The Empathy of Edith Stein by D. L. Pughe

Knowledge is blind, empty, and restless, always pointing back to some kind of experienced, seen act. And the experience back to which knowledge of foreign experience points is called empathy.[i]

Edith Stein

Einfühlung ist eine Art erfahrender Akte sui generis.

Empathy is a kind of unique act of perceiving.

Edith Stein

Only one who experiences oneself as a person, as a meaningful whole, can understand other persons. The ‘self’ is the individual experiential structure…in it (is) the source of deception from which danger threatens us. If we take the self as the standard, we lock ourselves into the prison of our individuality. Others become riddles for us, or still worse, we remodel them into our image and so falsify historical truth.[ii]

Edith Stein

 Edith Stein’s Exploration of Empathy as Experience

Edith Stein (1891-1942) was one of the few philosophers to try to reckon with the multiple definitions of empathy.  She began her philosophical studies in Göttingen with Edmund Husserl and his circle, then became Husserl’s assistant at his position in Freiburg. There she completed her work On the Problem of Empathy in 1917 (Zum Problem der Einfühlung) as her final thesis. By the end of the twentieth century Einfühlung had accumulated complex layers of competing ideas. For Stein, the core ‘problem’ of empathy began in its various applications. Aesthetic empathy had grown out of ancient theories combining with the Kantian intuitive union with the sublime and Robert Vischer’s extension into aesthetic ‘oneness.’ In ethical empathy, both philosophers and psychologists recognized empathy as an innate moral impulse which could be refined through social awareness. And then there was the empathy which Husserl most often referred to: empathy as the cognitive source of foreign (fremdes) experience. For Stein, the previously unquestioned mingling of epistemological, purely descriptive, and genetic-psychological aspects of empathy complicated efforts to untangle all these definitions.

Edmund Husserl

While she sees the aesthetic and moral sides of empathy as valuable, Stein believes the basic problem is the question of how we experience empathy as the perceiving (Erfahrung) of foreign subjects and their experience (Erleben). Thus, the description of empathy within consciousness must be the basis for any other dealings with the problem by psychologists, sociologists, or biologists.[iii] She believes empathy consists in imaginatively putting oneself in the place of another I, and reproducing in one’s own imagination the form of the other’s experience.[iv]

Stein was always confident of her intelligence from the time she was a child as she describes in her autobiography.

Edith Stein was drawn to Husserl’s work, as were many other young philosophers in the early 20th century, as a chance to describe the real experience of perception. As she writes in her autobiography Edith Stein, Life in A Jewish Family 1891-1916, the first ‘at home’ session Husserl hosted in Göttingen included the group of young philosophers Johannes Hering, Alfons Reinach, Hans Lipps, Theodore Conrad, Max Scheler, Alexander Koyré, Siegfried Hamburger, Rudolf Clemens, Gustav Hübner, and Alfred von Sybel:

 All of us had the same question on our minds. [Husserl’s] Logische Untersuchungen had caused a sensation because it appeared to be a radical departure from critical idealism which had a Kantian and neo- Kantian stamp. It was considered a “new scholasticism” because it turned attention away from the “subject” and toward “things” themselves. Perception again appeared as reception, deriving its laws  from objects not, as criticism has it, from determination which imposed its laws on the objects.[v]

Through Stein’s autobiography and her published letters we are able to understand some of the texture of these philosophical encounters. The close-knit group of students who gathered around ‘the Master,’ both in Göttingen and in Freiburg, experienced ‘intersubjective understanding’ not just in theory but in practice.

Husserl’s Circle left to right:  Johannes Hering, Friedrich Neumann, Adolf Reinach, Hans Lipps, Hans-Theodor Conrad, Max Scheler, Alexandre Koyré, Siegfried Hamburger, Hedwig Martius, Rudolf Clemens, Gustav Hübener, Alfred Von Sybel

With ‘The Master’

The phenomenological ‘special standpoint’ that allows one to perceive the essence of empathy became the focus of Stein’s research. She closely examines Husserl’s phenomenological method, particularly the second reduction, hoping to discover what is left in our perception after the world and other subjects are ‘bracketed’ away. She questions how phenomenology is not satisfied with describing a single perception but attempts to establish an ‘essential perception’ from a single case in ideational abstraction. At this point Stein began to see weaknesses in Husserl’s original (pre-Ideas II) stance. In Husserl’s epoché the entire surrounding world, including the physical and psycho-physical and the soul of the perceiver and the perceived, is ‘withheld’. In her letters to Roman Ingarden, a fellow student of Husserl in Freiburg, Stein reveals what she considers to be their main point of divergence:

I have begun to examine more closely one of the points on which the Master and I differ (the necessity of a body for empathy).[vi]

She believes that the living body (Leib) of the ‘I’ is itself the center of orientation, the zero-point of perception. She is interested in how what is given in outer perception is constituted within consciousness and affects our understanding. Her use of the word Leib to describe the living body is crucial, for the more common term is Körper which refers to simply the ‘physical body.’ For Edith Stein, each us is constituted as a psycho-physical individual instead of a mere cogito, and each of us possesses a soul.

Edith Stein’s examination of empathy with regard to the whole person influenced Husserl’s second book of his Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology. Stein was hired to collaborate with Husserl on the Ideas II, but ended up largely translating his works out of the ‘Gabelsberger‘ shorthand method in which Husserl had written his thousands of pages. She then tried to organize his manuscripts which were voluminous and chaotic.

Husserl’s wrote in Gabelsberger shorthand in over 40,000 pages of his manuscripts.

In letters to another student, Fritz Kaufmann, Stein describes the difficulty of communication she experienced with ‘the master’ while working with him in the process:

collaboration with the dear Master is a highly complicated matter; there is a concern that it will never even come to an actual collaboration. He keeps occupying himself with individual questions about which he dutifully informs me, but he cannot be moved, even  once, to look at the draft I am making for him out of his old material to enable him to regain the overview of the whole that he has lost.[vii]

In her letters Stein alludes to Husserl’s moods, and she eventually resigned in 1918 stating that it was

 the thought of being at someone’s disposition that I cannot bear. I can place myself at the service of something, and I can do all manner of  things for the love of someone but to be at the service of a person, in short—to obey, is something I cannot do.[viii]

Husserl’s inability to understand Stein and her needs to create original work of her own echoed his growing inattention to others in his circle of students and friends. And later, as the shadow of the second world war loomed over Europe, he increasingly withdrew into his own abstract world. It is ironic that in this realm of extreme reflection and limited personal contact he was trying to enlarge a notion of interconnectedness between human beings.

Primordial Perception

To try to clarify what is ‘given’ to us in phenomenological perception Stein first looked at outer perception, then the concept of primordiality, and finally the relation to memory, expectation and fantasy. ‘Outer perception,’ Stein sees as an act given primordially without reflection and is immediate and sensate, while empathic perception takes a step back and is thus reflective and non-primordial. She looks at pain in particular as the problematic ‘sign’ in outer perception, since pain is usually perceived ‘in’ the pained countenance of another yet it is difficult to get an ‘orientation’ to where the pain is primordially given. Where the ‘averted sides’ of what is perceived phenomenologically are supplied through a progressive perception and bring new sides of the thing to primordial ‘givenness,’ so empathy tries to provide a parallel approach to other human beings. But, according to Stein, our ability to synthesize these sides and to delve into their meaning then requires a step back into reflection, opening up space and also delay.

