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The Living Philosophy of Edith Stein

Happy Feast Day of Edith Stein/Teresia Benedicta a Cruce!

I attach below the prologue to my new book 'The Living Philosophy of Edith Stein' which is presently being copy edited. I hope you will enjoy it.

May this Patron of Europe inspire us all at this difficult time in our history.

Prologue: Why Edith?

‘The spirit of genuine philosophy is alive in every true philosopher, in anyone who cannot resist an inner need to search out the λóγος [logos, reason, word] of this world, its ratio (as Thomas translated the word). The born philosopher – the true philosopher indeed must be born as a philosopher - brings this spirit with her into the world as potency, as I would call it. The potency becomes actualised when they meet a mature philosopher, a “teacher”. This is the way we reach out to one another over the bounds of space and time.’[1]

Who was Edith Stein?[2] A Silesian German Jew. A worker for women’s rights who equalled and surpassed her better connected male colleagues. A brilliant philosopher and theologian. An ardent German patriot with a deep love of the German intellectual tradition and culture. A psychologist at the dawn of modern psychology. An ecstatic mystic whose prayer was indeed ‘a longing for truth itself.’[3] A Catholic nun who spent her last days trying to hold the disaster of mid-twentieth century Germany at bay whilst she sought her soul in the peace of a convent. And finally, the victim of the Holocaust, transported across her beloved Europe in a cattle wagon and murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.

For some years I have thought of writing a book about her, but the glittering kaleidoscope of her character and talents made it difficult to know where to begin. My own interest in her began in 2016 when I finished a book exploring human personhood through a discussion on the nature of the soul.[4] Of all the authors I explored: Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, John Cassian, Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Carl Jung, James Hillman, she was the one who impressed me the most. I found something in her precise yet rhapsodic writing which the other voices had failed to articulate. Here, I thought, was a writer who not only knew what she wanted to say, but also, and perhaps more importantly, knew what couldn’t be said about the human person. Like the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, she was able to say clearly what could be said but also leave unexpressed the mystery that lies at the heart of the human person. As I finished that book I wanted to explore her more deeply, especially in respect to her ability to express the need for a ‘soulful life’ - ein seelisches Leben – in our current disturbing times.

Following this impulse an amusing caprice suggested itself to me whilst I sat under the shadow of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna during a break in an international conference on the philosophy of Edith Stein held in that venerable city. I imagined, amongst the selfie sticks and milling tourists, two writers conversing on a neighbouring table. On one side, dressed neatly in her slightly formal 1920s clothes, wearing a dove-grey dress, was Frau Dr Stein, listening intently as was her custom and framing each word carefully and deliberately. On the other side of the tablecloth, shabbily dressed and puffing vigorously on an old cheroot, ash of which would fall in his mocha, was Herr Professor Freud. Pleasantly surprised, slightly against his better judgement, by the wisdom of the young woman, but never letting down his guard as he sought to retain a healthy scepticism in the face of the well chosen arguments of this phenomenologist convert. Of course it was a fun conceit that could not possibly have happened... and yet... Stein was often in Vienna, and although she was not an habituée of its coffee houses in the 1920s, who knows, the two may have had a chance encounter as she waited for one of the interminable train journeys she undertook at that time or whilst just enjoying the spring sunshine in the Stephansplatz. Regardless, the phantasy encapsulated my overall vision for this book – that Edith’s views, especially on the relationship between the psyche and the mind – should once again be taken seriously enough for her to be in robust dialogue with other ‘masters’ of psychology such as Freud and his collaborator, Carl Gustav Jung. Yet, as the book proceeded I came to see two things – first that Stein’s thought cannot be understood in isolation from the prevailing phenomenological movement, of which she was such an essential part. And secondly, that Stein, through her phenomenological exercises, was led to a radical understanding of Christianity such as to revitalise it and restore its relevance for the coming century.

Professor Antonio Calcagno, whose writings have been so helpful in framing my analysis in this book, suggests three reasons for the scholarly neglect of Stein’s work since her death (Calcagno 2006: 263 – 4). The first is that her collaboration with Husserl was time-limited, meaning that she did not in this early period have access to the fullness of Husserl’s final phenomenological synthesis which we shall explore later in Chapter Two. Secondly, the nature of Steinian scholarship itself, which has tended to concentrate on the religious, and frankly pious, aspects of her martyrdom at the expense of her philosophy. As he points out, Stein saw an intimate connection between her phenomenological approach and her religious views and I have taken this into account as I explore the nature of her philosophical anthropology in the present book. Finally, there is old-fashioned sexism. If Husserl found it difficult to put Edith on a par with his other male students surely, as Calcagno suggests, he too was suffering from an unconscious bias.

Stein’s philosophy, suggests Calcagno, has the possibility of presenting ‘a universal philosophy of human experience rooted in both reason and accessibility’ – a ‘poignant encounter’ (Calcagno 2006: 264) which explicitly does not exclude faith, belief and spirituality. This acceptance of the spiritual dimension of human personhood can sadly be as great a challenge to the modern academic working in the field as much as sexism and anti-semitism were in Edith’s time. Edith, as we shall see, often spoke of her reluctance to mount a lecturer’s podium unless she could speak of the transcendent aspect of human life. In an era that wanted, and still wants, to build a ‘psychology without soul’, Stein’s work stands out as someone who logically proposed a transcendent aspect to human life and personhood. It is this ‘living philosophy of human personhood’ which will be explored in this book.

[1]Words ascribed to Thomas Aquinas by Edith Stein in an imaginary dialogue, CWES 8: 7/8. [2]A recurrent theme in this book will be the ambiguity both of Edith Stein and her place in philosophy, theology, psychology and history. Part of the narrative we shall address in this volume will be the moves by different groups to appropriate the woman and her heritage. This begins with her name. After her entry into Carmelite life in 1934, Edith Stein (1891 – 1942) took the religious name Sr Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. The name itself is deliberately ambiguous suggesting various English translations including Sr Teresa Benedict of the Cross, Sr Teresa Blessed by the Cross and Sr Teresa Benedicta at the Cross. Throughout this volume I shall refer to her usually with the name ‘Edith Stein’, either addressing her as Edith or Stein according to context. I shall discuss the multivalent nuances of her name in religion later. [3]Saying of Edith Stein attributed by her first biographer in Posselt 1957:55, my translation. [4] Tyler 2016: The Pursuit of the Soul: Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian Tradition (T & T Clark).

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