Category Archives: Edith Stein General

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.”

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.

My Edith Stein Blog

My Edith Stein blog, newly emerging and not at all in full maturity, i.e., it will develop more over time, is devoted to inspiring in others a love of philosophy.

I believe that it is your responsibility to be actively and purposefully in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. This goes for everyone. Without exception. In particular, this goes for those of us who profess to be Christians. Philosophy deals with natural wisdom, a wisdom alone which cannot bring us to Heaven. However, in order to “accept Christ” in the most full manner, we must be open to his divine wisdom, which is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That means it is really, really important. Our natural philosophy is the event horizon between the natural and supernatural.

Does this mean being smart? Does this mean that only smart, well-educated people can open themselves up to divine wisdom through the expansion of their natural philosophical understanding? Please. That is painfully naive. We need a better grounding than that.

Many of the greatest saints in history were among the least educated. Yet, their minds were open to receiving divine wisdom. Their event horizon between natural and supernatural thought was well developed, and that is what we are describing as the true philosophical mind. I learned philosophy through a 15th century teenage peasant woman with no education. Her philosophical event horizon was second to none. During her trial, she humiliated the philosophy “experts” from the university of Paris by giving them such wise responses that they knew not how to deal with her. Even the notaries recording the events were dumfounded as we know by their own remarks. True to scripture, the Holy Spirit will guide us in what we need to say, and we can be more open to that divine inspiration with the correct natural philosophical framework.

As Christians, we have responsibilities in the natural world. One cannot excuse being a negligent, lazy husband and father just because he is a Christian. His Christian faith bears down upon him a supernatural responsibility to be a caring, responsible husband and father in the natural realm. Philosophy is one of those responsibilities in the natural realm we all carry.

Most people can explain what they believe, but few can explain why. However, that is only representative of a dearth in critical thinking. The real test is if you can explain what you believe and why without referencing your Christian faith. That is philosophical thinking. The final test is if you can bring together the two and find that they complement and nurture one another. When they do, we have our event horizon well prepared.

Edith Stein, Empathy, and Goodwill

The attached PDF is to a very interesting paper by Kit Apostolacus, a graduate student at Villanova. This is from a public domain academic site. These papers are free by subscribing.

A Hermeneutic of Empathy: On Edith Stein in Relation to Hermeneutical Theology

What caught my attention was Apostolacus’ identification of something I’ve been searching for, namely, a way to express goodwill. We talk and hear much of our “freewill.” But my own work is leading me to the conclusion that what we are missing is more discussion and understanding of “goodwill.” No matter where I turn in my own efforts, I seem to come face to face with the problem of goodwill (more than freewill).

Apostolacus relates:

“a person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something.”

That seems to me to be a very helpful foundation upon which to integrate goodwill formerly into the model. We must desire to understand before we can be prepared to receive that which the other offers. The desire to receive is the first step in goodwill. This predisposes us to empathy with the “otherness” facing us. Apostolacus continues: “As Stein might say, we must empathize with the text.”

Desire to receive combined with empathy for the other – now I think I am moving this forward to a definition of goodwill I can integrate with the larger model.

The beautiful mind of Edith Stein

In her book The Science of the Cross, Edith Stein wrote the following extraordinary summary of the spiritual life. Edith’s influence on my own thinking is more profound than is the influence of any other philosopher. It was this passage that opened the intellectual door for me to realism in general, the difference between Platonic and Aristotelian realism, and the beauty of Carmelite spirituality when framed in what she calls a “holy realism.” Edith Stein bridged the gaps and unified the individual paradigms and axioms that made up the content of my spirituality, religion, and philosophy. Through Stein’s beautiful and expansive mind, it all became a unified whole, a model to share with others and the inspiration for my next movement from potency to act toward the final vision implanted in my heart many years ago.  

“The example of the saints demonstrates to them how things should actually be: where there is genuine, lively faith, there the doctrine of faith and the ‘tremendous deeds’ of God are the content of life. All else steps aside for it and is determined by it.

This is holy realism: the original inner receptivity of the soul reborn in the Holy Spirit. Whatever the soul encounters is received in an appropriate manner and with corresponding depth, and finds in the soul a living, mobile, docile energy that allows itself to be easily and joyfully led and molded by that which it has received, unhampered by any mistaken inhibitions and rigidity. Such realism, when it leads a holy soul to accept the truths of faith, becomes the science of the saints. If the mystery of the cross becomes its inner form, it turns into a science of the cross.

Holy realism has a certain affinity with the realism of the child who receives and responds to impressions with unimpaired vigor and vitality, and with uninhibited simplicity…

…But the Crucified One demands from the artist more than a mere portrayal of the image. He demands that the artist, just as every other person, follow him: that he both make himself and allow himself to be made into an image of the one who carries the cross and is crucified.

Expressing the image externally can be a hindrance to doing so internally, but by no means must this be so; actually, it can serve the process of interior transformation because only with the production of the external expression will the inner image be fully formed and interiorly adopted.

In this manner, when no obstacle is placed in its path, it becomes an interior representation that urges the artist to effectively reproduce it in action, that is, by way of imitation, externally.

And yes, the external image, one’s own artistic creation, can always serve to spur one on to transform oneself interiorly according to its meaning.”

To understand Stein’s answers we first need to know the questions

“The soul has typical qualities, such as a ‘woman’s soul,’ a ‘child’s soul,’ or souls of whatever other ‘type.’ And as individual the soul is ‘itself’ in its inexpressible peculiarity. These are not all in the soul beside one another as separable parts; they are rather in one another as realiter [really] inseparable species and genus, for the genus can exist only as specified.”

— Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) by Edith Stein

Edith Stein answers the most subtle questions, questions whose subtlety and importance dissipate and are lost in the cacophony of the noise of the world. In the world, irrelevant, competing, and distracting communication drowns out the quiet life-giving voice inside of us. We grow spiritually in quiet contemplation of profound questions, thus the need for solitude and retreat from the world. Edith Stein is our philosophical mentor but can be only in this solitude. She answers questions that we do not even hear in the midst of a vain and noisy world.

We struggle to understand her answers because we rarely retreat in solitude to listen quietly for the question.

Edith Stein’s systems give meaning and purpose to daily living

The attraction of Edith Stein’s philosophy is that it seeks unity and wholeness. We naturally gravitate toward the warm sunlight of the soul that shines across the horizon of our mind through that unity. Her search for truth is systematic, logical, and thorough. She has an inherent understanding of the divine order and searches the intellectual pathways that connect to that order. Truth seems to be, through her philosophical lens, the synchronicity of the heart that knows with the mind that seeks to understand that which the heart knows.

Stein reconciles modern philosophy with medieval, Aristotelian scholasticism, which is her towering achievement. She uniquely among modern philosophers quickens hope in our soul by her particular method. Most importantly, she seeks truth with an end-game in mind. One does not day-dream, lost in spontaneous sophistic musings with Edith Stein. One senses movement toward a goal, a seriousness, an end, the form of which we see on the horizon but cannot fully comprehend.

Her systems, the excitement of a journey, the understanding that there is a reward, gives meaning and purpose to our ordinary daily living.