Personal Connections: The Phenomenology of Edith Stein
by Marianne Sawicki, Ph.D.
at the Carmelite Monastery in Baltimore on November 13, 1998. For a more technical discussion, see M. Sawicki,
Body, Text, and Science (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997).]
Edith Stein was the student of the philosopher Edmund Husserl. She worked for and with him on several of his important manuscripts from the fall of 1916 until her baptism, on New Year’s Day in 1922. Stein’s 1916 doctoral dissertation on empathy was followed by three more essays written during these years, and published in 1922 and 1925. Those four treatises together form a cohesive statement of Stein’s phenomenology, which is the focus of these remarks.
Introduction: Edith Stein's Life and Philosophical Context
Edith was the darling and precocious baby sister of a large Jewish family. Her capable and pious mother ran a prosperous lumber yard, having been left a widow when Edith was just a toddler. Among the uncles and cousins were numerous professional men. Careers in medicine were chosen for Edith and her closest sister, Erna. Accordingly, the young ladies were enrolled in the university in their home city, Breslau. Erna did complete her training and had a successful practice as a gynecologist.
Edith was interested in a different medical specialty, a specialty that today we call psychiatry. She wanted to understand how the mind works, what troubles afflict the heart, and how to heal the soul. Remember, now, that the year is 1911, Edith is 19, and the sciences undergirding the psychiatry and psychology of today have not yet been born. Over in Vienna, Sigmund Freud is puzzling over those neurotic lady patients, while on the Susquehanna, a 7-year-old named B.F. Skinner is trying in vain to train chipmunks. The term "psychology" still means a branch of philosophy. In other words, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and the other foundational theories of psychology, as we know it, are just taking shape. University professors and their students are devising the first controlled laboratory experiments to investigate the processes of sensory perception. They are trying to figure out, if you will, how to think about thinking, how to do so reliably, productively, and scientifically. Some are guided in this endeavor, as Edith discovers, by a two-volume work called Logical Investigations, published in 1900-01 by Edmund Husserl. So Edith Stein, age 21, decides to transfer to the University of Göttingen to study with Husserl and become initiated into the new philosophy of science called "phenomenology."
Under Husserl's tutelage, Stein earned her doctorate in 1916, and she immediately went to work for him as his research and teaching assistant. This partnership was tremendously productive for about 18 months; but Husserl's undisciplined work habits also made it quite frustrating. Edith quit in early 1918, but with independent income from her mother, she continued to be closely involved in the various projects of Husserl and his circle. This is the period, 1916 through 1921, when she wrote the four treatises that I'll be talking about here, three of which Husserl chose to publish in the journal that he co-edited. This superb philosophical output came from someone not yet 30.
Stein lived another 21 years. She experienced a religious conversion, was baptized, taught at an obscure teacher-training institute, was enlisted in the theological cause of German neo-Thomism, and began to achieve public stature as a lecturer in the wake of the publication of her translation of the De Veritate of Thomas Aquinas. In the early 1930's she took another stab at launching the university career that had been denied to her a decade earlier after Husserl's refusal of a proper recommendation on grounds of gender. She had barely begun teaching at Münster when the anti-Semitic regulations of 1933 took that job away from her. This cleared the way for her to follow the vocation that she had felt ever since her baptism, and she was accepted into the Carmel at Cologne at age 42. Stein's mature philosophical work was completed in the cloister. I won't get into this mature work in these remarks; we're looking instead at its foundations. But please bear in mind that the questions and the methods of Stein's phenomenology are the foundation and prelude to both the Thomistic and the Sanjuanist phases of her philosophy. And the key to seeing how all this is going to fit together is to remember her generative intellectual quest: How to heal broken hearts, the hearts that a broken world breaks.
Stein’s own life ended very sadly. After the riots of late 1938, she transferred to the Carmel in Eckt. But she was arrested there in August 1942 and deported to Auschwitz, where she was probably gassed. Catholics call her a martyr because of the witness of her life, her general intention to offer that life for the sake of the people of God, and the specific intention of her murderers to kill her in reprisal for the Dutch Catholic bishops' public criticism of Nazi policy toward the Jews. She should also be regarded as a great philosopher, as we shall see.
1. "On the Problem of Empathy," 1916
The first of the four great early treatises is Stein's doctoral dissertation on "empathy," completed in 1916 and published the following year. The very title asks us not to assume that we already know what empathy means, but instead to let Stein show us its problematic character. Now, it might go against the grain for you to "let yourself to be shown" something in philosophy. If you studied philosophy in college, you probably picked up a couple of bad habits that you need to lay aside, at least while considering these remarks. First, you may have assumed that a philosophy is a set of statements. Your job as student was to memorize those statements so that you could bring them forth in an exam or apply them in some future situation. The statements as you recalled them were "correct" or not according to how closely they repeated the account in the textbook or the professor's lecture; it didn't dawn on you that you yourself had the means to check whether the book or the teacher "got it right." You just downloaded the package faithfully. That's why this is called a "dogmatic" or "authoritative" approach to philosophy. But to Stein and the phenomenologists, this approach would be the very antithesis of philosophy. For them, anyone can and must "check." We all have the means at hand to see, directly, the basis upon which philosophical claims are made: this basis is simply the immanent living operations within conscious experience itself. We all have first-hand experience of conscious life, and that's where the evidence is. This same source also enables us to check out the coherence among the statements comprising a philosophical argument. In other words, the teacher is not the authority who guarantees the philosophy, but rather the coach or guide who enables you to do it yourself. The teacher or writer of philosophy is showing you what you can see for yourself. This is Edith Stein's intent.