Primordiality implies a spontaneity and immediacy which Husserl found crucial to an unmediated and bracketed notion of ‘givenness.’ Primordiality, recalling Paul Ricoeur’s definition, is the experience where one perceives while realizing one is perceiving and involves the whole body.[ix]   In Stein’s own footnote about her usage, she defines it as the ‘act side of experience’ instead of using the words ‘actual experience’.[x]   Stein notes that our past ‘experience’ also has a primordial character, though may not be primordially ‘given’ nor primordial in content. Rather than completely bracketing it away, she feels it is the key to the ability to empathize. Experience includes all manner of things, often usually separate from current circumstances in time and also distant from present company in space.

Stein recognizes how the present primordiality points back to a ‘past’ primordiality which has the character of a former ‘now’. She notes how in the second epoché of projecting into (hineinverseten) ourselves, the present ‘I’ and the past ‘I’ face each other as subject and object. This process unites the past to the present in an ‘apperceptive grip’ and becomes key to the similar process of inter-subjective projection in empathy. The way we revive memory and how it faces present reality offers a sense of immediacy, even though it is reflective. Stein explains:

Diverse forms of memory can have a variety of gaps. Thus it is possible for me to represent a past situation to myself and be unable to remember my inner behavior in this situation. As I transfer myself back into this situation, a surrogate for the missing memory comes into focus…it is the requisite completion of the memory image to get the meaning of the whole.[xi]

Stein suggests this synthesis of past into present is where ‘experience’ is most valuable in empathic awareness. Similar to Husserl’s description of the retention of the past into the present when we listen to music, allowing us to synthesize a melody from a succession of notes, Stein recognizes the important way that the past helps us unpack or unfold the present as a continuity.

‘Expectation’ or a sense of the future she feels is a parallel situation to the process of synthesizing past and present, but where both past and present combine to help us anticipate what is to come. Expectation is not ‘primordially given’ but shares a similar immediacy. In ‘fantasy’, however, there is no temporal distance to bridge. Fantasized experiences are not actual experiences or those drawn from memory, but they take the non-primordial form of present experience:

 The ‘I’ producing the fantasized world is primordial while the ‘I’ living in that world is non-primordial.[xii]

Stein concludes by admitting that neither memory (drawing on the past) nor expectation (focusing on the future) nor fantasy (alluding to mythical time) have the object of perception before them. Yet in calling up the object, they do represent it, according to Stein, and the character of this representation is immanent and essential rather than a remote ‘sign.’[xiii]

As for the ‘act’ of empathy, for Edith Stein it draws on both past and present and is in tune with the future as a ‘present experience.’ The key difference for Stein is that it is not primordial in content. The content can be called up in different ways (such as in memory, expectation, or in fantasy) and Stein tries to describe the experience of empathy itself. When it ‘arises’ it happens all at once (seeing sadness in another’s face before you), and ‘faces’ you as an object but when you inquire into the ‘implied tendencies’ (trying to bring the person’s mood to ‘clear givenness’ to yourself) it becomes apparent that the content has pulled you inside and it is no longer an ‘object.’[xiv] Suddenly, she explains, you realize that you are no longer turned to the content but to the object of the content and are ‘at the subject of the content in the original subject’s place’. This mode of trading places, of being for a moment in another person’s shoes, is followed by a clarification where the content returns again to face you as an object.

Stein concludes from this that empathy is not perception, representation, or a neutral positing but is an experience of being led by the foreign experience. Empathy for Edith Stein is being drawn into the experience of another and it is perhaps important to clarify ‘experience’ once more. What Stein believes is critical is the ‘inner lived experience’ (Erlebnis) of the individual is the direct observational knowledge of the world which is immediate, passive, fragmented, isolated and unintegrated.[xv] ‘Personal experience’ we think of as the cumulative knowledge of what one has come to know or believe through past acquaintance or repeated performance. This past-tense version of ‘experience’ is that of digested perception while ‘inner lived experience’ is still fresh, in the moment of occurrence.

She goes on to outline how the experience of foreign inner experience takes place on three levels:

  1. The emergence of the experience;
  2. The fulfilling explication;
  3. The comprehensive objectification of the explained experience.[xvi]

Stein sees each level as necessary to the full understanding found in empathy but admits that in reality most people are often satisfied with one of the lower levels. She goes on to describe how in the first and third levels what we experience is on a parallel plane to the perception of current time and space. On the second level, however, where we experience the fulfilling explanation which is key to our understanding, we are on another plane, which is parallel to the having of the experience.

This sequence with a ‘middle’ moment of meaning recalls Aristotle’s anagnorisis in his theory of tragedy, where the hero suddenly understands his or her situation and then a purging catharsis follows. Empathy as a ‘moment of understanding’ also requires a reckoning which must emerge before the fulfilling explication. Here Stein points out that the ‘subject’ of the empathized experience is not the subject empathizing, but another, the transcendental ego. These ‘two subjects,’ Stein says, are separate and not joined by a consciousness of sameness or a continuity of experience. She explains that rather than a ‘feeling of oneness’ with another, this form of empathy is a kind of act of perceiving.

Testing Lipps

As part of the directive for her thesis, Edith Stein was asked to comment on the other key thinkers on the idea of empathy, most notably Theodor Lipps whose work Husserl had relied on in choosing ’empathy’ as the means to experience other individuals. While she found this an irksome task, it became an important means to articulate her own theory in the end.[xvii] She disagrees with Theodor Lipps at the outset in his idea of empathy as the basis ‘point blank at the center’ of his whole ideology aesthetic, ethical and social philosophy.[xviii]

Lipps believes empathy is ‘inner participation’ in foreign experience as a kind of ‘act undergone’ by the subject. She feels he confuses the act of being drawn into the experience with the act of transition from non-primordial to primordial experience.[xix] And she finds his ideas about ‘positive’ or full empathy which allows a complete experiencing another’s experience, engulfing. She objects to his example of the spectator who views the acrobat and experiences the inner movement of each thing he does. A spectator viscerally responding to the performance, she says, is not one with the acrobat, but only at him. What confused Lipps, Stein thinks, is a kind of self-forgetfulness which is more characteristic of sympathy than empathy. Self-forgetfulness is a way of ‘surrendering’ oneself to an object which also dissolves the ‘I’ of that object. She explains that empathy is not a ‘feeling of oneness’ at all but rather a recognition of the two-sidedness of the empathic act as:

an experience of our own announcing another one…It comes to life in my feeling, and from the “I” and “you” arises the “we” as a subject of a higher level.[xx]

Lipps also seems to Stein to be ‘bound’ by the phenomenon of the ‘expression of experiences.’[xxi] He refuses to explore how empathy exactly happens and was satisfied with calling it an ‘inexplicable adjustment of our spirits’ or a ‘natural instinct’.

