Edith Stein's intellectual pilgrimage

In her novel To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf employs a beguilingly simple simile to describe the mind of the philosopher, Mr Ramsay. She writes: "If thought…like the alphabet is ranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q… Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q." By this reckoning I think I have probably reached the letter B. Thus, even though Alasdair MacIntyre, currently senior research professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, says he is addressing the "educated common reader", I will prescind from discussing the technical philosophic points he raises in this excellent introduction to Edith Stein’s intellectual development before her conversion.

Unlike most academic philosophers and in marked contrast to her contemporary, Martin Heidegger, Stein did not separate her philosophy from her life. In 1913, having rejected her Jewish faith, she went to Gottingen University to study under Husserl, along with a group of other young, gifted philosophers such as Adolf Reinach, who became a close friend. Husserl’s phenomenological standpoint saw philosophy as a cooperative project rather than a matter for solitary effort or the dominance of a great name. This resonated with Stein; it was a period of potent intellectual fellowship for her, only interrupted by the War, in which she volunteered as a nurse in a Red Cross hospital. Her relationships with her patients, with whom she could often only communicate in a non-verbal way, deeply influenced her doctoral thesis: to identify the essential characteristics of empathetic awareness, awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others. It was accepted summa cum laude in 1916 and Stein became Husserl’s assistant.

Not the least of the strengths of this short book is MacIntyre’s discussion of the nature of conversion. To put Stein’s conversion into perspective (she was received into the Catholic Church in 1922) he analyses the conversions of three of her contemporaries, all sons of Jewish families: Reinach, who died in the War and whose widow, Anna’s, capacity to console her friends made a lasting impression on Stein – "the power of the Cross" – became a Christian; Franz Rosenzweig chose to revert to Judaism; Georg Lucacks turned to Bolshevism. The author also refutes the commonly held notion that to move from unbelief to belief is irrational; the "leap of faith" does not mean taking leave of reason but transcending it. The story of the impact of the autobiography of Teresa of Avila on Stein is widely known. Macintyre identifies and analyses the four features of this work that she would have understood; the life of prayer, the obstacles arising from strong human attachments, Teresa’s rejection of a false spirituality and her awareness of the possibilities of delusion and illusion.

As a very distinguished philosopher and fellow convert to Catholicism, MacIntyre is uniquely placed to examine the thinking of this extraordinary woman who moved from unbelief to a Carmelite convent and eventually perished in Auschwitz because she was Jewish. Pope John Paul II canonised her as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. His lucid, careful study places Edith Stein within the context of the German philosophic world she inhabited, as well as showing how Husserl’s thought was itself a radical departure from the sterile, arid school of 19th century neo-Kantianism. The author concludes: "Stein needed to go beyond phenomenology. It was a providential accident that she encountered the thought of Aquinas when she did and so became able to open up just those questions that needed to be asked about the relationship of Thomistic philosophy to phenomenology. And here it is Stein’s questions that I am praising rather than her answers." I warmly recommend it to those educated common readers who have reached the letter E.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.


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