The second bad habit is: assuming that someone's philosophy depends upon "the kind of person she is," as if philosophy were like taste or personal style. This leads into some bad mistakes; for example, assuming that arguments made by good people are good arguments, or even worse, that understanding someone's philosophy requires nothing more than a sympathetic appreciation of her personality. But Edith Stein the thinker does not want you to accept her philosophy because she was a nice person or because she went to heaven; she wants you to check out how its claims fit together and fit the evidence. For this, her biography is irrelevant. Sure, it's usable as an introduction, while I've got my coaching hat on. But her conclusions are not "caused" by the particular events of her life, nor is the reliability of her philosophy guaranteed by her personality. If a philosophy were nothing other than the personal style or creation of a philosopher, then only the one who wrote it could vouch for its validity, and the rest of us would have to accept it dogmatically. But on the contrary, understanding Edith, and understanding Edith's thought, are two separate and independent tasks. And demonstrating exactly what the difference is, is what phenomenology Stein-style is all about.
This difference is simply the difference between what can be shared, and what cannot. You can share or replicate a great deal of another person's experiences, including her insights and moods. But you cannot share either her individual personhood or the concrete physical events that are registering with her as bodily sensations. What do I mean by experience? The German term, Erleben, means "living through." I -- which is to say, an i, any i -- am surfing along on a current of life. I am the "now" who anticipates each new moment and lets fulfilled moments subside into my past. The current or stream of my consciousness is filled in various ways as various components of it appear to me in their own proper manner. (This is where the term "phenomenology" comes from; "phenomenon" is Greek for "what appears.")
What kinds of appearances fill the streaming life of my i? Well, items in the material world offer themselves to me one face at a time. I perceive the front precisely as something that promises to show me its sides and back if I walk around and take a look. Items never offer all sides at once in perception. It is I who gather up the appearances from the different "now's" in my flowing experience and assemble them into one whole item. The term for this egoic accomplishment is "constitution." I constitute an object in consciousness: for example, this lectern. This doesn't mean I have a little lectern in my head, or even a little picture of a lectern. No, I have a sense or notion of the lectern. This is the object "intended" by my consciousness, as we say in phenomenology. Besides physical items, we constitute the fields of space and time in which they interact. We also constitute the realm of values and the particular values within that realm. We constitute states of affairs -- scenarios -- past, present, or future.
Now here's where it gets interesting. Do "we" do all of this jointly, or individually? If jointly, then the "we" doing the constituting must itself have been constituted somehow. How? But if individually, how do I constitute "other i's" before partnering with them? Believe it or not, by 1913 Husserl had not yet noticed this problem. And it's a very big problem. Technically, in logical terms, Husserl had "begged the question" of other people. That means: his arguments to show how it is possible for us to know other people already assume that there are other people around, right from the start.
And this is the problem that Edith Stein detected. At first, she could hardly believe the scope of what she had discovered. Husserl was the most brilliant man of his generation, and she was a 25-year-old kid, of the wrong gender. If you read her dissertation, therefore, you will find her "pulling her punches" and trying to camouflage her discovery as if it were just another implication of Husserl's own theory of constitution. In fact, she demonstrates that empathy is not a constituted sense, one among others; rather, empathy is the prior condition of the possibility of any constitution at all.
What does this mean? The English word "empathy" is not an exact equivalent for the German Einfühlung. The German word means "in-feeling," that is, both feeling-into and feeling-within. It's actually how you find yourself in your own experiences: you feel yourself within them. Aesthetic theory at the turn of the century was using this term to account for art appreciation: you understand the statue or painting by "feeling yourself into it." So the term is ambiguous. And Husserl was using it without addressing this ambiguity.
Stein realized -- although she does not express this well -- that the individuation of ego into egos (plural) is not always in force. Sometimes it is suspended. In other words, egos do not always appear as discrete multiples, like potatoes in a pot. There are indeed egoic experiences that are not personalized, owned by me. For example, in entertainments of various kinds, we live vicariously through the experiences of others: the somatic registration of vertigo from observing the flying acrobat, the somatic registration of sexual arousal from reading erotic literature. There's also that lift we get from the sentiments expressed in a happy song or poem, that grief we feel when someone is bereaved. Any such feeling -- happiness, grief, dizziness, arousal -- has its own distinctive sense-content. Now Stein argues that that content must include the following notion: this feeling is felt originally by someone, but the someone isn't myself. That's how she solves Husserl's problem: "someone else's" is a manner of appearing of experience, not a sense constituted out of experience, much less an analogical inference on the basis of comparative perceptions. (It's an adverb, not a noun.) This manner of appearing is more primitive than the acts of constitution that it founds.