Empathy (‘in feeling’) is seen as an improvement on sympathy (‘with feeling’), but Edith Stein wants to know what distinguishes it as such. Sympathy or ‘fellow feeling’ is a primordial act of ‘joy-with-the-other’ or ‘sorrow-with-the-other’ which does not have the same content as empathy. Empathy is reflective, it has a non-primordial nature which includes memory, expectation, imagination. She notes that Lipp’s designation of ‘reflexive sympathy’ is simply the ‘reiteration’ of empathy: comprehending empathically that there can be empathic acts in which the other comprehends another’s acts. The key difference between all kinds of sympathy and the act of empathy is the mode in which they are given.

In her interest in the ‘whole’ person, including physical and spiritual aspects along with the cognitive, Edith Stein feels that the facial and physical gestures we are ‘given’ by another person are open to phenomenological interpretation. In the methodology used by Husserl, she notes in On the Problem of Empathy, phenomenological perception is

not satisfied with describing the single perception, [but] wants to ascertain what “perception is essentially as such.” [Yet] it acquires this knowledge from the single case in an ideational abstraction.[xxii]

This approach excludes broader experience, and experience plays an important role in our ability to empathize according to Stein. In trying to understand the single, concrete experiences of individuals there are too many layers that can complicate or confuse what could be ‘read’ as essence. Stein gives the example of the human face which could be read symbolically based on a single perception, but which experience would augment with significant information:

 I not only know what is expressed in facial expressions and gestures, but also what is hidden behind them. Perhaps I see that someone makes a sad face but is not really sad. I may also hear someone make an indiscreet remark and blush. Then I not only understand the remark and see shame in the blush, but I also discern that he knows his remark is indiscreet and is ashamed of himself for having made it. Neither this motivation nor the judgment about his remark is expressed by a ‘sensory experience.’[xxiii]

Another of Lipp’s theories is that of ‘negative empathy’ which is essentially ‘unrealized empathy’ in a subject within whom something psychological opposes such an experience. Because Lipps emphasizes a full primordial experience as the ‘true’ accomplishment of empathy, any half-measures are denied. Stein instead sees empathy’s unique role in allowing us to transcend personal barriers for a moment and use our imagination to grasp what we can. She gives the example of hearing about another’s joy at a time when you are saturated with grief. One is only able in that circumstance to experience empathy for the other as a ‘background experience’—comparable to the peripheral areas of vision, the horizons of perception. One experiences the pull of personal emotions and those presented by the other. Recalling the complexities of ‘mixed emotion’ which troubled Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Edith Stein sees no reason one cannot accommodate both and learn from them. Empathy as experience appears to imply that all emotional experience can be meaningful if one approaches it as an empathic act.

Being Led

If empathy is a mode of perception toward the goal of knowledge of experience foreign to our own, is it an ‘idea’ (Vorstellung) or an actuality? There was debated over this at the time of Stein’s book, led by M. Geiger in Das Wesen und die Bedeutung der Einfühlung. Stein believes that because empathy is non-primordial in character, there is no certainty of its objective nature in being ‘led’ by the other. This persistent metaphor in Stein’s work of the other ‘leading’ us into their experience implies an invitation and course of a journey in the process of understanding. It is respectful of the twists and turns we can be taken on in that process, attempting to remain open along the way.

But, as the Skeptics and many philosophers before her have argued, one can go this route, one can say that the foreign experience ‘is there’ for me, but there is no objective way to prove it. This challenge forces Stein to clarify some of her definitions. She distinguishes ‘perception’ as having its object before it in embodied givenness, while ’empathy’ does not, but:

both have their object itself there and meet it directly where it is anchored in the continuity of being.[xxiv]

The invisible essence of the other person is thus held somewhere beyond sight and proof. But Edith Stein believes empathy goes further than an intuitive idea which makes another’s experience into an object and does not reach the stage of ‘fulfilling explication.’ For all these reasons she finds it impossible to classify empathy as either idea or actuality, setting it up in a category all its own. Empathy resides in a zone where intuition and imagination meet, where reason and emotion complement rather than coerce one another, and where experience—our own, and that of the other person—all combine to give us a moment of understanding.

Imitation, Association and Analogy

Stein also reviews empathy in the psychological terms of the times. She finds the phenomenological method is concerned with essences, and disagrees with Lipps again that empathy resembles the psychological ‘theory of imitation.’ That theory declares that a witnessed gesture arouses in me the impulse to imitate it, which I do ‘inwardly’ if not outwardly (the acrobat, for instance). Stein describes ‘transferred’ feelings as those which saturate us and yet which prevent our turning toward or submerging ourselves in the foreign experience of the other which is the aim of empathy. The example of a child crying when it sees another cry and finds it is a receptive rather than projective act related to Scheler’s notion of emotional contagion. In their engulfing, overflowing scope, imitative feelings often have the paralyzing effect which Descartes noted occur in his writings on ‘astonishment’. Unless one makes connections which lead to understanding (or ‘wonder,’ as Descartes suggests), one is simply stuck in the throes of another person’s pain or joy.

The ‘theory of association’ has many permutations; in Stein’s usage it is based on a visual image of another person’s gestures reproducing a visual image of our own gestures, which in turn reproduces the kinesthetic movement and finally the feeling linked to that movement. For instance: we see someone stamp his feet we instantly remember how we once stamped our feet and the fury associated with it. Via the ‘theory of association,’ according to Stein, we would then say to ourselves ‘This is how furious he is now.’[xxv] The emotional state is inferred, matter-of-factly. The ‘theory of association’ is rejected by Stein because it calls on our memory for a comparable experience to the one we are witnessing and transferring our feelings from that memory onto the other. Association does not mediate our understanding of what we are witnessing as the expression of an inner condition the way that empathy does.

Finally, Stein tackles the ‘theory of inference by analogy’ as it was developed by John Stuart Mill, examining evidence of outer and inner perceptions through inferences about their meaning. Stein believes it does not yield perception but only a more or less probable knowledge of the foreign experience—it ignores direct perception as it searches for what, in the initial behavior, reminds one of one’s own. Analogy provides an empty representational form for interpretation without being oriented toward the nature of knowledge itself. Empathy, Stein states, posits being immediately as a perceived act that reaches the other directly without representation. Analogical awareness does occur during the second phenomenological reduction, but it is not ‘analogy’ in the usual sense of the word. It is recognition that the other person shares the same possibilities of world and self, but not the same characteristics or personal character.

Stein also challenges Scheler’s view that we perceive the foreign ‘I’ with its experience ‘inwardly’ just as we perceive our own ‘I’. From an initial neutral stream of experience, in Scheler’s schema, our ‘own’ and ‘foreign’ experience gradually crystallize. Vischer had also used this metaphor describing the way imagination deepens and sensation crystallizes in forms to reach ’empathic sensation’ (Einempfindung). The slow, hardening process of crystallization seems at odds with the fluctuating nature of sensation. In fact, Wilhelm Worringer believed that ‘crystalline’ best describes our abstract, inorganic and life-denying tendencies. Scheler’s theory suggests a connection to Stendhals’ (1783-1842) description of romantic love in his book De l’Amour. Near a mine outside Salzburg, Stendhal saw bare tree branches become slowly encrusted with salt until they were crystallized ornaments. He compared this process to the way a person in the throes of romantic love turns a person into a faceted object of their imagination and desires.[xxvi]

Detail of salt crystallized on a branch from Ellen Rasmussen’s artwork Salzburg Bough, 2010 based on Stendhal’s quote.

