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Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913–1922
by alasdair macintyre
rowman & littlefield, 224 pages, $25.95

In the summer of 1921, while visiting friends, Edith Stein chanced upon the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Reading through the night, she completed an important stage in her own intellectual and religious development. She decided to become a Catholic and to follow the path of St. Teresa into the Carmelites.

Now, with Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913–1922, Alasdair MacIntyre has written a remarkable intellectual biography of Stein that ends, rather than begins, with her conversion.

The author of such influential books as Marxism and Christianity, After Virtue, and Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre is not writing hagiography but a “philosophical prologue” to a conversion—though that carefully chosen word prologue invites thoughts about the life that Stein would lead after her conversion.

Edith Stein has much to say about reason and faith, the nature of conversion, the relation of phenomenology to Thomism, and the understanding of philosophy as a way of life. In Stein, MacIntyre detects an exemplary philosophical life, not so much in the conclusions reached but in the questions formulated and the integration of thought and life. MacIntyre opens with a reference to the ancient genre of “Lives of the Philosophers,” and MacIntyre’s account of Stein’s life is a contribution to that venerable genre: a counter to the trivializing relegation of philosophy to the professionalized and specialized world of academia, which too often reduces the life of a philosopher to salacious gossip.

MacIntyre’s book is at once an example of, and yet transcends, the contemporary philosophical impulse to recover what philosophers call the “situatedness of thought.” He does indeed locate Stein—a female, Jewish philosopher who was killed at Auschwitz and canonized as a Catholic saint—in the context of her Jewish upbringing, her philosophical apprenticeship under Edmund Husserl, and her growing awareness of German nationalism and its attendant anti-Semitism.

But the book is not finally about the background history of Edith Stein’s intellectual development. Instead, it defends a thesis about the unity of thought and life and about Stein’s own life as an embodiment of a certain form of philosophical life.

Much contemporary philosophical biography involves unmasking scandal. Among modern philosophers, Martin Heidegger is the most widely mentioned case—and the comparison of Heidegger with Stein illustrates the centrality of truthfulness in the attempt to think clearly about how thought and life might be integrated.

At various points, MacIntyre offers tantalizing comparisons of Stein and Heidegger, whose lives have intersecting but opposed trajectories. Heidegger began as a Catholic, studied with Husserl, abandoned Husserl to embark on a radical deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, and ended up an ally of the Third Reich. Edith Stein began as a practicing Jew, turned to atheism, studied with Husserl, struggled to move beyond the limitations she detected in Husserl’s phenomenology, became a Catholic, moved toward traditional metaphysics, and was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

But MacIntyre’s Edith Stein also concerns the history of modern Thomism, to which MacIntyre has since the early 1980s himself been a contributor. In his 1990 book Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, MacIntyre argued that, by making epistemology into first philosophy, certain strains of Thomism inevitably dissolved into a number of competing schools. Of course, MacIntyre does not think that Thomism can simply seal itself off from modernity. Instead, what is needed is a way of engaging modern philosophy without succumbing to its epistemological assumptions.

One possible way to address this problem is through the kind of phenomenology that Edmund Husserl began. MacIntyre does a nice job of introducing the reader to the central philosophical issues in phenomenology and its development out of the history of modern philosophy. While many modern thinkers lined up in defense of the two lines of modern thought that were developed from David Hume and Immanuel Kant, Husserl objected to what Hume and Kant shared: an atomistic and punctual account of experience as consisting of easily isolated sense impressions.

Hume, for instance, inventoried sense impressions and declared that he could detect no clear impression corresponding to such common philosophical notions such as substance or cause and effect. We perceive, Hume famously asserted, only contiguity in time and place: We never have a sense impression of some thing causing another thing, just of one thing happening after, and adjacent to, another event.

To Husserl, this looked less like an accurate description of experience and more like the result of a peculiar sort of analysis. To counter Hume’s reductionist analysis, Husserl offered a meticulous descriptive account of experience, sensitive to the complex ways in which objects are given to us as actual or potential wholes—and as inextricably intertwined, especially in their actions, with other objects. We do not experience fire, paper, and then ashes; we experience fire actively consuming paper and reducing it to ashes.

What attracted so many young scholars to the Husserl of the Logical Investigations (1900) was the sense that he had rescued philosophy from an impasse into which the lines of David Hume and Immanuel Kant had driven it. Instead of Kant’s insistence that we know only appearances, that things in themselves remain hidden to us, the shibboleth of phenomenology was, “To the things themselves.”