So what? What use is this information? It has many technical uses in philosophy. For one thing, it guarantees that the reality of other people is given to us immanently in those ego-drenched experiences, without the possibility of illusion or error. Illusions arise only during the activity of perception; errors arise in logical inferences; but this insight is more primitive than either perception or inference is. So I'm neither deluded nor mistaken in believing that there are other egos -- or to put it another way, in affirming that I myself do not exhaust the plenitude of egoic value in this reality of mine. I might be deluded or mistaken about the characteristics of locations of the others. But I know infallibly that I am not alone, because "experiences of others" are available to me as such.
More practically, Stein's work on empathy yields a hermeneutics, or theory of understanding, equally applicable to the sciences and the humanities. This is no mean feat. It’s especially interesting to specialists in "philosophy of science." (In fact, Husserl himself made major contributions toward the philosophy of science early in the century, as mentioned above.) Philosophers of science investigate the thinking -- the logical inferences -- that turn raw data into accepted statements of fact. They ask how data get to be "data" in the first place. Some scientists, and most of the general public, assume that the data are just "caused" by the experiments, and that a good scientist merely reports findings without adding any "interpretation." They assume that anything "added" by the scientist would introduce bias, and would spoil the possibility of other scientists' getting identical results from running the same experiment. Science is supposed to be "impersonal." By contrast, the humanities are supposed to focus on distinctive personal and cultural factors.
This distinction was already being made in Husserl's day, and it was made in the following terms. Natural sciences study causes, humanities study motivations. In other words, reality is knowable in two ways. The physical world is a network of causal chains, and you come to know this world when your mind runs along those chains and sees how they connect. The world of value is a network of motivations. Now "motivations" doesn't mean "motives" or "drives" in the Freudian sense. (Remember, it's 1911 and Freud hasn't yet figured out his psychoanalytic theories.) "Motivation" has another technical sense: it is the valence or inclination of the current of experience to flow forward from one active experience into the next. The stream of consciousness presses forward all by itself, of course, as we surf along on "now." But the contents of the experiences of "nows" also invite us to follow certain paths -- as when perceiving the front of the lectern beckoned you to walk around and look at the back. That's one sort of motivation, and it figures into the perception and constitution of items in the physical world. More complexly, specific emotions and courses of action are suggested by specific events. Or, a possible future state of affairs -- once you imagine it -- can be chosen, and so become a "motive," and so "motivate" the course of action that will realize just that desired state of affairs. You can see now why motivation is not causation: Motivation is optional, causation is necessary. With motivation, a given state of affairs can motivate a range of rational choices; while a given cause always produces the same effect and no other. And their sequence is different too. The cause precedes the effect, but the motivating state of affairs is actualized subsequent to the choices that it has motivated, the choices that bring it into existence.
Imagined possible state of affairs. I'd rather be fishing.
State chosen as "motive." I'm going fishing now.
Motive motivates action. Grab my rod and head for the lake.
Action realizes state of affairs. I'm fishing now.
Now, as the phenomenologists all agreed, scientific knowledge comes from tracing the networks of necessary causal connections which structure the physical world, while knowledge in the humanities comes from tracing the networks of non-necessary connections that structure the world of culture, value, beauty, goodness, etc. Husserl argued that the regularities common to these two different kinds of world-coherence in fact should be treated as a third and foundational realm, and that this would be the realm investigated by his phenomenology.
Edith Stein did something a little different, which turns out to be much more useful for resolving this issue in the form that we confront it today. She holds that the common ground of the humanities and the sciences lies not so much in the fact that both are logically coherent (Husserl's proposal), as in the way in which their respective coherences are accessible for human knowing. Both coherences are knowable through tracing, that is, through following. We let our egos run through the sequence of connections, "feel them out." But here's the difference: it feels different to follow a causal connection than a motivational connection. We cannot feel-into a causal connection. It is opaque to the ego. We know it from outside. By contrast, a motivational connection is in-feel-able. The passage from act to motivated act is something that I can let myself vicariously ride through. It registers inwardly with me. That means, the way in which a motivated coherence appears to me exhibits, as a primal feature, its quality of having originated in another's choice. Choices let me in: I re-live them, I understand them empathically. Causes, I can only stand outside of and observe. In any given situation in the real world, causes and motivations are intricately intertwined. For example, why are you sitting in those chairs? The cause is gravity. The motivation is to hear me out and get a chance to respond later. Stein adds one more thing. I call it her theory of the subtractive literacy of science. The only way to identify a cause is to subtract all the motivations. Scientific "data" are what's left after we account for, and discount, whatever in an appearance is owing to personal choice. I.e., bias is eliminated. (So paradoxically, scientific data as such are not caused, but chosen, in that they are remaindered out of mixed appearances by a motivated subtraction of all the motivated aspects of those appearances. Natural science is the intention to build knowledge upon purged data only.)
This brings me to the last major feature of Stein's first treatise that I want to cover: her celebrated theory of "person." And this may surprise you. At least, if I tell it right, it will. "Person" doesn't mean "human being." It indicates the topmost of four layers of human being. I've got to use spatial terms to talk about this, but please remember these are really non-spatial, phenomenal realms (realms of appearance). These regions are: (1) the personal or individual, (2) the mental or intellectual, (3) the sensory or sentient, and (4) the physical. You can picture their relation if you think of a capital H turned on its side, or a capital I with serifs. Let's start from the "bottom," the base of that I. The physical is matter: your physical organs and the physiological processes of your body. This is your interface with the physical world. When you act upon the world or it acts upon you, chains of cause and effect come into play across this surface. At the top of the I, put personal individuality. Through this surface you are plugged into the realm of value, you create and receive meaning.