Stein finds Scheler’s ideas similarly embellished, hardening over the immediate essence of perception, and his idea of ‘inner perception’ deceptive. Yet she was drawn to Scheler and it begs the question of her own definition of empathy as a process of being drawn into or led into foreign experience. She describes her own experience of Scheler in her autobiography:

Scheler’s practice of scattering about ingenious suggestions without pursuing them systematically had something dazzling and seductive about it…One’s first impression of Scheler was fascination. In no other person have I ever encountered the “phenomenon of genius” as clearly. The light of a more exalted world shone from his large blue eyes. His features were handsome and noble; still, life had left some devastating traces on his face…Scheler spoke with great insistence, indeed with dramatic liveliness. Words he was particularly fond of (for example, “pure Washeit” (pure whatness) were spoken with devotion and tenderness. When expressing disagreement with presumed opponents, he used a contemptuous tone.[xxvii]

The seductive aspects of Scheler’s thought and personality bring us back to the difficulties in knowing where we are being ‘led’ in Stein’s notion of empathy.

Max Scheler

Stein tries to deconstruct Scheler’s theory and finds that Scheler’s sense of inner perception seems directed toward acts and is psychic experience while outer perception is differently given and is physical. What distinguishes reflection from inner perception is that it is an actual turning toward an actual experience while inner perception can be non-actual. Then she questions what Scheler means by ‘own’ and ‘foreign.’ Scheler implies that one must suppress or ‘forget’ one’s own ‘I’ in the process of empathy in order to comprehend the other. Stein insists that phenomenological reduction leads to empathy only by the second epoché, the return to the ‘sphere of ownness.’ For Scheler, one’s own ‘I’ is psychic and he believed that we do not experience either ourselves or the world in isolation but as part of a world of psychic experience. Stein agrees that if we abandon the phenomenological standpoint one can see Scheler’s point. Against the background of the spatial world spread out on all sides of us, our inner experience holds a boundless world of psychic individuals and psychic life.[xxviii]

In this realm, Stein admits, one can feel ‘foreign feelings,’ feelings, she says, that have ‘penetrated’ one from a foreign individual.

In this dissection of Scheler, Stein is forced to clarify her own meanings of ‘experience’ and spatial arrangements. She describes the way the whole world of ‘inner perception’ is bracketed in the second phenomenological reduction, our own and all others. Perceptions are not ‘within’,’ they transcend the sphere of givenness. In these terms, the question of whether an experience is ‘mine’ or another’s becomes senseless:

 What I primordially feel is precisely what I feel irrespective of this feeling’s role in the sum total of my individual experiences or of how it originates (perhaps by contagion of feeling or not). These experiences of my own, the pure experiences of the pure ‘I’, are given to me in reflection. This means that the ‘I’ turns back and away from its object and looks at the experience of this object.[xxix]

Reflection, she says, is always an actual turning toward actual experience, it is the comprehension of an experience, while inner perception itself can be non-actual. For Stein, Scheler’s use of ‘inner perception’ suggests that an experience ‘presented’ and comprehended in reflection has no sides and no depth.

Scheler’s exploration of the ways our feelings can be deceptive in the Idolenlehre illustrated his weaknesses for Stein. Scheler describes the ways we can take on the feelings we ‘acquire by reading’ as our own, for instance a young girl thinking she feels Juliet’s love.[xxx]   For Stein this simply means the child has :

blown [her] spark into a flame by borrowed embers…This flame will go out of its own accord as soon as the embers die out because a primordial value is lacking as a foundation.[xxxi]

She posits a less romantic example: that of a child of conservative parents who may believe they hate Jews or Social Democrats. It points to two deceptions she says: a deception of value and a deception about my person, my ‘self’. Stein felt that there can be no ‘reflective deception’. Turning toward our own experience means that the ‘borrowed’ experience ceases. Reflection, for Stein, is the ‘comprehension’ of an experience: ‘an experience I comprehend cannot elude me.’

What about motives within our own behavior which deceive us? She admits that people generally ascribe better motives to their actions than they may actually have. Stein thinks that the reflecting glance directed toward actual experience weeds out such deceptions, that secondary motives withdraw from one’s reflecting glance as though they are no longer ‘actual.’

This suggests that applying the phenomenological method of empathy would have a positive moral effect. By eliminating the peripheral or ‘background experiences’ which Scheler sees as important, Stein is confident that actual experience can sever all ties to deception.

Stein’s ‘Psycho-physical Individual’

Stein’s remaining focus in On the Problem of Empathy was exploring how the psycho-physical individual is constituted within consciousness. Since sensations are part of the immediate experience of consciousness, they cannot be bracketed away. These sensations are not aware of themselves though we are aware of them. Stein wonders how they are unified within what we consider our ‘self’ She describes the pure ‘I’ which is usually the indescribable, qualityless subject of experience, as a ‘selfness’ which is experienced and is the basis of all that is ‘mine.’ This ‘I’ is only brought out, as though in relief, when another person is given to experience. Our perceptions, in a similar way, become visible against a background of a stream of all our experiences, and Stein posits the pure I as the unity of the stream of consciousness. The stream of consciousness is ‘itself and no other’ and the pure ‘I’ allows our ability to call up past experience where our perception of self is unified. The stream of consciousness is not our soul, but Stein explains:

among our experiences there is one basic experience given to us which, together with its persistent attributes, becomes apparent in our experiences as the identical “bearer” of them. This is the substantial soul.[xxxii]

Our soul is a substantial unity with attributes including the acuteness of our senses, the energy apparent in our conduct, the intensity and excitability of our sentiments. The content of the stream of experience, she notes, depends on the structure of the soul.

So far, Stein has described aspects of psychic life and yet she wants to understand how the body is constituted within consciousness. Our senses interact, she goes on to explain, with our eyes seeing something tactile which beckons to be touched which could in turn compel us to find out its scent. Our senses, she says,

call each other as witnesses, though they do not shift the responsibility on one another.[xxxiii]

Then there is the phenomenon of movement, where each approach and withdrawal provides constantly shifting successive appearances of other things. But there remains with us an inescapable full embodiment which we are ‘perpetually bound to.’ Stein emphasizes once again how this sensed, bodily perceived ‘living body’ (Leib) is very different from the outwardly perceived ‘physical body’ (Körper).. She believes the soul is founded on the body and synthesized together in the individual ‘livingbody.’

