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Edith Stein: Are We Really Alone?

April 9, AD2013 14 Comments


The first thing you must know about Edith Stein is that she is a Catholic saint who died a martyr’s death; you can learn more about the details of her life as a Christian here.

Today, however I would like to talk about her life during the period before she became a Christian, because I think we can see in these formative years the gentle voice of a loving God who used this young and brilliant woman as a messenger to convey insights that sorely need to be conveyed today.

Edith Stein was a rising star, a promising graduate student in philosophy in Europe during the First World War. She was a leading student of Edmund Husserl, founder of an influential school of philosophy known today as phenomenology. It is high praise indeed for a modern philosopher as esteemed as Alasdair MacIntyre to have recently characterized Edith’s doctoral dissertation as “a work of some philosophical importance…because of the questions that she raises.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922, 2006, Sheed & Ward, p. 75).

The questions that preoccupied Edith Stein were inspired partly by the unsolved problems of Husserl’s phenomenology, but also by the personal experiences that came to shape her life. As a graduate student in philosophy in 1915, she had just passed her preliminary exams; all that remained was to pass a Greek exam. For some reason she seemed determined to avoid that last one, because even as she studied for it, she simultaneously inquired at the Red Cross, asking to serve as a Nurse Aid at the military hospital. Her request was accepted; she began providing direct medical care for soldiers who were wounded in battle. She came to work in the post-operative unit, where she witnessed pain, grief, and vulnerability that many of us will never witness in our lives. This changed her. She wrote of this experience in a letter, “I realize now that my life is no longer my own.”

After a year of service in the Red Cross she was finally ready to write her doctoral dissertation. Thankfully, Husserl’s wife was instrumental in getting the professor to read her paper in a timely fashion. Graduate students will appreciate that. In her paper, entitled On the Problem of Empathy, Edith Stein confronted a question that I would paraphrase as follows: Are we prisoners in private little cells, unable to communicate with one another, or can we truly know the experience of other people, can we truly know how they feel directly, can we realize spiritual solidarity with others?

The dominant mode of thought in the 20th century would answer that question with a measured “no.” The influential philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that one could never truly know things or persons in themselves. At best one could know one’s inner experience of the phenomena, the colors, sounds, touch, but never the thing itself. This style of reasoning is still very influential. It implies that we are indeed prisoners who can’t ever know for certain that there are souls behind the masks we see in the form of human faces.

As a nurse, Edith Stein learned that we can know the inner experience of others directly. In her dissertation, based off this experience, she constructed a compelling response to modern skepticism.

She argued that our knowledge of someone else’s pain is direct knowledge; it does not come from rational argumentation or inference, for this could not be trustworthy knowledge. We know they have a mind like ours because we know that we think, feel, decide, suffer, rejoice, etc. We recognize that the other person has such experiences as well because our ego is in some sense interchangeable with theirs.

She explained it this way: the object of our awareness at first is awareness of a “foreign” consciousness that “appears” to be in pain. But if we allow the experience to unfold in its fullness, we find ourselves cognitively taking the place of the other person, in a sense “remembering” or “recognizing” their pain as if it were a memory in our own personal experience. We can achieve intimate knowledge of others.

Keeping in mind that Edith Stein presumably had no familiarity at that time with the dogma of the Holy Trinity, does it startle you to notice that she is here talking about personal reciprocity and interchangeability, ideas which are used in theology to characterize the mutual self-giving and reciprocity of the persons of the Holy Trinity?

This is very sound philosophy. Pope John Paul the Great treasured Stein’s philosophical contributions. Recognizing the reality of a person as opposed to a mere human organism is as fundamental as recognizing the reality of being.

Some might ask: Isn’t this just a philosopher’s game? What’s so important about whether or not we know the other person has a mind and feelings like us?

It becomes more than a game once the skeptic over-reaches his or her scholarly boundaries and enters the ethical or moral realm: you can’t prove it’s a person.

Edith Stein understood that once we cede the reality of personhood to the language of inference and mere probable reason, we lose the argument. Determining whether there is really a person there in the room with us is not an inferential question. It is as self-evident as the reality of our own personhood. Indeed, we are intrinsically part of other people’s lives and they are part of ours. The true moral imperative is not to obsess on whether or not one can prove that other people have feelings. The lesson she teaches is that we have the capacity to recognize the vulnerability of ourselves and others and to encounter the real person. It is not acceptable to hide behind philosophical doubt. We must love. In the words of Pope John Paul the Great: Be not afraid!

© 2013. Jeff McLeod. All Rights Reserved.

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About the Author:

Jeff McLeod holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He works as a data scientist, researcher, statistician, psychometrician, and software developer. His passion is to express the tenets of Catholicism without compromise, faithful to the magisterium, in confident dialog with the modern world. In his spare time he is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and teaches at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute in St. Paul. He and his lovely Catholic convert wife have been married for 25 years and share their home with two exceedingly accomplished children.

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