Author Archives: Walter Emerson

About Walter Emerson

I desire to be widely read, rarely recognized, and never followed. "Je désire être largement lu et rarement reconnu."

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.

Husserl’s claim that intuition precedes empirical science as a foundation for knowledge

Husserl’s claim that intuition comes before scientific empiricism as our foundation of knowledge is making more sense to me. It confused me at first. We tend to think that intuition is a subjective, “gut-feel,” and only through observational, empirical science can we determine what is real. Husserl would respond to that with “balderdash.”

It is intuitively and universally recognized that giraffes are taller than poodles. Without any prior knowledge, without any need to study the situation scientifically, we know with certainty that one is taller than the other. Looking at the two, no one asks, “I wonder which is taller? Can we do an experiment to see which is taller?” Empirical, data-driven science measures a nine foot giraffe and a one foot poodle. The determination is that the giraffe is taller than the poodle. But what’s a “taller than”? From where did that come?

Now, strip away the contingent individual instance of a giraffe and a poodle. Is it not true that any nine foot animal is taller than a one foot animal? Go further. Is it not true that any nine foot thing (animal, building, vehicle…etc.) is taller than a one foot thing? This foundational truth, universally true across any instantiation is what he calls “eidetic.” That a nine foot thing is taller than a one foot thing is an intuitively “eidetic” principle. It is objectively true, universally. Science must first be founded on the objective notion of “taller than” before its empiricism can determine which animal is “taller than” the other. Everything, including science, must be founded on intuition of eidetic principles to even function. Thus, intuition is the foundation of knowledge, not empirical science.

Note also that eidetic intuition completely contradicts the relativism of psychologism. The idea that giraffes are taller than poodles simply because societal and cultural norms have dictated it, and that it could be different under a different set of norms, is that same balderdash.

Husserl’s Logical Investigations were initially an attack on the relativity of psychologism, that truth is whatever we make it to be. Only later, in Ideas, did he develop it into a philosophical methodology called phenomenology.

Edith Stein’s reconciliation of Husserl and Aquinas

I’m making what in my mind is astonishing progress. I’m reading ‘Phenomenology Explained – From Experience to Insight’ by David Detmer. It is a superb summary of Edmund Husserl’s work. I am in his discussion of Husserl’s “time-consciousness.” Thus far this is the most elegant and integrative of Husserl’s philosophy (which really is a methodology).

He starts by pointing out that whereas Martin Heidegger formally is credited with editing this piece of Husserl’s influential Logical Investigations, actually it was Edith Stein who did the heavy lifting. The concept is difficult to refute. Husserl’s insight is that perception is not bound by linear time; when we perceive we are synthesizing the past – retention – and the future – protention – into a whole. Retention is not memory, and protention is not imagination. They are different.

But to the progress I am making, I now the see the profound connection to Stein’s main accomplishment, that of reconciling the medieval scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelianism and Husserl’s modern day Phenomenology. Stein takes Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’) potency and act and interprets it through the lens of Husserl’s time-consciousness. Does not “potency and act,” Aristotle’s big concept, have to do with time? Of course. Things move from potency to act only over time. But how does one understand the essence of coming from potency to act over time? Of what it really means? Of its objective truth? Of the point of it all?

Stein applies her insights stemming from editing Husserl’s works to the less elegant, somewhat clunky concept of Aristotle’s potency and act. Suddenly, potency and act becomes more elegant, more explainable, more intuitively real than Aristotle or Aquinas could ever accomplish. She loved Husserl’s work, and she loved Aquinas and his Aristotelianism. She married them.

I have noted this for some time. I never knew how to explain what she did until now. I think that if we would follow Stein’s insights, the world would be a much better place. This may all sound irrelevantly esoteric; however, through it we would better understand the world around us. And right now, it seems that few if any of us understand the world around us.

The importance of Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl is someone whose work we should all get to know. I came to his phenomenology through Edith Stein. He was her mentor and the father of modern phenomenology.

With the introduction of his Logical Investigations around 1900, Husserl gave birth to most of the significant philosophical movements of the 20th century, including Heidegger, Sartre, and Kierkegaard, in addition to Stein. The vast array of directions indicated by this group goes to my point of his significance. Heidegger was an unrepentant Nazis, Sartre was a communist atheist, Kierkegaard was whatever a Kierkegaard is, and Stein was a Carmelite mystic saint who now is one of a handful of patron saints of Europe.

The reason for such diverse movements is that his phenomenology has nothing to do with telling us what is true. It has to do with how we go about figuring out what is true. It is a methodology more than a true philosophy. Husserl was a mathematician and logician who turned to philosophy with the same scientific rigor. He knew objective truth existed. He knew that 2+2=4 with universal certainty. He also knew that we only can know 2+2=4 is universally true through subjective experiential intuition. Husserl made the case that the beginning of all knowledge is intuition, not empiricism, and that even mathematics and science depended on intuition for their foundations, i.e., intuition comes before empirical observation. He attacked the psychologism of relativity, and the latter has yet to fully recover over a hundred years later.