Detail of a photo of Simone de Beauvoir’s hands by Giséle Freund

Bodily perception is thus a double mode of experiencing phenomenon, a ‘fusion,’ according to Stein:

I see the hand and what it senses or touches and also bodily perceive this hand touching this object.[xxxiv]

On multiple levels and all at once our senses and our soul experience are amalgamated into a unity with a unified awareness:

I relate the parts of my living body, together with everything spatial outside of it, to a ‘zero point of orientation’ which my living body surrounds. This zero point is not geometrically localized at one point in my physical body…it is localized in the head for visual data and in mid-body for tactile data. Thus whatever refers to the “I” has no distance from the zero point.[xxxv]

Unlike a discrete physical location such as the heart or the pineal gland (as Descartes had hoped), the pure ‘I’ cannot be ‘localized.’ Perhaps the ‘I’ could be compared to the constant shifting of true magnetic north which affects the whole earth’s activity, but can never be pinned down. Sensation is always spatially located, Stein notes, it is always ‘somewhere’ at a distance from the ‘I,’ though it can be quite near it. We have a sensed ‘living body’ and an outwardly perceived physical body which exist in a kind of double givenness. ‘Bodily space’ (Leibraum) of which the zero point is the ‘I,’ and ‘outer space’, where the zero point is the living body, are completely different from one another yet are experienced at the same time. Because they are ‘given’ at the same time, this ‘double givenness’ allows them to be experienced as the same, as a unified sense of self and space.[xxxvi]

Movement, both our own movement and the shifting alteration of the outer world combine in the form of an ‘if…then’ relationship. She explains: ‘If I move, then the picture of my environment shifts.’[xxxvii]

(photo by Yohann Sandberg)

If she rests her hand on a rotating ball, for instance, then the perception of both her hand and the moving ball are comprehended together in an ‘apperceptive grasp.’ But the sense of ‘outer and ‘inner’ never fully dissolves for Stein; she feels that all the objects of that realm are always a certain distance from her:

They are always “there”, while I am always “here” They are grouped around me, around my “here.”[xxxviii]

Yet this state of awareness allows her to fantasize that she can cross the room and look at herself in her consciousness. She suggests that consciousness could exist without a living body, as in someone whose paralysis has made them numb, but not the other way around. It is here that her image of the ‘I’ seems to revert back to Descartes’ cogito.

Sensations of feelings (Gefühlsempfindungen) or sensual feelings (sinnlichen Gefühle) Stein says are inseparable from their founding sources. They can be ‘in me’ and issue from my ‘I.’ Moods are a species of feeling unto themselves and, like other psychic feelings, have a reciprocal ‘influence’ in bodily general sensations. Our essential psyche is thus dependent on somatic influences: ‘the soul is based on the living body.’[xxxix] Our ability to notice bodily sensations and our capacity to understand them she feels can be strengthened by ‘training,’ which she unfortunately does not describe.

Expression of feeling is most often found appearances, in faces people make or in their sighs or groans. Stein suggests that phenomenology allows an empathic understanding when we set aside our common interpretation:

 Feeling in its pure essence is not something complete in itself. As it were, it is loaded with an energy which must be unloaded.[xl]

We must get at the motivation behind the feeling which is often difficult due to the ways ‘civilized’ people have learned to ‘control’ their behavior. And in our bodily perception of others we often take apart the unity of experience and expression in the other person. A reddened face, for instance, can be an expression of mounting anger, but it can also be a sign of shyness or shame. If we pull it towards one conclusion without knowing the actual experience of the person, we arrive at complete misunderstanding.

Experiences of ‘will’ or ‘motivation,’ Stein continues, are an important part of the psycho-physical unity. When we decide to climb a mountain, for instance, we have conceived of an overall plan which allows us to forego consideration of each step but instead to essentially mentally and physically ‘click into gear’ once our decision is made.

The Zero Point of Orientation

The psycho-physical individual which has become aware of its living body, Stein continues, when it ’empathically’ realizes that its own ‘zero point’ of orientation is a spatial point among many others. This is a ‘reiterated’ empathy of one’s self with self that allows us access to the experience of others. We experience them as unified in a similar way to ourselves, a kind of empathic givenness Stein calls ‘con-primordiality.’ She believes that the averted and ‘interior’ sides of the individual are co-given with the sides we can see and we experience them as a wholeness.[xli] We also can experience the fields of sensation of the other as they are ‘there themselves’ to the physical body to which they are given. A ‘sensual empathy’ which Stein calls ‘sensing-in’ is warranted by our interpretations about our own body. Here Stein remarks on difference and how empathy can allow us the experience of another even though they are so unlike ourselves:

Empathy is also quite successful with men’s and children’s hands which are very different from mine, for my physical body and its members are not given as a fixed type but as an accidental realization of a type that is variable within definite limits.[xlii]

The limits she considers grow exponentially the further we get from human beings, though we are able to ‘sense-in’ pain in the paw of an injured animal because of its vague similarity to our own hand.

Interpreting foreign living things as being ‘of my type’ is quite different from ‘association by similarity’ which is the comprehension of a single instance of a familiar type. It also appears different to her than ‘inferences by analogy which leap to judgment in interpreting another’s expression without considering all the possibilities. Such thinking is adept at finding the first thing which strikes one with similarity without employing empathy to fully understand what experience the other could be having. Empathy, Stein tries again to define, is a unified comprehension of foreign experiences in all modes: sensations, feelings, everything.[xliii] We are able to experience the other person only when we transfer ourselves to their spatial orientation. Without empathy, we generally experience only outwardly perceived mechanical and associated movement of others. With empathy we co-perceive spontaneous and alive movement.

Stein returns to the sense of space, with our own living body at the zero point of orientation, inseparable from the space of the outer world. Another person’s living body is at some distance from us and when one empathically projects oneself into it, one obtains a new ‘image’ of the spatial world and a new zero point of orientation. She notes that ‘image’ or bild in German is a bad word as it implies a view from one side—perhaps a revised experience of the spatial world can amplify its meaning. While at the other’s zero point of orientation we have still kept our own primordial zero point an orientation for an overall sense of conprimordial understanding. Rather than being a stationary perceiving eye and ‘I,’ we have physically traversed the distance between oneself and another. Their world image is, by the fact that we share the same Life-world, a modification of our own. We must refrain from ascribing a world image we think ‘suits’ his or her orientation or Stein says we would be committing ‘gross empathic deception.’ This is where bracketing our normal interpretations and expectations can keep us open to what Stein says emerges as the possibility of ‘enriching our own world image through another’s.’[xliv]

It is here the motivation for empathy as a ‘personal enrichment’ belies not a solipsism but a motivation based on a desire for understanding perhaps for its own sake. Stein again mentions how we learn to see our living body as a physical one among many others, and in ‘reiterated empathy’ there is a way that we are given back to ourselves as a psycho-physical individual in the fullest sense. It, she believes, is what supplies the mirror-like givenness which we have of ourselves in memory and fantasy, some notion of how we present ourselves as a unified composition of qualities.

The Senses of Empathy

Stein’s whole discussion of the senses employed in empathy so far has centered on vision and the sense of visual touch—not actual touch, but being able to touch with our eyes on the basis of past knowledge of our skin. The truth in these perceptions, Stein insists, comes from statements others make about the world we share. And here she admits:

Statements can fill the breach and supplement where empathy fails. Possibly they may even serve as points of departure for further empathy. But in principle they cannot substitute for empathy.[xlv]

So empathy, which she considers a non-verbal perception and experiencing, goes beyond.

Stein examines how the stages of life, including growth, development, aging and health and sickness define the individual. In defining ‘life’ Stein excludes the lives of plants whose ability to feel sensations she finds ‘doubtful’ so that our empathy for it would be ‘unjustified.’ Phenomena of life, she states, have ‘an experiential character in psychic contexts’. ‘Soul’ is inseparable from life. In understanding physical states so different from ourselves, Stein realizes how experience makes us conscious of what we are or have been only when we suddenly are not that way any more. Weakness suddenly informs us of our former strength, pain or sickness of our former health. A physician’s capacity for empathy in a multitude of conditions of which he or she may have had little personal experience can be cultivated, Stein says, by focusing on a group of phenomena through long and extensive differentiation.