Stein worked out this scheme more fully in her next treatise. Before moving on, let me just emphasize: Stein's hermeneutics of empathy is not warm and fuzzy. It is tough and technical. It develops very exact and rigorous criteria for when and how we are allowed to claim that we have communicated: that we have understood one another or have scientifically explained something about our environment. It's major accomplishment, in my estimation, is the description of the "i" in its fundamental orientations toward other i's: as alternately a trailblazer of courses of experiences that others may follow, and a follower who re-enlivens and amplifies the courses opened up by others. It reads, and it writes. This is an "i" whose being is to be radically open to the world of matter, the world of value, and the experiences of other i's, through certain specific structures and within certain thresholds. Stein's account integrates portions of the phenomenology of others -- Husserl Scheler, Pfänder -- but the synthesis is her own.
2. "Sentient Causality,"1918
We may designate Stein's empathy theory as a hermeneutic, a theory of interpretation. It talks about how people understand one another. "Understanding" -- that means more than transfer of information. It means to grasp the very processes that produce the pieces of information in question, and to comprehend the networks of coherence of the realities in which they are embedded. It means to know the "why's," the "becauses." The "i" is the capacity to trace the tracks that other i's have made through networks: to run through them, read them, replay them sequentially, but also to look at them "all at once," from the top down, as it were. The i is a follower.
For example, suppose I am teaching my logic class the patterns of valid inference. I present the conditional statement: "If it is Tuesday, we'll go to the movies." Assume that this conditional is true, I say to the class. Now, assume we're not going to the movies. What does that tell you? It tells you that it isn't Tuesday. Why? The answer, in logic, is that this fits a valid pattern of inference: If A then B implies if not B then not A. But why is this pattern valid? Aha! This is always a favorite moment for me. The students expect it to be valid because it's in the textbook, or because I back it up with my authority as a teacher. But no. It's valid because when you run through the steps, you have a flash of insight and you see it. This pattern is hard-wired into reality, and you as a thinker are built to register and certify such correct patterns. That's the bottom line. That's what you are. That's what any "i" is. It's the ability to live-through a pattern sequentially while recognizing the pattern and the kind of pattern it is.
In logic, we're looking for patterns with rational necessity, but not all patterns have rational necessity. Some patterns show themselves to be materially necessary: these are the relations of cause and effect -- causal relations. Other patterns show themselves to be rational but not necessary: these are the relations between situations and creative, motivated human choices, in art, literature, politics, business, family life -- motivations. The i tracks those patterns too, in the manners appropriate to them. And the i can tell, from the quality of the tracking that it is able to do in any given instance, just which kind of network it's dealing with. Let's return to our example of Tuesday-night movie-going, and pursue its "why's." Both kinds of networks come into play: causal and motivational. If I focus on the family's choice of some particular PG movie, or it's choice in general to include this recreation in its weekly schedule, I find that I can empathically "live through" those choices. Inside myself I can replicate how the decisions have branched, going as far back as you like: choice of this spouse, effort to start a family, love and care for these little children, fatigue in the wear-and-tear of parenting, selection of movie-going rather than roller-blading as appropriate recreation for pre-schoolers and frazzled parents, and tonight, preference for Pocahantas over Cinderella. None of these was required, either causally or rationally. From a range of possible rational options, one choice is made.
I could go further into the motivations of each choice. If I did so, eventually I would come up against barriers in two directions, beyond which my "following i" could not re-live the flow of events inwardly, but could merely observe it from the outside. One frontier is that of material causal processes, which go forward non-optionally. The physical world is structured by causal chains that I cannot empathically experience, or live through. For example, physiological processes cause little children to behave erratically and stay awake when fed large amounts of sugar in the evening. While I can empathize that feeling, I cannot empathize the chemical process itself. But because I know about the causal role of the chemistry -- know it as causal precisely because it is opaque to any effort to empathize it -- I understand the child's feelings and behaviors better. I can gauge how much is under voluntary control, and I can respond accordingly. The other frontier beyond which I cannot empathically follow is the unique personal ingredient in choices. Why did these two parents marry each other? Why did the movie director add just that melody at just that moment? The realm of the personal is just as opaque to our understanding as the realm of matter is. We cannot penetrate empathically what goes on in either of them, although both are involved in every situation we face. My only direct access to these opaque realms -- matter, and value -- is the matter that I am, my body, and the value that I am, my person. My body, my hands and feet, participates in chains of physical cause and effect. And as a person, I am a unique value who creates value in reality and, unfortunately, sometimes diminishes it.
This is the complex but very familiar picture that Stein was trying to sort out with her account of the four permeable levels of human being. Now you see why the permeability of the levels is so important. The "middle" layers pass influences between the top and bottom layers, the material and the personal. The sentient and mental layers pass influences into the material world. Moreover, since the top and bottom layers are off-limits to other people's following, the middle layers offer the only available access to someone else's thoughts, feelings, motivations. What we understand, when we understand someone, is understood by re-living the registrations of sentient processes and mental processes.
