Thinking About Edith Stein (II)

This is the second in a series of posts on Edith Stein and builds on what was said in the first.  Stein was a serious philosopher who tried to apply the phenomenological methodology of Edmund Husserl to the philosophy that underlay the theology of Thomas Aquinas.  It was a project she took on after her conversion to Catholicism.  Neither Finite and Eternal Being, the book she wrote in the late ‘30’s to complete that project, nor its forerunner, Potency and Act, written in the ‘20’s, were published in her lifetime, the former because she was a “Jew” and the latter because she was a woman.    

Stein was a Thomist.  This essay is not a critique of Stein but of her Thomism.  As such it may be considered as an addendum to the “page” in the sidebar to the right called “Critique of neo-Thomism” which is focused on the work of Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner. 

It should go without saying that it is also an implied critique of the Tridentine Catholic dogmatic constellation which her efforts were designed to protect and promote.  Stein was a formidable proponent of that point of view not only because of her unique resources — she was well versed in both Thomism and phenomenology — but because of the power of her personal witness.  People called her a “saint” long before the Wojtyla Vatican decided to “canonize” her for reasons that had more to do with her “orthodox” ideology than her sanctity.  It’s significant that many cite Stein’s brand of “feminism” as a source of Wojtyla’s “Theology of the body.”  His respect for the “uniquely feminine,” however, while it encouraged participation in politics by women even at the highest levels, did not include membership in the Catholic hierarchy even at the lowest levels.  I wonder how Stein would react to the way her thought has been applied.

Clearly she was an extraordinary human being.  The luster of her fidelity in following her lights, however, should not blind us to the flaws in the worldview that, in ways we are only now coming to recognize, was not only the cause of her death but victimized untold numbers of believers in a myriad of ways.  We will have more to say on this issue in subsequent posts.


It is significant that Stein calls her metaphysical opus Finite and Eternal Being and not “Finite and Infinite Being.”  The reason is that “time” is the fulcrum of her analysis .  Very early in the book she makes a revealing reference to a 1927 article entitled “Time” by fellow Husserlian Hedwig Conrad-Martius.  Stein applauds the article’s “profound analysis” of the ego’s phenomenological experience of the temporal structure of existence and incorporates it into her own work-in-progress.  The phenomenon of “being,” according to Martius, immediately contains within itself the notion of “non-being,” for in the very instant of its “showing itself” as a phenomenon now, it is already in declivity toward an as-yet non-existent future that will put the current existing moment into a non-existent past.  But notice what the phenomenologist is doing with this “knowledge:” she uses it to arrive at what she calls the “essence” of the idea (the phenomenon) of being.  For Stein the idea of being reveals itself to be simultaneously a “now” that is eternally “existent,” riding the crest of a continuous wave-form that is constitutively temporal because it continually passes from non-being into being and back into non-being again.  It is precisely this way of looking at temporality that provides the justification for dividing being into finite and eternal.

For Stein, following Husserl, being is an idea — an idea whose inner structure as an idea is explored and “purified” phenomenologically — but an idea nonetheless.  From there, following Husserl’s belief that the idea as constituted in consciousness is “being” and if properly clarified through phenomenological analysis accurately reflects reality, she makes immediate declarations about the real world.

I believe this is to repeat Plato’s fatal mistake.  She believes her “purified” idea reveals reality-as-it-is.  She declares the “now” part of the three part sequence of past-present-future (abstracting selectively from the phenomenon as an unbroken continuum) is eternal and without any admixture of non-being.  Thus she derives the notion of “eternal being” from the very first phenomenological analysis.  “Being” has an eternal side, for there is always a “now,” and it has a temporal side, because it slides back into non-being.  She calls the latter “finite.”  But I believe the flaw in this analysis is the introduction of an arbitrary division in an experience of an otherwise seamless process.

Others who analyze the same “phenomenon,” like Martin Heidegger, do not reify such ideational divisions.  Heidegger, also a student of Husserl, who wrote a book at the same time (1927) and with virtually the same title as Conrad-Martius’ article (“Being and Time”), uses the temporality of the experience to explain the subjective need of Dasein (the human being) to forge its existence ever-new in each instant, the micro-building block of a lifetime of self-creation, the simultaneous source of human freedom, creativity and a profound anomie. 

But no such immediate “practical” determinations interest Stein.  She is focused on “ideas” — like “being” — which presumably, in the final mix with other “ideas” similarly purified and validated by phenomenological analysis, will provide an overall vision that will eventually open onto the practical paths implied.  But initially the reason for the analysis — true to the thought of Husserl — is the purified “idea” that it produces.  It’s what Husserl called the “essence” of the phenomenon.  He “brackets” the actual existence of whatever is constituted in consciousness (a procedure he calls epoché) and by doing so postpones the examination of its practical applications and prevents them from entering into the definition of the “essence” of the experience.  But please notice: this procedure prevents “matter” from entering into the definition of “being” which is forever dominated by its origins as an “idea.”