This leads us to consider the ‘causal’ structure of the individual and how we begin to interpret certain aspects of a person from what we observe and experience of their circumstances. This is easier for our external physical perception of each other because most of the same causes there have the same effects, but in the psychic arena that does not hold true. The intelligibility of the other is most confusing if we expect certain kinds of behavior from individuals of certain types and they do not fulfill our expectations. The psychological aim of diagnosing a ‘type’ of mental state can lead one to look for only specific symptoms. Instead of dismissing certain behavior as irrational or ‘abnormal’ to the scheme of types, Stein recognizes that the strength of phenomenology is to revise one’s classifications as new phenomena present themselves, to not be tied to ‘types’ themselves.

Stein also parts company with psychologists who might say that isolated past experiences determine the course of present experience. She agrees that past experience can exist in the background of the present and still affect how one thinks, acts and perceives, and called this the ‘mode of non-actuality.’ Stein describes how a past decision, for instance, can remain in the present without sinking into the stream of the past. Drawing on Husserl’s theories of time consciousness, she notes how we are surrounded by a marginal zone of background experiences in each moment of experience, they are no longer accessible to reflection and to comprehend them, they must first pass through the cogito. These are not things which ‘affect’ the present, as a psychologist might claim, they simply ‘reach into the present.’[xlvi]   While these affects can mislead one in the process of empathy with another person whose past is unfamiliar to us, by maintaining an openness we can achieve some measure of understanding.

Physical Words

But what role does language play in empathic interaction, other than to confirm or deny our interpretation of the other person’s experience? Following Husserl’s distinction between ‘indicative signs’ (Anzeige) and ‘expressions’ (Ausdruck) from his Logische Untersuchungen, she reiterates that a ‘sign’ is where something perceived tells one that something else exists (smoke is a ‘sign’ of fire, a flag is a signal on a ship), and ‘expression’ or ‘symbol’ is where in something perceived there is something else, a meaning through which we ‘co-comprehend’ or ‘co-experience’ something psychic in it. Facial countenance, such as wearing the expression of sadness, is a ‘co-given’ meaning because within it is something else. The symbol points beyond itself without wanting or having to, she says. Verbal expressions are symbols which are like signals in that they are intermediate points to a theme they designate—they arouse a momentary transition to comprehension.[xlvii] Signals, she continues, have a ‘moment of ought’ or a ‘demand in itself’ which is determined by someone and for someone. Symbolic and symbol character then can combine in a certain way so that they essentially use the symbol as a sign:

I not only comprehend disapproval in the furrowed brow but it intends to and ought to announce it.[xlviii]

This ‘comprehended intention’ gives the phenomenon a new character in which ‘intention’ can be given in symbolic relation (as in a glance) or can be the seen as the ‘result’ of the whole situation.

What distinguishes the word from the symbol or expression, according to Stein is its lack of physical body (Wortkörper) which matches the signaling physical body (Signalkörper). A signal is ‘real’ and Stein believes that the living body and the ‘soul’ of a word can form a living unity from separate paths of development. Words are ‘born’ of consciousness and live ‘by the grace’ of a spirit. For Stein they do not ‘signify’ but express and the causal link is that what is expressed is ‘no longer what it was before.’[xlix] Symbol and meaning are linked in ‘verbal expression.’ Because of its nature of origin, being hatched in consciousness rather than primordial ‘pre-consciousness,’ Stein believes a danger lies in the ways we can ‘neglect the speaking individual in the word.’ When we speak an externalization of self occurs which can not only ‘step into view’ but block our intuitive ‘vision.’ As we leave the primordial state necessary for empathy in order to enter the abstract realm of the ‘word’ we can leave the intimate space between ourselves and another behind. Empathy can help us have the intuition about the circumstances of and full experience of the expression of the other person. While words can remove us to abstract realms, understanding requires empathy which can pull us back into the intimate space of interpersonal perception.

Each of us has ‘levels of experiencing.’ Conduct, for instance, is motivated by will and will is affected by feeling in an ‘intelligible unity.’ Expression likewise proceeds from experience and all form an intelligible whole. Yet how do we interpret expressions in one person which are at odds with one another? If we see a person with a wound and intuit pain, yet he is smiling, the meaning is equivocal. Stein struggles with the problem of ‘mixed’ emotions. She thinks one can distinguish the ‘genuine’ expression from a false one by ‘penetrating into their meaning contexts.’[l] By putting together all of the clues, all of the circumstances before us we are able to empathize with the genuine experience of the other person. In the case of words uttered with multiple meanings, we consider the possibilities always in the context of the experiential space in which they are spoken.

Stein kept this photo of Lipps on her desk until she entered the convent

Hans Lipps, a close friend of Stein and fellow student in Göttingen, is a prime example of indirectly shared consciousness. In her autobiography Stein revealed his unique demeanor and methods of communication:

Hans Lipps made a deeper impression on me than did anyone else. Twenty-three years old at the time, he looked much younger. Very tall, slim, but powerfully built, he had a handsome, expressive face, lively  as a child’s. His gaze was serious; still his large, round eyes were as inquisitive as a child’s. Usually he would state his opinion in brief but very definite terms. When asked to give more detailed clarification, he would assert there was no more to be said as the matter was self-explanatory. That had to satisfy us. We were all convinced that his insights were true and deep even though we were incapable of confirming them ourselves.[li]

Elsewhere in Stein’s personal writings, the subtleties of unspoken communication and observations made over time, accumulating into insights and understanding, confirm the value of her belief in admitting experience into the act of empathy. In describing two of the women in the group studying with her in Göttingen she notes:

 [Fräulein Ortmann] was a tiny, delicate bit of a person but had such a ponderous tread that she usually splattered her coat, way up, with mud from Göttingen’s streets. Just as ponderous were the decidedly emphatic statements which she delivered with the ring of solemn pronouncements but which, to me, seemed quite trivial…In contrast, Erika Gothe’s attitude of respectful silence attracted me very much.[lii]

Thus Stein believes through empathy we experience a harmony of ‘unity in meaning.’ Here, like Husserl, she expands on what one can gather from an individual instant or ‘single-meaning context’ and assume certain habitual attributes of others. On the basis of seemingly short-term exposure to another, she believes the logic of that individual can be perceived. In the space between oneself and another, she allows what she calls this ‘point of departure.’ A person’s character is fathomed from the empathized unity of attributes and these are projected for future verification through empathic acts. Here, again, is the danger of taking individual characteristics from this ‘meaning context’ and defining them by a single aspect of character. There is also the danger of inference by analogy where our own ‘actual, not typical’ characteristic becomes the starting point for what we assume about the other. Stein believes we can avoid this sort of ‘false projection’ if we are constantly ‘guided by empathy through outer projection.’[liii]

During the first world war, Stein volunteered in an Austrian military hospital that was in the province of Märisch-Weisskirchen, an experience that exposed her to a great deal of suffering.