Phenomenology in general makes truth more accessible to our consciousness. It deals with how we construct our understanding of the world around us and helps us make logical inferences about how our lived experience correlates to what we know. It does not tell us what is true but how to think. What we do with the powerful weapon of thinking (lost in the modern world) is up to us. We can become a Nazis, a commie atheist, a Kierkegaard-y type thingy, or possibly even a saint.

As a side note, Husserl was persecuted as a Jew by the Nazis, and his writings were banned in Germany. Stein, as a Jew was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz, Heidegger ended up digging anti-tank ditches in the mud for the Nazis, and Sartre was celebrated at his death by a grand parade. Kierkegaard went to wherever a Kierkegaard goes.

Edith Stein as a giant figure in my own work

It was only about four or five years ago, I think. I knew who Edith Stein was and had read a little of her work but really had no concept at all of what she was about. It had something to do with Phenomenology, a branch of Philosophy that, candidly, I had never heard of. But she was a German philosopher, so I knew it had to be systematic and substantive. Stein worked alongside Martin Heidegger in assisting Edmund Husserl, the father of modern day Phenomenology.

I was at a stuck point in my own model. Troubled I drove to the shrine of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Darien IL. They have a bookstore behind the gift shop. After praying for guidance in the chapel, I walked in to the gift shop, around the counter, and straight back to the book store. The very moment I crossed the threshold, my eye caught a book directly across the room. It was positioned facing front rather than sideways where you only see the title on the binding.

I did not look at anything else. I was drawn immediately to this book. I picked it up, read the back, and said, “This is it.” I payed, and off I went.

Five years later, looking back on my model, I am dumbstruck at what a giant figure Stein has become in my work. Her shadow now seems to loom over almost every aspect. When I started with Stein, she was to be an auxiliary addition, a “nice touch” on a couple of essays. Her influence now is everywhere, in fact, it appears my model, which at the time I thought quite mature, was only a disassembled set of spiritual and philosophical concepts. Stein provided the “instructions” on how to assemble.

I started here, and this is the most influential of her books on me, along with Potency and Act. However, I would caution the potential reader to do a little background study on Phenomenology before diving in. I was confused by her use of words and terminology until I did so myself.

Phenomenology – The Basics (book recommendation for those interested in Edith Stein’s work)

“A proper philosophical exploration of reality does not consist in inventorying the content of the universe, but in accounting for the conditions that must be satisfied in order for something to count as real.”

~ Zahavi, Dan. Phenomenology: The Basics (p. 38). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in learning more about the philosophy of phenomenology. It is by far the most influential branch of philosophy for me after Platonism. Edith Stein was well known in the field. She studied and worked under the father of modern day phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. She was Husserl’s assistant alongside Martin Heidegger. After her conversion through reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Stein developed her own unique philosophy which blended Thomist Aristotelian medieval scholasticism with modern day phenomenology. The discovery of Stein’s philosophy was a watershed moment for me in the development of my own life philosophy model.

I jumped into Edith Stein’s writings with no warning. It was pretty foggy in there. But the more I studied Husserl and phenomenology in general, Stein’s use of words and phrases became more clear and the fog dissipated in the sunlight.

I’m only about 25% into this, but it promises to be a very good guide for anyone who wants to know more, and especially for those who want to know more about Edith Stein.

Edith Stein – Potency, Act, and The Logos

Edith Stein’s path thus far through the first thirty percent of Potency and Act can be modeled as following. This is a summary of and outline for the development of her thesis to this point. We must keep in mind that Edith was a Phenomenologist, mentored under Edmund Husserl, the father of modern Phenomenology. After her conversion to Catholicism, Edith set about the task of reconciling the philosophy of her teacher with that of the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, a mission for which we are most grateful. What a treasure we would would have lost had she felt the need to abandon her former way rather than make it her mission to reconcile it! The description and steps following are my own outline and serve as an attempt to create an ongoing summary of Edith Stein’s work.

The first step is deep and challenging. Stein begins by building her foundation on an ontology of “being” itself. This can be very difficult to wade through for those of us not trained in the field. However, despite our difficulties in understanding, we sense that she is leading us to safe ground if only we follow her “step by step,” a common phrase of hers. We will not digress into her ontology here. We do, however, begin to understand why she is doing this. How can we discuss “potency and act,” which presuppose being, if we do not establish what it means “to be” in the first place? Step by step. Her conclusion establishes the conceptual framework for “finite being” and “absolute (infinite) being,” and we soon will see the significance of this categorization.