Husserl always insisted that his analysis did not abandon the anchor of real existence and that his methodology was a way of knowing the real world — that it was an epistemology not a metaphysics.  But by treating “existence” as an “accident” that an “essence” (a purified idea) may or may not have and therefore is irrelevant to the “being” revealed by the essence in question, despite his “realist” intentions, it is reasonable to ask, as many have, if he has not structurally confined himself to ideas.

The primacy of the “idea” characterizes Stein’s thinking as well, even though her position, following Aristotle’s critique of Plato (she is, after all, a Thomist), gives less independent reality to ideas than Husserl does.  But even while admitting that “essence” (form) only exists embedded in a concrete existing “thing,” by sustaining the scholastic principle that “being comes through the form,” her philosophy does not transcend an “essentialism” that runs counter to the discoveries of science about the real world.  For we have learned from evolution that “essence” (form, what things are), in fact, does not come first; “existence” (survival) comes first, and things evolve the form that works for survival.  This radically impacts Stein’s scholastic assumptions about the separate existence and primacy of “spirit” and of a rational creator-God who inserted “essences” (form) into “matter.”

In her 1929 essay comparing Husserl and Aquinas she herself also suggests Husserl’s thought is “idealist.”  One may assume her allusions there to students who were not convinced by his disclaimers include herself.[1]  In her own work Stein clearly tried to subordinate her phenomenology to Thomism’s “moderate realism,” but as with Husserl himself it is fair to ask whether the very tools she employs, like Husserl’s epoché added to Thomas’ essentialist dualism, do not lock her into a world of ideas, her best efforts notwithstanding.


In the cosmo-ontology that I espouse (see The Mystery of Matter, p. 93ff) the temporality experienced by the human organism is immediately seen to be the very condition of material existence itself; it is correlated with the body of knowledge amassed by science.  It is not just an “idea” or a human experience.  The “phenomenon” of temporality corresponds to what all other “things” in our cosmos are going through simultaneously with us.  We are all subject to the same sequence of past-present-future at the same pace, with the same consequences for survival.  Matter exists as an unbroken continuum and “time” is the mental construct we have created to represent that continuity.  Non-being is a fiction.  There is no such thing as “non-being.”

Temporality is a mental derivative of matter’s energy itself.  Everything made of matter — organic or inorganic, atomic or molecular, sub-atomic particles or pre-particle energy — continues in existence as itself moment after moment in a way that creates what human biological organisms experience as “time.”  “Being” and “time” and “non-being” are mental constructs; they are our ideas for what we are experiencing as the conditions for continuity (survival).  Living organisms must learn how temporal sequence affects their vital needs, their food sources and their predators, or they will not survive.  Time is a function of material identity — organic continuity.  By the organism insisting on continuing in existence (surviving), the existential energy (matter) that is the structural “stuff” of the living material dynamism creates “time.”  That “insistence on existence” in the human organism is experienced as the conatus.  And the result of this insis­tent continuity, “staying the same” (surviving), we experience as “being-here in time.” 

Beyond Platonic Christianity: an immanent “God,”

Stein’s idealism is not unique.  We have to take a broader historical view and recognize that Platonic idealism was itself the “hard science” of its day, believed to rationally supersede the naïve naturalist worldview represented by the ancient cosmic theogonies and the immanentist monotheism that they gave rise to.  Platonic ideas were thought to be “fact” of the most superior kind, groun­ding the transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” that gave humankind (as the only “spirit” in a material world) full, absolute and unaccountable dominion over material “nature.” But the price we had to pay was exorbitant.  In exchange for our lordship over creation we were forced to disown the matter of our bodies and maintain the illusion that we were disembodied spirits exiled from another world.  Mind over matter and life after death became the leitmotiv of the culture nourished by Christianity.  The failure of the mediaeval philosophical “science” that was conjured to justify these illusions was the direct cause of the development of modern empirical science.  Thomas’ holistic insistence, for example, that body and soul in man are only one thing, was immediately contradicted by the simultaneous claim that the “soul” lived on after death.  If Thomas’ Aristotelian subtleties were disregarded by the people, we should not be surprised:   people are not stupid.  A soul that lives after death has got to be a “thing” in its own right, and because it goes to heaven or hell, it is the only “thing” that matters.

Modern science evolved from the work of religion’s most ardent defenders, men like Aquinas, partly in reaction to them and partly by employing the analytical principles and standards of probity they had refined from the inheritance of ancient times.  In promoting Aquinas and his scholastic worldview, Stein’s “return to roots” only reached those closest to the surface.  To find roots with enough depth and pre-scientific authenticity to support new growth one would have to go back before Platonic Christianity.

