita come Totalità (Roma: Città Nuova, 1999) 214.
  14. Cf. Edith Stein, “Verità e Chiarezza,” La Vita come Totalità, 41.
  15. Edith Stein, “Significato della Fenomenologia come Visione del Mondo,” La Ricerca della Verità: Dalla Fenomenologia alla Filosofia Cristiana, 91.
  16. Edith Stein, Woman, 212.
  17. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 510.
  18. Cf. Edith Stein, Introduzione alla Filosofia, 228.
  19. Cf. Edith Stein, Philosophy of Psychology and Humanities, 214.
  20. Cf. Antonio Calcagno, “Persona Politica: Unity and Difference in Edith Stein’s Political Philosophy,” 212.
  21. Edith Stein. “Letter to Roman Ingarden, Freiburg February 09, 1917,” Self Portrait in Letters 1916 –1942, 10.
  22. Edith Stein , Struttura della persona umana, 70.
  23. Cf. Edith Stein. “Ways to Know God,” Knowledge and Faith, 97.
  24. Cf. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 227; Ada Lamacchia. “Filosofia come ‘ricerca essenziale’ e senso dell’essere,” 328.
  25. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 37.
  26. Cf. Edith Stein, “Husserl’s Phenomenology and the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: Attempt at a Comparison,” Person in the World: Introduction to Philosophy of Edith Stein, 132.
  27. Cf. Edith Stein, Science of the Cross: A Study of St. John of the Cross, 82.
  28. Edith Stein, Philosophy of Psychology and Humanities, 84.
  29. Cf. Francisco Sancho Fermin, Una Espiritualidad para hoy según Edith Stein: 20 Temas de Estudio y Reflexión (Burgos: Monte Carmelo, 1998) 81.
  30. Cf. Marco Paolinelli, La Ragione Salvata: Sulla Filosofia Cristiana di Edith Stein, 244.
  31. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 55.

Joseph Varghese Maliakkal

Born at Thundathukadavu (Kerala, India). Member of the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD). Ordained Priest in 1993. Licenciate in Philosophical Anthropology Pontifical University Angelicum, Rome. Doctorate in Philosophy Lateran Pontifical University, Rome.  Professor of Philosophical Anthropology in Teresianum, Rome; History of Modern and Contemporary Philosophy in Pontifical University Urbaniana, Rome; History of Modern and Contemporary Philosophy in St. Joseph Philosophy College, India. At present President of Teresianum: Pontifical Faculty of Theology and Pontifical Institute of Spirituality. 

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

© Author and Centrum Dialogu i Modlitwy w Oświęcimiu.