Reflexive Empathy

Finally, there is consideration of how the other person sees us. Stein’s use of ‘reflexive empathy’ is where we come to consider ourselves as a being like the other. In an exchange of standpoints, we become aware of our own bodily expression and the ‘image’ the other person possibly has of us. And we can be very wrong. Here, empathy implies a privilege:

It is possible for another to “judge me more accurately” than I judge myself and give me clarity about myself. For example, when he notices that I look around me for approval when I show kindness, while I think I am acting out of generosity. This is how empathy and inner perception work hand in hand to give me myself to myself.[liv]

The Spiritual Union

The final section of Edith Stein’s work on empathy dealt with ‘Empathy and Understanding of Spiritual Persons.’ There, the depth and range of the soul became her main concern and passion. In a letter to Roman Ingarden she confessed that, after all her struggles trying to sort out empathy:

the [final section[ is the only thing I produced “con amore[lv]

There she expressed her hope, along with Husserl and Dilthey, that the Cultural Sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) could create an ‘ontology of the spirit’ with an objective basis similar to the sciences of the ‘ontology of nature.’

Against all claims that each one of us sees the world from a different angle, Stein felt confident that

The experiential context of spiritual subjects is an experienced (primordially or empathically) totality of meaning and is intelligible as such.[lvi]

Willing is usually directed toward realizable ends, Stein thinks, though she admits that mental derangement defies our ability to fathom the logic of another person.

She explores what it can mean to feel a special understanding with a metaphysical being, and how that feeling comes about. It was this part of the book which she most wanted to develop and explore, leaving behind intersubjective understanding to embrace an even more abstractly foreign experience.

The Dimensions of Feeling

Foremost in the lives of spiritual persons are feelings and Stein describes the ‘directions’ of two types of feeling. On the one hand we have ‘feeling’ (Fühlen) which is in response to what we experience. On the other we can have ‘the feeling’ (Gefühl) which is when a feeling appears to be originating within us and directed outward. As we are undergoing a feeling, we do not ‘perceive’ per se, but we ‘experience’ it. General feelings we have, or moods, as we go into this experience have a special place in the realm of consciousness. Stein calls them ‘colorings’ which penetrate all levels of the ‘I’. Then the feelings we are conscious of (Gefühl) are feelings in the ‘pregnant’ sense—they have a similarity to consciousness itself in that they are ‘always of something.’[lvii]

Stein notes how there is a range and depth of feeling and how we value one thing over another. She refers to each person’s ‘depth classification’ of value feelings which is so intertwined with the ‘logic’ of the person. Feelings which arise only in contact with others (love, hate, thankfulness, vengeance, animosity) are key ‘sensitive acts’ which end up exposing our ‘personal levels’ of how we value them, their feelings, and our own. Comprehending our own personal values is itself a feeling: we become aware of our feeling of value about the feeling of value. We also grow to have a ‘feeling of self value’ as we become aware of creating or participating in things of value. These shifting feelings rise and fall in our awareness and take on new significance at each turn. In keeping with her painterly description of the seeping color of moods, Stein develops a metaphor of enlightenment:

feelings are like different sources of light on whose position and luminosity the resulting illumination depends.[lviii]

Feelings, for Stein, have four dimensions. One is their depth, the second is their range or reach, the third is their duration and the fourth their intensity. Depth of feeling either fills us or makes us feel empty. In the other two dimensions she describes how the

“reach” of the aroused mood, then   depends on the “I” depth of the act of feeling correlative with their height of the felt value. The level to which I can “reasonably” allow it to penetrate is prescribed.

[Finally, the duration is how] long a feeling or mood “may remain” in       me, filling me out or ruling me, is also subject to rational laws.[lix]

Intensity or strength of an emotion is specific to each feeling and, like Descartes and Spinoza, she notes how our stronger feelings guide our will.

This sudden turn from an abstract openness in the process of empathy to a descriptive geometry or physics of emotion seems contrary to Stein’s view and was perhaps influenced by Husserl. And similar to the problems of ‘stress’ in the physics of engineering, Stein believes that the ‘rational duration’ of a feeling can exceed an individual’s ‘psychic strength’ which will cause a psychic collapse.[lx] The strivings which propel these eccentric feelings seem to burst forth from a secondary depth according to Stein and have a ‘constitutive significance’ in one’s personality. While willing takes place in the central cogito, these eccentric strivings appear located in the ‘background experiences’ which hover on the edges of current experience.

Unlike an urge coming deep from within us, buried in the past as psychoanalysis would suggest, Stein believes this ‘hovering’ of undigested experiences are slightly in the background of our current experience. The feeling of value from a past act of feeling is the basis for whatever amount of will we have in any situation.

At whatever depth past experience is located this imaginary view of our psyche, Stein seems to agree with psychology in the causal link between a past event and a present one. Her manner of presentation, both in tone and examples presented, conveys a sense of calm confidence that most people experience interpersonal life in the same way. It is a way which, in the end, she says is ‘subordinated’ to rational laws. She finds it impossible to formulate a ‘doctrine of the person’ without a ‘value doctrine’ and suggests that a ‘doctrine of types’ might provide the ontological foundation which Wilhelm Dilthey was hoping for in the cultural sciences.[lxi] But since every empathic comprehension of a personality means the acquisition of a type or ‘typical character,’ Stein later sees problems with this plan. Remaining open to the particular circumstances and nature of another individual seems at odds with defining them by type.

For Stein, the nonverbal act of empathy is what can give one a ‘glimpse into the kernel of the person.’ The ‘levels’ of a person are innate according to Stein; they do not ‘develop’ or ‘deteriorate’ but are simply either exposed or not in the course of psychic development.[lxii]   As in a Bildungsroman, Stein agrees with Dilthey’s assessment that whether or not these levels of depth ‘sleeping’ in us are developed depends on the ‘significance of the milieu for the character.’[lxiii] A person who lives an ‘incomplete’ life with little emotional contact with the world resembles the unfinished character of a work of art, a ‘sketch.’ It is these people for whom empathy is a constant challenge, even if they attempt to augment their experience through novels or artworks which purvey experience:

He who does not feel values himself but acquires all feelings only through contagion from others, cannot experience “himself.” He can become, not a personality, but at most a phantom one.[lxiv]

It is only one who experiences himself as a ‘meaningful whole’ as a person who can understand other persons.

Stein believes if we have developed the power of empathy from emotional contact with people, then this allows us to comprehend experiences which are far from our own. She uses the example of one who is skeptical still being able to understand the sacrifices another might make out of religious faith. Here Stein says one empathizes as a ‘value experiencing’ as a motive for the other’s conduct, where our own values tell us the depth which the other is experiencing. Empathy is not projecting one’s self as an image onto the screen of the other, but projection simply as a traversal of the space between two persons.