In the second step, she builds on the aforementioned ontological foundation by integrating in to it the Aristotelian and Thomist concepts of potency and act. Now that we understand being, we can apply the necessary concepts related to “how we come to be.” Here she brings together beautifully the first and second steps. If there is absolute being, and if there is a “coming to be” of potency, act, new potency, new act, and so forth, then there must be something unchanging in time that “forms” that act and potency over time, that is, an “idea.” Otherwise potency and act have no real meaning; they are vacuous notions. In order to bring the finite into existence from the absolute, or infinite, as established in the first step, she introduces the necessity of “ideals” in the Platonic-Augustinian manner. How does the infinite create the finite but by ideals (Plato) which are in the mind of the absolute (Platonic Augustinian)? How does a purely simple, un-contingent, absolute – God – contain the almost infinite multiplicity of contingent ideals, a problem that plagued Plato? Stein resolves this in a brilliant display of intellectual cohesiveness:

“The feature of ideal objects that allows us to connect them to the divine being, is their timelessness, the eternalness of their being. It makes no sense to say that numbers, colors, sounds, geometrical shapes, emerge in time or are created, as heaven and earth, plants and animals and people emerge in time. Certainly, before the creation of the world “there could be” no colors and sounds “in the world.” But color as such and in its varieties in the spectrum, sound as such as well as the qualities of its various species, have a being that does not coincide with their “occurrence [ Vorkommen] in the world.” It was the case -indeed not in a purely formal, but in a material sense- that red was different from green and the pitch C was different from D before any note sounded and before any color shone in the world.”

~ Edith  Stein. Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) (Kindle Locations 1464-1469). Kindle Edition.

In the third step, Stein now grapples with an absolute – God – outside of which no form or idea can exist separately without rendering absolute act – God – to that of potentiality which is a contradiction in terms, and who contains and creates finite being from ideas that of themselves seem lifeless.

“At first glance an idea appears to be something lifeless, dead, and ineffective. By itself the idea of man cannot bring forth a man.”

Well and good, we might say, then how? Stein’s step by step approach leads her to the following conclusion. How does something “dead and ineffective” bring life but by a spirit which is “living”? 

In the fourth step, Stein demonstrates that matter is lifeless and spirit is living. We do not venture into that robust development here. 

“The original manner in which spirit exists [Existenz] is actuality and it is life.”

In the fifth step, she ties it all together by demonstrating through the opening of the Gospel of John, looking at it purely philosophically, that “dead and ineffective” ideas come to life only through a living spirit that is “actuality and life” (step four) and works with “intentionality.” Intentionality is introduced as an important factor, as we must accept as rational and logical that not all potency has to be actualized. Not all ideas have to be actualized in the finite world. The absolute, working “intentionally,” decides which ideas are to be actualized and which are not.

“It is indeed to be gathered from this Biblical passage so interpreted that the being of things in themselves -their real being, as we were saying- should be referred back to the being of their corresponding ideas in God. So this is an answer to our present question: how are we to understand the transition of things from nonbeing to being and the entry of ideas into matter’? Ideas are -on this view- archetypes of things and the things are their likenesses or copies. But the ideas owe the fact that they have the power to call their likenesses into existence and to form the matter into copies of themselves to their being in the Logos, who makes them alive [lebendig], hence effective as well.”

The malevolent deconstructionist metaphysics of the Progressive Left

I spent some time the other night reading the introduction to Plato’s Republic (free on Gutenberg.org – you have no excuse) followed by a bit of Church history. It resulted in a moment of clarity around something that has bothered me for years.

To set up the problem, I posit that the great divide in thought and worldview throughout the ages is that between Plato and Aristotle. This is the direct result of reading an outstanding book several years ago on the same topic. This divide is not a recent or modern phenomenon; it runs through the ages.

My Monarchism is a worldview that, like Plato, uses the manifestation of society’s organizational structure as a model for explaining the deeper, more transcendent, metaphysical concepts. That is why I define royalism as an orientation more spiritual in nature than socio-political. This method is straight out of Plato’s handbook. My Monarchism is Platonic while the American Republican system is, in my view, more Aristotelian, a view with benefits but one that I cannot embrace as a whole. I am Platonic and not Aristotelian.

I think a person’s first priority should be to figure out on which side of this divide they stand. One’s Platonic or Aristotelian orientation effects even one’s interpretation of the more important religious concepts. A Platonic Christian thinks differently than an Aristotelian Christian, which explains much of the free-for-all in modern Christian apologetics.

The problem, then, is that the ideological mortal enemy of Monarchism is the progressive Left, which is itself Platonic. When Rousseau was asked by the Polish to develop a communist model (which proved unsuccessful), it was grounded in Platonic philosophy. At the same time, the exact opposite ideology inherent in the French Monarchy was itself grounded in Platonic philosophy. France owned the Platonic ultra-realism of the day.