Yet when Husserl released his later book Ideas (1913), he seemed to have retreated from things themselves to ideas and to have lapsed from realism back into idealism. As Edith Stein wrote, 

All of us had the same question on our minds. The Logical Investigations had caused a sensation primarily because it appeared to be a radical departure from critical idealism which had a Kantian and neo-Kantian stamp. Knowledge again appeared as reception, deriving its laws from objects not, as criticism has it, from determination which imposes laws on the objects. All the young phenomenologists were confirmed realists. However, the Ideas included some expressions which sounded as though the Master wished to return to idealism.

In his penchant for depicting reality as utterly mind-dependent or intentional, Husserl created notorious problems for himself, concerning (a) the role of the human body in our acts of knowing and (b) our awareness of, and communication with, other persons—the famous problem of intersubjectivity. As MacIntyre sees it, Husserl’s thought embodies two distinct and incompatible philosophical positions.

Macintyre does a marvelous job of reconstructing all this historical context for Stein’s philosophical journey.

He takes up, for example, the little-known Adolph Reinach, a student of Husserl’s and one of Stein’s teachers. Reinach shared Stein’s worries about latent idealism in Husserl, and, ahead of Stein, he saw the import of the social conditions of certain types of acts of knowing: those involved in making promises, for instance.

Among Stein’s own philosophical contributions to phenomenology, her work on empathy stands out, particularly for the problems concerning embodiment and inter-subjectivity. Stein’s graduate thesis, “On the Problem of Empathy,” bears all the marks of an early, incomplete work, where the questions and suggestions for further research are in many ways more significant than the conclusions established.

Still, her focus on empathy brings to the fore precisely those constituting conditions of human experience and knowledge that Husserl was always in danger of suppressing or at least pushing to the margins: the way in which first-person accounts of experience can be changed by alternate third-person accounts, the way in which our sense of ourselves and of others as embodied persons is crucial to the experience of empathy, and the way our self-understanding is frequently mediated by third-person recognition.

MacIntyre detects the overlap of Stein’s life and thought as her philosophical interests in empathy and the social conditions of knowledge, on the one hand, match her desire to participate in the right sort of community, on the other. Stein concerned herself with such fundamental practical questions as: To what sort of community do I owe allegiance? And with what sort of others should I be in dialogue?

It is not surprising that her decision to become a Catholic was nearly indistinguishable from her decision to join a religious order.

MacIntyre rightly sees that Stein’s conversion is a disruption of philosophy. Indeed, given the limitations in her philosophical resources and her lingering disagreements with Husserl, it is not clear how she could have proceeded philosophically.

But MacIntyre also suggests that her conversion provided the seeds for future progress on precisely the lingering questions that Stein was unable to resolve from within Husserlian phenomenology. From Stein herself, MacIntyre derives the observation that large-scale changes in belief are less a matter of organic development of latent possibilities than of an “otherworldly” influence that could not be predicted or compelled.

Macintyre compares Edith Stein’s conversion to that of a number of her contemporaries (Reinach’s conversion to Protestantism, Rosenzweig’s to Judaism, and Lukacs’ to Marxism) to show that the gap between Stein’s philosophical prelude and her religious conversion does not imply that the meaning of “conversion” is reducible simply to “the adoption of beliefs beyond reason.” One can undergo a conversion from one set of rationally held beliefs to another set, or from irrationality to faith in reason. Moreover, the most dramatically compelling conversions are those that enable individuals to understand, if only retrospectively, what they could not before.

One of the matters on which Stein had clearly made some progress before her conversion was in her thought about German nationalism.

MacIntyre makes a convincing case that Stein moved beyond a crude patriotism in the German Volk to a more democratic conception of government, even as she became gradually aware of the rising currents of anti-Semitism in her country. Her analysis of the way what she calls “contagion” can sweep over the masses and render a people susceptible to irrational social currents looks remarkably prescient.

Here, too, MacIntyre makes a case for Stein’s exemplary integration of thought and life, with her ability not so much to come to peremptory conclusions but to think through questions, both theoretical and practical, and to adopt a corresponding way of living.

And this returns us to the comparison of Stein with Heidegger. MacIntyre puts the question, to which Stein’s life is the answer, thus: 

What would it have been in that period of German history in which Heidegger grew up, served his philosophical apprenticeship, and became the most influential of twentieth-century German philosophers to have lived quite otherwise as a philosopher, to have consistently taken seriously both the implications for one’s life outside philosophy of one’s philosophical enquiries and the implications for one’s philosophy of one’s other activities?

Edith Stein is a splendid philosophical book, whose significance over time may come to rival that of After Virtue. That it should also constitute a compelling prelude to theology, indeed, to hagiography, goes some measure toward confirming Thomas Aquinas’ paradoxical claim that philosophy can both have its own integrity and function as a handmaiden of theology.

Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. His books include Virtue’s Splendor and Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.

Image by Johann Brunner licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.