Well, that's a nifty little theory -- if you like that kind of thing. What good it is? The young Stein saw two very important uses. The first is therapeutic. Already in her dissertation, she envisioned a kind of psychiatric practice in which mental, emotional, and physical illnesses would be diagnosed as to the layer of the human being where the trouble was originating. In our example of the child acting out with a sugar high, the problem originates in the physical chemical mechanisms of the body. Remove the candy, and the behavior improves. Other pathologies are rooted in the other levels. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, Stein did not pursue this application in her own work, but it remains a promising approach.
The other use is historical and political. We can see any given present situation as having been structured by the intricate interplay of causal chains and motivational sequences. Then, turning toward the future, we can project possibilities and go on to actualize them. This is where the essay on sentient (psychic) causality picks up. It examines the dynamics of human decision-making. Let me first say a word about its odd name. As I've been telling you, causal coherences govern the physical level. But owing to the permeability of the layers, causal effects produced physically in the body will evoke registrations at the sensate level. (The four-year-old is shrieking and running through the dining room instead of going to sleep; these are expressions of frantic elation. She feels like, "wow, ain't it great to be alive!"; she doesn't feel like there's too much sugar in her bloodstream.) Causal influences "travel upward" all the way. (Stein's famous teacher, Edmund Husserl, once claimed that he made philosophy out of coffee.) But influences travel downward, too. We can be invigorated, physically, by a thought or an idea, or an artistic experience of beauty. (Could you do your aerobics without your music tapes?)
Now here's the crucial point. These inter-level influences are not all causal. Properly speaking, only events that originate in the physical and sensate realms are causal; they are no longer causal when they cross into the mental and personal levels. By the same token, impulses originating in the personal or mental realm resonate causally when they influence the sensate and physical realms. Stein's task in this essay was to demonstrate that inter-level influences really do occur, and then, once that was established, to show how personal and mental impulses acquire causal potency to become effective in the material world.
Stein's demonstration for the reality and the effective mutual permeability of the four levels is a scientific proof, based on the principle of the conservation of energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, and all living processes consume energy. Stein shows, in numerous intricate examples, that life processes at the sentient and intellectual levels routinely consume more than the power available from physical sources. Admittedly, this determination cannot be made exactly, for we have no units of measurement for the quantitative assessment of "lifepower," Stein says. But "more" and "less" are qualitative terms; you can tell when something is more or less than something else by comparing two cases, perhaps a "before" and "after" case. Therefore, an empirical science of sensate causality if quite possible. You can observe variations in lifepower.
What is "lifepower"? Stein has taken Husserl's metaphor of the "current" or "stream" of living experience and given it a new twist. Experience, she says, flows like electricity. The current of life is not constant; rather, its voltage waxes and wanes. It is spent down in the various activities of living, and it is charged up again from its own self-renewing reservoirs or from outside. The i, with its four functional layers, is not only a follower but a transceiver or transistor for the modulation of power. The four permeable "layers" of human being, then, have their own distinctive ways of registering, channeling, applying, and receiving this current, whose force is designated as "lifepower." Fluctuations in lifepower allow us to detect the impact of causality and motivation within our experiences; they offer indirect proof of the reality of both the physical world and the world of value, as well as the accessibility of those worlds.
In Stein's account, there seems to be a certain steady recharging of lifeforce from the physical processes of nutrition, and a steady drain upon it by metabolism. Over and above that, though, we "gain energy" from other people -- not simply for mood enhancement, but for productive creative work. Here her power-analogy breaks down, because the person whose cheerfulness lifts me up does not thereby experience a lowering of his own energy. Stein would respond that this energy is not literally electric, but is only like electricity in some ways. It is the peculiar character of the mental and personal layers that they can "give without losing." Yet Stein's proof stands up in the many examples where strength for perseverence in a task is gained from the influence of others or from the realm of value directly.
If these terms sound a little strange -- lifepower, sentient causality, and so forth -- please recall that the customary terminologies which they challenge once sounded strange as well. I'm referring to the vocabulary of psychoanalytic and marxian theories: "libido," "the unconscious," "repression," "alienation," "false consciousness." Those more familiar theories, especially in their popular and cultural versions, do not make the crucial distinction that Stein insists upon: the distinction between causality and motivation. In popular psychoanalysis, the influences that Stein so carefully distinguishes are lumped together as "cause and effect." Actions are explained as "resulting" from drives, complexes, or, in the case of marxism, inexorable social contradictions. Freud's version of lifepower, which he calls libido, is imagined like a fluid under pressure seeking whatever outlet it can find. In psychoanalytic interpretation, the process of decision is not rational; only the interpreter is rational. And the interpreter does not rationally follow what he is interpreting, he only explains it from outside, as if he were watching a pot of potatoes stew on a stove. Stein's account of decision-making, based on her empathy theory, is more nuanced and fits the evidence better. It also makes a place for a creative will that is free in important respects, although always causally conditioned by circumstances as well.