So, if progressive Leftism and the conservative, traditional Monarchy are both grounded in Platonic philosophy, how can we explain the difference? That question baffled me for years. I have decided now that it is this – the progressive Left is a deconstructionist Platonic philosophy, while the French Monarchy was grounded in an affirmative, Catholic constructionist Platonic philosophy.

The early Church, and up through the first one thousand years, was decidedly Platonic. Christianity was, in fact, the answer to the questions Plato raised. They go hand in hand, not because the Church tainted itself with pagan philosophy but, rather, because the Church was the very thing toward which Plato was pointing.

Plato is right. He also is dangerous in a spiritual vacuum. His philosophy needs a metaphysics grounded in truth to support it, one that he could not provide in the pre-Christian era. The danger comes when his philosophy falls into the hands of malevolent metaphysics. This is my assertion – that the progressive Left is filling the spiritual void in the modern era with a malevolent deconstructionist metaphysics; for, we have lost sight of the life affirming ultra-realism of old.

Christians need to re-establish our philosophical footing alongside our scriptural and doctrinal foundations if we are to be victorious.

Two pinnacle questions – Husserl and Edith Stein

There are two pinnacle questions that drove me to study both Edmund Husserl, the father of modern day phenomenology, and his student Edith Stein. It is analogous to walking around a piece of art in amazement, trying to understand what is its essence, or perhaps listening in awe to a pianist elevate and unveil an unseen but very beautiful and very real substance that exists above and beyond us. 

Edmund Husserl developed a model of thought that purposefully, deliberately excluded facts. He loved science but found science’s claim to be a pathway to truth as absurd and circular in its reasoning. His model is, in his mind, the science of all sciences and one without which natural science can never achieve its stated goal. Husserl’s model is one of pure consciousness and apriori reasoning. For Husserl, reason directs science, not the other way around. That was the first of my pinnacle questions. Why?

His student Edith Stein, a Jewish atheist, assisted him in the organization of his work. She was transfixed on Husserl’s work. One day she came across the book St. Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography, who was the founder of the Discalced Carmelite Order. There is reason to believe that Edith read it overnight in one sitting. When she finished the book, she closed it and said, “This is truth.” That was my second pinnacle question. Why?

Why did two well-recognized philosophers believe that truth could be found through pure essence, pure consciousness and reason, such that it could even direct the natural sciences, and why did one of them, Edith Stein, close St. Teresa’s book and posit, “This is truth”?

These are my two questions, the answers to which I seek. Stein later would give me a clue. There is something, she said, that consistently is there, unchanging, in the flow of our life, something higher and toward which we move in space in time, something toward which each artist, each person, strives. Ultimately, she would fulfill her phenomenological mission. She would discover that this something toward which we move, toward which we strive, that we seek to unveil, is a Trinity of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

Music and My Life Philosophy

Wanting to love music but not knowing how has been a lifelong struggle. Loving classical music seems daunting if one is not skilled or knowledgable about the subject. Yet, I do love it.

My regret always was that I felt I could go no further than my superficial emotions and sensory perceptions. I liked a particular piece because “it made me feel happy.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with liking music that makes one feel happy; however, I was searching for a much deeper and substantive connection. Perhaps I could engulf myself in the formal study of classical music? Alas, too daunting a task. 

Am I limited, however, to what I “know” about music? 

I have discovered a gateway to the world of substantive, essential love for music, including modern as well as classical genres. That gateway is not the one leading to formal academic knowledge but one journeying through my personal life philosophy. Looking at music across the panorama of my life project’s own syntax, order, and essence led me to the music matched for my soul. Rather, I would say that the actualization of my life philosophy was a call in the wilderness, a call heard by the music searching for me. Music came to find me, to rescue me, while I myself searched in vain through the dark forest for a music to love. Rather than conquering music, music conquered me! Music conquered me through the world of philosophy which itself seeks truth, beauty, and goodness through mathematical, ordered syntax. No wonder Plato’s school admitted none who did not know geometry. Philosophy and mathematics are inextricably linked, and the manifestation of that relationship is music. Music is the spiritual language emanating from philosophy and mathematical order. I love music and know that music loves me not because I “know” music but because I know myself.

Music conquers me. I do not conquer music. The moment I stopped trying to find music to love and simply allowed myself to be found by music that loves me, I found the “syntax” between myself and music.

What I have discovered is that more important than my love of music is my discovery that music loves me. I may not always know why I love a particular piece, but I always know when a piece loves me. That is the gift my life philosophy bequeathed to me – the gift of a mysterious but substantive relationship with music.

Composers and performing artists, I think, have no idea the extent to which they create these divine relationships for other people. They are guided by the hand of God as intercessory co-inspirateurs for the rest of us, even if they know not whom they inspire or how they connect. They compose and perform, while God connects their work with whom and through whom he designs.