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Edith Stein: Are We Really Alone?

April 9, AD2013 14 Comments

\"Jeff

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.

Filed in: History, Life • Tags:

About the Author:

Jeff McLeod holds a Ph.D. in quantitative psychology from the University of Minnesota. He works as a research scientist, a statistician, and software developer, focusing on problems in education and psychological measurement. He is well versed in philosophy of science and Catholic theology, and is a devoted student of St. Thomas Aquinas. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and serves on the faculty at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota, where he teaches at the St. Paul Seminary in the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute. Jeff is a 53 year old cradle Catholic. He and his lovely Catholic convert wife have been married for 23 years. His goal is to help Catholics become more confident in their faith and to draw daily strength from it.

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  • Fr. Gerald Mendoza

    Excellent post. A reminder of the difference between empathy and sympathy. -Fr. Gerald

  • Jeff McLeod

    Thank you Fr. Mendoza for your kind comment. Your insight is so well stated, empathy is different than sympathy. Empathy requires participation. It’s not easy.

  • Pingback: Empathy, or “A tissue for your issue” (Part 1) | Dolce Domum

  • Neil Harvey Gador

    Greetings to you sir. I am an undergraduate philosophy student in a catholic seminary here in the Philippines. It is a requirement for us to submit a research and a thesis based on a philosophical framework. I was planning to make use of Edit Stein’s idea about empathy. Can I somehow relate it with family relationships? If so, how can it be? Thank you and God Bless!

    – Neil

    • Jeff_McLeod

      See my reply above!

  • Jeff_McLeod

    Hello Neil, it’s nice to meet a seminarian from the Phillipines. What a beautiful tradition you have.

    Your idea for a research paper and/or thesis on the topic of empathy is a good one. You can find Edith Stein’s dissertation published in a short little book On the Problem of Empathy. It is considered difficult to read but well worth it.

    You ask how it is possible to relate empathy with family relationships. I think you could relate them according to the principle that the family is the origin of empathy. It is the training ground, and this is why it is very important that families remain intact. Imagine what harm comes from depriving children of the formative experience of empathy. They will become disoriented in the world, and unable to trust. Worst of all, some children will grow up questioning whether God Himself is trustworthy.

    The capacity for empathy is inborn, but its unfolding begins in the family.

    I like your idea and I hope you pursue it!

    Blessings to you Neil.

    • Neil Harvey Gador

      Greetings to you sir!

      I have already secured the dissertation of
      Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, 2 days ago. Indeed, it needs
      more attention and focus to understand fully the ideas she trying to
      convey. I’m pursuing this topic because I find it really relevant in the
      events happening in our society these days – dysfunctional family
      relationships, divorce, narcissist idealism among members, and the like.
      Sir, if it is not too much to ask, can you be an adviser of my work? It
      would really be of great help to me and for my future career –
      priesthood.

      God Bless!

  • Neil Harvey Gador

    [Re-post]

    Greetings to you sir!

    I have already secured the dissertation of
    Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, 2 days ago. Indeed, it needs
    more attention and focus to understand fully the ideas she trying to
    convey. I’m pursuing this topic because I find it really relevant in the
    events happening in our society these days – dysfunctional family
    relationships, divorce, narcissist idealism among members, and the like.
    Sir, if it is not too much to ask, can you be an adviser of my work? It
    would really be of great help to me and for my future career –
    priesthood.

    God Bless!

    • Jeff_McLeod

      Neil, I would be willing to talk to you about this. Please go to the home page of this site, choose the CONTACT link, and send a note to the editor telling her that I have given my permission for her to give you my email address. Then send me an email and we’ll talk about your project. Does that sound like a good plan?

    • Neil Harvey Gador

      Thank you so much Mr. Jeff. I already sent a message to the editor. I’m hoping she’ll be able to read it.

  • Neil Harvey Gador

    Greetings to you sir. I just would like to inform you that the editor seems not to notice my message. Until now, i haven’t received a message from her. If you would be willing just contact me in this email address. new_harvey@yahoo.com