Recall that creation and causality differ in their temporal structure. At Time 1, suppose we have an ego whose sentient level is registering a feeling of hunger because of physiological processes. Time 2, he wanders into the kitchen, where he sees a bowl of fruit and a tray of Reese's Pieces. He recognizes and constitutes both as objects, and he values them as "food." Time 3, the ego feels an inclination toward the food. This is not a causal pull emanating from the physical makeup of the candy or the fruit, but a motivation arising from the imagined possibility of a personal future in which he is enjoying the consumption of one of the foods; this future scenario itself is motivated by the act that construes ("constitutes") the items and construes them as potential food. Nothing makes him eat, or eat a candy instead of an apple. Time 3.5, he may or may not pause to do some reasoning about the likely consequences of the choice he is facing. Time 4, the ego executes what Stein calls a "fiat." He goes for it. He issues a resolve from the depths of himself, actualizing his value in terms of the material options confronting him, the material options whose specific sense he has constituted. Time 5, this "fiat" is mediated "downward" from the personal level, and the physiological mechanisms are activated. The hand reaches out.
Notice the many steps here, and how many of them involve non-causal processes: recognition of food, weighing the arguments pro and con, the "go for it," the translation of the "go for it" into neural signals and muscle contractions. These same steps that occur in snacking also must be there in all of the creative and political decisions that structure our lives. At Time 1 in any volitional sequence, the determinants may be simple physical causes (like hunger, in our snacking example), or they may involve complex influences in which other persons are involved. We profoundly affect one another in our choices, and this brings me to Stein's third great treatise.
3. "Individual and Community," 1919
Let’s pause for a moment to recall that "freedom" is a very important theme in philosophy. It's almost an article of philosophical faith. There are three general strategies that philosophers have used when making assertions that involve freedom: a dogmatic appeal to tradition ("This country was founded to protect our 'natural' freedom"), a pragmatic appeal to expediency ("Without free will, we can't call upon people to obey laws or punish them when they don't "), or an existential appeal to experience ("I feel the anguish of my lonely freedom in the face of the contingency of my existence.") Each of these strategies begs certain questions, which need not concern us here. My point is, Stein uses none of them. Instead, she approaches the free will of the individual (and analogously, the creativity of communities and the sovereignty of states) as the other influence whose reality and potency are immediately and infallibly given, in and as the shortfall of causality in accounting for the temporal actualizations of possibilities, at the individual, community, or political level, respectively. In other words, she applies her principle of the conservation of lifepower, and she scientifically demonstrates that these regions operate not as closed physical systems, but rather as dynamic equilibrations between the physical realm of nature and the non-physical realm of value. Nature leaks. Non-material meanings are involved in those transfers of lifeforce whose manifestations are observed in the material world.
The ingenuity of Stein's strategy is apparent, even though we can't get into the technical points of her scientific proofs here. Among human individuals, she says, there are some transfers of lifepower that are merely causal, that is, transfers involving only the material and sentient levels of human being. People can "catch" feelings from one another; there can be contagious enthusiasms or hatreds that grip every member of a crowd and intensify as they pass back and forth among the individuals. Animals experience this, too. But with humans, matter plus sentience is still not a closed system. On one hand, individuals often resist or modify feelings after they catch them; causal necessity fails. On the other hand, individuals "download" more energy and information than is accounted for by contagion. Structures "bigger" than the individual seem to come into play for those fluctuations in lifepower. As an individual I participate in certain shared experiences that would be unintelligible if they stopped at the borders of my own individuality. For example, as I was skimming through the information in the Starr Report on the Internet, my experience had dimensions that distinguished it from my experience when I'm merely reading a novel: this experience involved a character who is chief of the state that I belong to; moreover, as a single reader I was part of the multitude before whom this spectacle was being published, and whose character as a community it was affecting. This thing was bigger than any of the individuals involved. That very fact was impacting the individual me.
The transfers of lifepower occurring in community and political events seem to involve what the phenomenologists call "intentional structures," Stein says. The term "intention" means the content that consciousness has in view. The community in general, or the state in particular, subsists in the notion of it that each of us entertains cooperatively with all the other members. As phenomenologists say, we "intend" this community. A certain state of affairs -- "being in this specific community" -- is continuously intended by the members of the community. It is our "motive," in the technical sense I explained earlier. (For example, "marriage.") That doesn't mean we're always deliberately working on the idea, or even conscious of it. It means that this motivating intention -- "marriage, and this marriage" -- is a latent sense within a certain range of our decisions, attitudes, and behaviors. Community (and therefore the state) lives as the meaning by means of which lifeforce is transmitted and distributed in distinctive ways into the material manifestations that we observe.
Distinctively human lifeforce-transfers presuppose such meaning-structures in the realm of value in order for humans to live at all in the realm of matter. This is Stein's great insight. Correlatively, the human individual is built as an energy exchanger, to receive lifeforce by means of those structures, to contribute lifeforce to those structures, and to create and maintain the structures themselves. All of which is to say: individuals are not literally individual. We are radically and constitutively connected along the power circuit that runs through the realm of meaning and value. And this very connectivity is plainly apparent in the very individuality that we exhibit, first in the realm of matter (where we appear to each other as separate bodies) and then in the realm of meaning (where we appear to each other in our ineffable, irreplaceable uniqueness as personal sources of creative innovation). I say it's plainly apparent -- once you have a coach like Edith Stein to show you how to look at your own immediate experiences. Was Stein a mystic, who tapped into mysterious sources of revelation? I don't know. What I do know is that she provides logical, scientific arguments for everything that I have asserted. You don't have to accept the reality of grace, creation, or the waters of the soul in order to follow her arguments. Stein herself did not accept them at the time when she figured all this out.
