Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
*October 12, 1891 (Breslau, German Empire; Wrocław, Poland)
†August 9, 1942 (Auschwitz, German occupied Poland; Oświęcim, Poland)
During her years as Husserl’s assistant in Freiburg (1916-1918), Edith Stein developed her own approach to social phenomena. In her dissertation On the Problem of Empathy and her subsequent work Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities, the experience of self and others, as well as the relationship between individual and communal thinking were developed in dialogue with Husserl’s thinking. While Stein’s early work is predominantly phenomenological, her conversion to Christianity and the study and translation of Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas resulted in more broadly ontological concerns, culminating in her posthumosly published work Finite and Eternal Being: An Attempt at an Ascent to the Meaning of Being.
Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family, the youngest of 11 children. Her father, Siegfried Stein, was a lumber merchant who died when she was only two years old, leaving her mother, Auguste Stein (née Courant), to take over the business and care for the children alone.
In 1911, Stein enrolled at the University of Breslau in German studies and history, although her real interests were philosophy and women’s issues. While in Breslau, she attended the lectures of the psychologist William Stern (the father of Günther Anders) and the Neo-Kantian philosopher Richard Hönigswald. Stein also became a member of the Prussian Society for Women’s Right to Vote and the Pedagogical Group at the university. It was through the Pedagogical Group that Stein became friends with Georg Moskiewicz, who introduced her to the Würzburg school of experimental psychology. In studying the literature of the Würzburg school, Stein stumbled upon the work of Edmund Husserl. In 1913, Stein transferred from Breslau to the University of Göttingen to study philosophy under Husserl on the recommendation of her cousin Richard Courant and his wife Nelly (née Neumann).
Stein enrolled at Göttingen in SS 1913 and began taking courses with Husserl and Adolf Reinach. During her student years, Stein developed close friendships with numerous members of the Göttingen Circle of phenomenologists, particularly Roman Ingarden. When lectures were cancelled due to the outbreak of the First World War, Stein returned home to Breslau and trained to become a nursing assistant. After completing her training, Stein went back to Göttingen in October 1914 for another semester with Husserl and completed her Staatsexamen on 15 January 1915. That spring she was called upon by the Red Cross and worked for several months in a soldiers’ hospital in Austria. Following her time in the field hospital, Stein returned once more to Breslau and prepared her dissertation.
In 1916, Husserl joined the faculty at the University of Freiburg, and Stein followed. She defended her dissertation, Das Einfühlungsproblem in seiner historischen Entwicklung und in phänomenologischer Betrachtung, that summer. Parts II-IV of the dissertation were published under the title Zum Problem der Einfühlung in 1917. In this work, Stein attempts to uncover the essence of empathy through phenomenological analysis. She maintains that the controversy over empathy stems from the assumption that foreign subjects and their experiences are given to us in experience. Stein is suspicious of this assumption. For Stein, empathy is not a first hand-experience of the content of the mental-life of someone else, nor is it the process whereby we assume what their mental-life is like. It is the experience that announces the mental-life of another.
After completing her dissertation, Husserl hired Stein as his private research assistant – a position she held from October 1916 until February 1918. Her main tasks were transcribing, expanding, and arranging Husserl’s manuscripts for Ideen II, his manuscripts on time-consciousness, and others. In SS 1917, Stein also began teaching the seminar for beginners in phenomenology – her “philosophical kindergarten,” which included Gerda Walther, Ludwig Ferdinand Clauss, Otto Gründler, and Rudolf Meyer. In this way, she took over the job which Reinach had had prior to the war.
After leaving her position as Husserl’s assistant in 1918, Stein began preparing her habilitation, even though women were not awarded such degrees at that time. Her Habilitationschrift of 1919, Beiträge zur philosophischen Begründung der Psychologie und der Geisteswissenschaften, was rejected by the University of Göttingen. It was published in the Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung in 1922. Building on the results of her dissertation, the First Treatise, Psychische Kausalität, discusses the relation between the psyche and the natural and social worlds. The Second Treatise, Individuum und Gemeinschaft, Stein analyses the relationship between the mind or spirit [Geist] and the life of the individual and the community. Here she develops a concept of communal experience, and argues that personal experience is inextricably immersed in, yet distinct from, communal experience. These investigations served as a basis for Eine Untersuchung über den Staat (1925).
During the years following the Great War, and after completing her dissertation, Stein became a member of the Bergzabern Circle of phenomenologists, comprised of former members of the Göttingen Circle who had survived the war. The group, which included Jean Hering, Alexandre Koyré, Hans Lipps, and Alfred von Sybel, met sporadically at the farm of Theodor Conrad and Hedwig Conrad-Martius, and worked to preserve the philosophical legacy of their fallen mentor, Adolf Reinach.
From reading the works of St. Teresa of Jesus, Stein was drawn to Catholicism, and on 1 January 1922 she was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. She then took a position teaching German literature and history at St. Magdalena College for Girls in Speyer, where she taught for 9 years. In 1931 Stein attempted once more to habilitate, but despite Heidegger’s assistance and Husserl’s encouragement, her Potenz und Akt – the second of three works that attempted to reconcile phenomenology with the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas – she was again unsuccessful. In 1932, she obtained a position teaching philosophy at the German Institute for Pedagogical Science in Münster. However, she was removed from her position in the spring of 1933 due to her Jewish heritage. No longer able to teach in Germany, Stein was admitted to the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne the following October, taking on the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. It was during this time that she wrote her last major work Endliches und ewiges Sein. In 1938 she fled Germany to the Carmelite monastery in Echt for safety. On 2 August 1942, she was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. She died in the gas chamber on 9 August 1942. Edith Stein was canonized by Pope John Paul II on 11 October 1998.
For an extensive bibliography see the timeline on Edith Stein.
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