This is not the only way to rethink Christianity in the post-modern idiom but it is a fruitful avenue, and one that offers an ultimate continuity for the Christian.  It attempts to understand the worldview and mindset of Jesus and his immediate followers, and discovers an entirely new set of heuristic principles that turn the so-called “traditional” Christian value assumptions on their head.  A pre-platonic immanent “God,” for example — generally rejected as “pantheist” by the mediaeval Church — a “God” who is near to every one of us, clearly and unapologetically evoked by Paul in Acts 17 and Colossians 1, and John throughout his writings, stands in glaring contrast with Plato’s “Pure Spirit” who is inaccessible to all things material, including human beings, and requires a divine mediator (and his Imperial Church) to bridge the gap between humankind and “God.”  Plato’s remote and distant “Spirit” provides the context for understanding Nicaean Athanasius’ obsessive need to dogmatize Jesus’ “divinity” and set it in metaphysical stone.  If “God” were naturally near us (which is what Jesus believed), there would be no need to insist that Jesus was “God.”  And quiet as it’s kept, Jesus himself insisted he was not “God.”  Theosis would be open to all and human moral goodness and a selfless attitude would be its manifestation and confirmation.  The mechanisms of a Church which were claimed necessary to overcome a metaphysical incompatibility between “God” and humankind would revert back to what they originally were and should have always remained: rituals that evoke and poetically enhance human moral commitments based on attitudes that imitate Jesus’.

In this light, the entire dogmatic edifice of traditional western (Constantinian-Augustinian) Christianity is revealed as the institutionalized displacement of Jesus’ message from the moral to the metaphysical  plane, from the arena of moral action and attitude to that of conferred status, office and ownership.  The “sacraments,” similarly, were displaced from being the symbols of personal transformation and commitment, to being quasi hydraulic mechanical devices — magic ATM machines — delivering a “currency” (grace as “coin-of-the-realm”) needed to secure a “place” in the “other world.”

It was Platonism that created “the other world” and the only evidence for it was the human mind and the ideas that swim in it.  A Christianity wedded to Platonism — made insuperable by the insistence on the immortality of the disembodied “soul” — results in the alienation of the individual’s sense of the sacred and renders humankind defenseless against the maneuvers of self-appointed “holy rulers” who control a mystified population convinced their destiny is in that other world, and that the priests alone hold the keys to it.  Entrance to the “other world,” dependent on “good behavior” and the means of accumulating “grace,” put enormous power in the hands of the hierarchy.  It turned out to be the most efficient mechanism of social control ever devised.  The fact that it came to be correlated to money was a clue to its true function.  It ran Europe unchallenged for 1700 years, and is even today, far from extinct.

Clearly this was not Stein’s intention, nor, I feel assured, was it Thomas’.  But it is my contention that once you define “being” as an idea and “bracket” the real material conditions under which its energy is activated, you have skewed the picture so radically that whatever later you derive from those premises is bound to go in the wrong direction.  In this case we were off by 1800.   We are not “spirits” that belong in another world; we are biological organisms spawned by and at home on this planet earth.  It confirms what many post-modern Christians say: that we have labored under a distorted vision of ourselves — as disembodied spirits — and from there we have projected an equally distorted image of “God.”  Our Christian tradition took both “God” and ourselves out of the real world, the world of matter … and left the material universe and our human bodies a godless wasteland.

The crux of that error lies in the denigration of matter: the divinization of ideas and the substantial “spirit” they supposedly represent.  It is the creation of a false and unwarranted division in reality that results in the human alienation from its own material organism.  It is responsible for the pathology of Western Man that fulfills the definition of what Thomas Szasz has called “autogenic disease”: a disease in which the organism identifies its own body as the enemy and tries to destroy it.[2]

[1] Stein, op.cit, Knowledge and Faith, pp 32-33

[2] Cf. Thomas Szasz, M.D., “On Autogenic Diseases,” The Freeman, Ideas On Liberty, May 2004.


2 comments on “Thinking About Edith Stein (II)

  1. jorisheise says:

    I should like to add. The addition is a statement I have preached in school and elsewhere that the “soul” remaining after death is fundamentally the Egyptian view of the “ka” (and its fellow “souls”) to remain alive after death, along with the correlative view, not often mentioned, that the Egyptians for much of their 2000 year flourishing were said to think that good people’s “ka’s” became starts in “heaven.” I am aware of the role of Egypt in influencing the Athenians (see the development of the kouros statues), and have believed that Plato/Socrates/Aristotle borrowed heavily from that culture–and often unwittingly. Much of what this article says makes more sense–it is clear already and I am agreeing with this in toto–but the Egyptian cultural influence is worth mentioning….

  2. Richard D says:

    Hi Tony,
    Your incisive analysis of the questions raised in Stein’s works, is, to me, a clear summation of the progression of principles that fell short of achieving a positive transition of Christian teaching into the modern” age. But then, I guess the kind of transitional thinking that you represent will always be subject to the inertia of “sacred Tradition”, eventhough that platform can no longer get out of its own way. I have great hopes that the insights you have been providing for years now will be major factor in bringing a truly contemporary, practical, healing solution to so many in need today.
    “… the divinization of ideas and the substantial “spirit” they supposedly represent. It is the creation of a false and unwarranted division in reality that results in the human alienation from its own material organism.” A genuinely sad state of affairs.

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