Stein has shown, then, that human individuals presuppose community (Gemeinschaft) of some kind. What kind? Political states? Business corporations? Universities? Convents? Some of those (and some aspects of all of those) are not communal but associational. (This well-known distinction was set forth in an 1887 work by the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies.) An association (Gesellschaft) is a voluntary alliance, and its members treat one another instrumentally, as means to some end (in contrast to community, which is intrinsic to our personal being as humans and in which personal welfare is the principal intention). Stein shows that community is presupposed even for the most instrumental and dehumanizing of our institutions, however. To manipulate somebody, you don't have to coerce him by brute material force (although that surely happens). Rather, associations manipulate people by co-opting and diverting the very intellectual and personal structures through which individuals are online with the world of value. But we can see here once again a scientific demonstration of the reality and the impact of these transpersonal structures. Consider the flow of advertising dollars through our economy. In the example of that movie-going family that I mentioned earlier, ask yourself why the kids and the parents want to see Pochahantas. Advertising and marketing influences account for a large part of the "why," and these have effectively delivered our little family to the movie theater precisely because the ads invoke communal connections even though they do so in order to fulfill non-personal, even anti-personal, commercial objectives.
4. "On the State," 1921
In the fourth and final treatise that we're looking at, the treatise on the state, Stein pursues the question of human connectivity in regard to various social forms. Some of these are political: the state, governmental agencies, national sovereignty. Some are cultural: race, nationality, (and today we would add gender). Stein has already established that community structures in some form are required by humans -- not just for the flourishing of humans, but to account for the energy transfers that are empirically observable among humans. The various kinds of communal structures plug us in to reservoirs of lifeforce in the world of value. Some help, some hurt. Individuals interface with these structures "at the personal surface" that I was describing earlier. Which means: what these structures structure is an interface between persons, and what they mediate is the energy for creativity, innovation, and nurture of the new.
Now, one common way of discussing these social forms -- especially the political form, the state -- is to analogize it as a "big person" aggregated out of all the little persons, like Hobbes's "Leviathan." Husserl, for example, would talk about a "personality of a higher order," and Scheler would say the community is the body of a collective personality. Stein corrects these approaches. The state is not a person, she shows, because it does not work like a person: constituting value, transferring energy, and engaging with matter as persons do. States don't do that. Rather, the state is an accessory to persons. (If you will, it's my placenta, not my big brother or my twin.) This approach directly overturns "social contract theory," which held that the state is founded in the free decision of individuals to band together to gain certain protections by renouncing certain liberties. Stein demonstrates that the concept "individual person" is oxymoronic -- an unreal and unrealizable abstraction -- and that multipersonal community is the necessary condition for personhood, not a mere option open to persons.
A community, then, is not a person, but in some ways it can be thought of as partly analogous to an individual person. The similarity consists mainly in the uniqueness of cultural expressions. The meanings that originate within one community could never have achieved that particular nuanced value anywhere else; yet once they are expressed, they become available to be re-experienced and appreciated by members of other communities -- where they may even give vise to further variations and distinctive cultural responses. (One example of this would be the musical traditions of jazz or the blues. These are certainly appreciated and even elaborated upon in communities beyond the one where they originated.)
But is the state a community? Stein says no. The state is a community's tool, an instrumentality devised for the realization of values. It is constituted as having a certain value, but it is not a source of value. The state has a people for its "soul" -- which means something analogous to its character, its dynamic personality. The state's territorial boundaries may embrace more than one people, but in that case, there will be a tendency toward the coalescence of all the inhabitants into one people. This happens intentionally. Now, recall that "intention" is a technical term for phenomenologists. It means that the people is not "caused" by genetic or geographical or historical factors. Rather, the people is constituted as a meaning. Being-a-people is chosen as a motive. The being of peoplehood lies in its future, as a projected and chosen state of affairs, guiding the choices of concrete actions in the here-and-now. The shared notion of our peoplehood motivates our choices; it is always latent within them, and sometimes it is quite explicitly the goal of our actions. Political choices, then, construct the various agencies of the state in order to actualize the values of this particular peoplehood, as well as to provide for the concrete material needs of people according to the material particulars of the historical circumstances.
So, Stein situates state-formation and politics within an on-going process of adaptation, wherein the material world is reluctantly supporting human life while we, more or less ingeniously and successfully, organize our activities to provide for our material needs. In the process, we are gradually actualizing and creatively modifying our intention of community. From these efforts, political and economic structures arise, while at the same time a particular average "type" of person may be taking shape. This "typicality" is what Stein means by a race. Race is neither an essential form, nor a result of genetics, nor a product of historical choices. Race arises from the adaptive strategies that accommodate our general human needs to the particular challenges of the environment at a given place and time. These strategies are creative, therefore they are personal, therefore once intergenerationally routinized they subsist within the souls of persons, where they in turn become resources for distinctive cultural creativity.
