Edith Stein: A New Look at Catholic Philosophy

Each spring semester, the M.A. Philosophy Department at the Franciscan University of Steubenville holds a conference on some particular topic of study in the field of philosophy. Last year, the area of interest was Neoplatonism (in its ancient, mediaeval and modern contexts). And this year, in 2010, the conference will be devoted to the philosophical works of Edith Stein--also known as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

For those who have been reading the blog for a while, you might already know that I have a great passion for studying and discussing Neoplatonism (particularly as it has influenced the history of Catholic philosophy over the centuries). Neoplatonism--most basically--is the tradition of interpreting the philosophical positions of Plato; and its adherents include personalities all the way from Aristotle (who considered himself first of all as a commentator on Plato) to Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, St Augustine, St Bonaventure and--in the estimation of many--St Thomas Aquinas. All in all, Neoplatonism is a vast philosophical tradition that spans the entire history of Christian thought, and then some.

In a very real way, this year's conference on Edith Stein will be an extension of that Neoplatonism conference last year.

Edith Stein was born in Germany in 1881. She was Jewish; although at a relatively early age she lost her faith and devoted herself entirely to philosophy. She was a student of Edmund Husserl--perhaps the most influential single philosopher of the 20th century. As such, she also proved to be a great advocate of Husserl's "phenomenology"--a look at reality from the perspective of man's encounter with the essences of things; and a position that emphasizes, above all, the primacy of the ego in the question of existence.

After spending years studying and teaching, Stein converted to the Catholic faith in 1922; and in 1934 she entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne, where she took the name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. After evading the Nazis for a number of years, she was finally arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she was executed in 1942.

Stein's preparedness for martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, nonetheless, was greatly prefigured (and evidenced) by much of her earlier philosophical work. Among her highest academic priorities were 1) providing a synoptic look at faith and philosophy as two co-dependent fields of knowledge and 2) grasping at an understanding of the Christian Trinity as the basis of a metaphysical realism. Given her background, Stein implemented Husserlian phenomenology to a great extent, always beginning her investigations from the perspective of an encounter-with-reality, and moving only subsequently to metaphysical reality itself.

Nevertheless, though, her philosophical rigor was tempered very much by an appreciation of revealed truths as equally-given in the first moments of one's experience of reality. In other words, Stein--very much like Aquinas, in his own sort of Neoplatonism--considers the Trinity as co-given alongside the impressions of "being" that arise from an Aristotelian investigation of the world. For both Stein and Thomas, the Logos (reason, understanding) is not something deduced from real-world experiences; but rather, it is something within the context of which all real-world experiences abide. As such, God-as-Logos (i.e. the Word, or the Second Person) is a co-given reality, without which an authentic understanding of the world (and of metaphysics) is simply not possible.

By reiterating Thomas' centuries-old position in her new, phenomenological terms, Stein does something for Thomistic philosophy that is entirely invaluable. Not only does she help to clarify many points in Aquinas that are often subject to criticism, but she also revitalizes his understanding of the importance (and even the very possibility) of a truly Christian philosophy; and of one that is rooted not simply in supernatural faith, but with utilizes reason to prepare the way for even deeper faith.

The philosophy of Edith Stein is a real treasure for the Catholic Church in the 21st century. Because of her relatively short life, and the volatile and anti-scholastic philosophical milieu of the 20th century, much of Stein's work has remained largely untouched by commentators and scholars. For this reason, the conference at Franciscan University in the spring of 2010 holds a great deal of potential for breaking open what has long been kept locked up in Stein's own manuscripts. The detail and spectrum of her work will ultimately prove helpful--I think--not only for the discipline of philosophy as a whole, but most especially for the area of Christian philosophy, which is in great need of renaissance and revitalization.

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    # by MadebymeVM - October 31, 2009 at 11:25 PM

    Andrew your blog is amazing.