Edith Stein’s empathy as sharing noematic perception

Imagine that you and I both are looking at a breathtaking panorama – the sun rising over majestic snow-capped mountains reflecting off pristine lakes below with flowered meadows and a rushing river in the foreground. For you the experience is powerfully spiritual; so many concepts and experiences from your life merge into a single vision of faith, hope, and love. It transforms you. You simply stand and stare in contemplation. I’m next to you looking at the same landscape. My reaction is, “Wow, that sure is beautiful! You don’t see that every day!” I take a picture with my Iphone, upload it to Facebook, and that’s about it for me.

We are looking at the exact same thing. But you are experiencing a noema, a “meaning” through your experience. Sure, we have the same beautiful panorama before us; however, you see more. There is a “field” of related ideas, concepts, experiences, and beliefs that are the material making up that merging vision. The entirety of these not-immediately-apparent aspects is your “internal horizon” of perception. This totality of what you see, apparent (the vista) and not-apparent (the field of related ideas), is your perceptual “thematic field.” You see the panorama, but you see still more somewhere on the edges, behind, in front, and above. There are ideas and concepts all around it. I do not see the entirety of your thematic field. I see only the vista.

So, we see the same object. It is objectively real. However, we do not share the same “noematic perception” due to my “natural attitude” that is devoid of meaningful reflection and your thematic field. Another way to say it is that I do not empathize with you. To empathize is not simply to see the same thing as another or to share in their “feelings.” It is to share in the totality of their noematic thematic field of perception.

Edith Stein wrote her doctoral thesis on empathy. I have read the entire document. At the time she was a Jewish atheist. But it is clear to me how she gravitated toward Edmund Husserl and his development of modern-day phenomenology. As an atheist she was searching for truth and true experience. She began with empathy, and no doubt found the fulfillment of her thesis in Husserl’s work. Later, she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Jesus, put it down and said, “This is truth.” Today, Edith Stein is one of six patron saints of Europe.

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