Thus race and racial expression is never exclusive or opaque; rather, it is one of the structures for openness and mutual energy-enhancement among persons. Clearly, then, some of what we usually include under "race problems" in American political discourse is not genuinely "racial" at all in Stein's terms; instead, these are phenomena of exploitative "associations," the very antithesis and counterfeit of community. Conversely, to hate on racial grounds is nothing less than an act of hatred against the very structure of our common humanity. If you hate the fact that there are different races and racial differences, then you are refusing your own humanity. You are blocking off the channels of access to lifeforce, which is what even made you human in the first place. This hatred is suicidal.
Race is a channel of lifeforce, in a way that the state and civil structures never can be. Race assists cultural productivity because shared race can motivate community. The state does not motivate community; we would say rather that the motive to be a community motivates people to form the intention of political association and take the concrete steps to set up civil agencies. The causal and motivational series behind these contrasting activities run differently. But -- these are points requiring technical discussion among phenomenologists. Let me simply observe that Stein thought and wrote these things in 1921, fully a decade before National Socialism proposed a very different account of the status of the state and its relation to race.
Stein's basic faith, before her baptism, was vested in something that she had both seen and believed. In these remarks I have been trying to work with you in the way that the young Stein would have done, enabling you to see something of the phenomena from which her beliefs arose. The basic insight is the availability of your experiences to me and mine to you, owing to the essential human capability of "following" the patterns of thought and decision laid down by someone else, observing the patterns of causality in material events, and recognizing both the distinctiveness of these two sequences and their intricate interplay in everyday life.
Having followed Stein's thinking from 1916 to 1921, we can perhaps now close by formulating the questions that may have been most salient for her in the summer of 1921, when she was poised on the brink of an encounter with Christianity that would lead on into encounters with the philosophy of Aquinas and the psychology of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. What follows is speculative, but is based on the four treatises that Stein wrote between 1916 and 1921, examined above.
First, Edith must have wanted to know more about this thing that she was calling "lifeforce." Theoretically, having provided a scientific proof for "leaks" in material reality, she wanted to know more about spiritual sources of the energy that was leaking in. She wanted to understand the actual and possible structures for the mediation of spiritual energy. And on a very practical level, she wanted to improve her own connectivity with the realm of transpersonal value. We know from her autobiography and especially from her correspondence that she had experienced some disappointments in her own personal relationships, and that she had also marveled at the resources that certain friends seemed to have accessed when bearing up under tragic losses during the war. As a philosopher, I just want to emphasize that these personal emotional factors in Edith's life had their theoretical, intellectual side as well.
Second, Stein probably wanted to do some further research into the kinds of concrete social formations that would best provide for the welfare and flourishing of human beings. Postwar Germany knew severe economic hardship because of the burdens of reparations imposed by the victors. Those hardships reverberated throughout the society; intellectual and cultural life was deeply affected. Old patterns of economic and political organization were failing. Where could the nation look to find new, more workable designs for recovering its political sovereignty and economic integrity? It’s hard to keep from asking: If gender prejudice had not denied Stein an academic career, and if a university appointment had enabled her to continue her research and publishing, would her voice not have offered answers to these questions very different from the ones that National Socialism gave? What if Husserl's successor had been she, not Heidegger?
Third, Stein may well have been reflecting on this very point. What can I, as one person, do now? She knew full well how important it was for her country to think clearly and act rightly concerning these issues. She had done her very best to present her case. In fact, two of the four essays considered above were designed to be part of the Habilitationsschrift or "second dissertation" that would-be assistant professors presented as part of a job application. Stein's were rejected. Rejection is painful for any job applicant, but Stein must have seen that more was at stake here than her own private disappointment. Having tried her best to use "the normal channels" of an academic podium to introduce these issues and concerns into Germany's intellectual and political agenda, and having failed, she must have been looking for alternative routes. She was a woman in a man's world, and she was a Jew in Germany. But given her fundamental commitment to the possibility of understanding, she was refusing to accept the opacity, the finality of the twin hatreds deployed against her: sexism and racism. She was trying to understand them, to find the intelligibility in them, precisely insofar as they were perversions and refusals of something basically good about human being: its intrinsic motivation toward community. If you will, she was trying to understand the boot that was kicking her and crushing her. She refused to end up as roadkill. She knew she was more than that, and she knew she had more to accomplish before she curled up and died.
These remarks must break off before the end of the story, but we can peer ahead and make two suggestions. First, it’s likely that Edith read Saint Teresa's autobiography as a scientist, and thus took it to be providing independent corroboration for her hypothesis that people can and do get energy downloads from the transpersonal realm. Second, but much later, Edith came to see Judaism in general, and the Jewishness of Jesus in particular, as channels of access to a distinctive value that was available in no other way. She came to regard the hatred of Jews as a hatred of the humanity of Jesus -- which is none other than our own common humanity, our common dependence upon our very connectivity for the life energy that we need. These insights, if correct, point toward an understanding of why Edith sought baptism and the life of cloistered prayer.
This introduction to the phenomenology of Edith Stein has led the reader through some of the philosophical moves that Stein pioneered. In closing, let me encourage you, if you are at all able to do so, to take the time to work through Stein's texts themselves. You must decide if this introduction was accurate, and more importantly, if Stein herself was right.