Another work of Stein’s is currently gaining importance, an essay concerning new possibilities in government published in 1925, Eine Untersuchung über den Staat. In that work Stein explains her belief that the ontological reality of the person is grounded in a dynamic unified relation of intersubjectivity which serves an analogous application to an ‘incarnate’ notion of the state.[lxv] She relies on a medieval concept of persona as it was posited by other Catholic thinkers like Scheler and Maritain. Community development relies on a vibrant ‘personal’ exchange between members on all levels; while society is not personal, community is personal. The idea of a ‘people’ consists of many individual viewpoints and is different from a nation where identity blurs into a ‘mass.’ The notion of community recognizes the importance of intersubjective relationships which provide a ‘space’ where personal ‘Einfühlung’ is possible.[lxvi]

Empathy with an Invisible Spirit

Stein was introduced to Catholicism by Scheler, who returned to the church not long after she met him in 1913. As she describes in her autobiography:

he was quite full of Catholic ideas at the time and employed all the brilliance of his spirit and his eloquence to plead them. This was my first encounter with this hitherto totally unknown world. It did not lead me as yet to the Faith. But it did open for me a region of “phenomena” which I could then no longer bypass blindly.[lxvii]

Serving as a nurse in World War I, Stein was faced with the death of several of her philosophical colleagues from Göttingen, including her close friend Adolph Reinach. Reinach’s widow impressed her with her strength and faith in the face of such a deep loss and Stein became open to Christian ideas.

Edith Stein in 1921

In the summer of 1921, during a stay with a friend, she read The Book of Her Life by St. Theresa of Jesus.  It was the thought of this sixteenth-century mystic of Avila who offered answers for Stein’s spiritual questions. In 1921 Edith Stein joined the Catholic faith and became a lecturer at the Catholic Academy of Münster.

She later became a cloistered nun of the order of the Carmelites in Cologne, though this did not shelter her from the Nazis and their round up of all Jews and former Jews. She secretly transferred to a Carmelite convent in Echt in the Netherlands where her sister joined her. On August 2, 1942 both sisters were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz where they died on August 9.

Stein’s turn toward Catholicism does not resemble Husserl’s transition from Judaism to Lutheranism. He integrated his faith into his existing life, delegating it to the background of his personal life which allowed comfort in secular professional activities. Stein was not seeking a religion secondary to her philosophical studies. For Edith Stein, her work on Empathy and her life experience both culminated in a deep need for complete spiritual union. The Carmelite order begun by St. Theresa offered the seclusion and total devotion she craved, and the spiritual teachings suggest a complete spiritual and physical union with the Christian God.

On the Pentecost, seven Sundays after Easter in 1942, Edith composed Seven Beams from a Pentecost Novena, a series of poems about her love for God. Here, in poetry, she describes an empathic union with an abstract spirit in spatial terms:

You are the space

That surrounds and contains my being.

Without You it would sink into the abyss

Of nothingness from which You raised it into being.

You, closer to me than I to myself,

More inward than my innermost being —

And yet unreachable, untouchable,

And bursting the confines of any name:

Holy spirit —

Eternal love![lxviii]

Was this the final ‘fulfillment’ which Edith Stein first explored in phenomenology but found in religious mysticism?

Stein’s theological writings and teachings are highly regarded in the Catholic Carmelite orders and her generosity toward others en route to and at Auschwitz is legendary. On May 1, 1997, after a miracle occurred saving the life of a young child while invoking her name, the Pope declared Edith Stein a saint.


[i] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 19.

[ii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 116.

[iii] Waltraut Stein, Ph.D., “translator’s introduction,” Edith Stein, On the Problem of

Empathy xviii.

[iv] David Woodruff Smith, “Mind and Body” in The Cambridge Companion to

Husserl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 355.

[v] Edith Stein, Edith Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916, trans. Josephine Koeppel

(Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1986) 250.

[vi] Edith Stein, “Letter to Fritz Kaufmann <at the front>, Freiburg, January 12, 1917” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, translated by Josephine Koeppel.

(Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1987) 5

[vii] Edith Stein, “Letter to Roman Ingarden, Göttingen; Breslau, March 20, 1917” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942   12.

[viii] Edith Stein, “Letter to Roman Ingarden, Göttingen; Breslau, February 19, 1918” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942 22.

[ix] Ricoeur, Husserl, An Analysis of His Phenomenology 61.

[x] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 121f.

[xi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 9.

[xii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 9.

[xiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 7.

[xiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 10.

[xv] Martin Jay clarifies the defining characteristics of ‘experience’ in his article “Experience

Without A Subject: Walter Benjamin and the Novel” in New Formations, No. 20,

(Summer 1993) 146-148.

[xvi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 10.

[xvii] In Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 269, she describes the evolution of her thesis

and the format Husserl required:

Husserl had said that an objective outer world could only be experienced

intersubjectively, i.e., through a plurality of perceiving individuals who relate

in a mutual exchange of information. Accordingly, an experience of other

individuals is a prerequisite. To the experience, an application of the work of

Theodor Lipps, Husserl gave the name Einfühlung (empathy). What it consists of,

however, he nowhere detailed. Here was a lacuna to be filled; therefore, I wished

to examine what empathy might be. The Master found this suggestion not bad at all.

However, almost immediately, I was given another bitter pill to swallow: he required

that, as format for the dissertation, I use that of an analytical dialogue with Theodor


[xviii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 277.

[xix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 13.

[xx] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 16,17 & 10.

[xxi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 37.

[xxii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 4.

[xxiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 6.

[xxiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 19.

[xxv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 24.

[xxvi] Carson, Anne. “A Dangerous Affair” in The New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1988,

Section 7, 2

[xxvii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 259,260.

[xxviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 29.

[xxix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 29.

[xxx] Scheler, Max. Idolenlehre (Leipzig: L. Voss, 1919) 112f.

[xxxi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 32.

[xxxii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 40.

[xxxiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 41.

[xxxiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy xxi.

[xxxv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 42,43.

[xxxvi] In Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 43, she describes:

the distance of the parts of one’s living body from oneself is completely

incomparable with the distance of foreign physical bodies from me.

[xxxvii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 45,46.

[xxxviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 46.

[xxxix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 49.

[xl] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 51.

[xli] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 57.

[xlii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 58-59.

[xliii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 60.

[xliv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 62-63.

[xlv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 65.

[xlvi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 73-74.

[xlvii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 73-74.

[xlviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 79.

[xlix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 80-81.

[l] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 85.

[li] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 254.

[lii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 254.

[liii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 87.

[liv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 89.

[lv] Edith Stein, “Letter to Roman Ingarden, Göttingen; Freiburg, April 27, 1917” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-194 15.

[lvi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 96.

[lvii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 100.

[lviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 104.

[lix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 104.

[lx] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 105.

[lxi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 108.

[lxii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 110.

[lxiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 111,116.

[lxiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 112.

[lxv] Antonio Calcagno, “Persona Politica: Unity and Difference in Edith Stein’s

Political Philosophy,” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.

XXXVII, No. 2, Issue No. 146 (June 1997) 204.

[lxvi] Calcagno, “Persona Politica: Unity and Difference in Edith Stein’s Political

Philosophy” 207.

[lxvii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 260.

[lxviii] Edith Stein, “Seven Beams From A Pentecost Novena” in Edith Stein,

Selected Writings, ed. with comments and reminiscences by Susanne M.

Batzdorff. (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1990) 93.

About D. L. Pughe

Freelance writer and artist.
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1 Response to The Empathy of Edith Stein by D. L. Pughe

  1. Anthon says:

    Thank you so much for making such a wonderful article on Stein’s Empathy. I am currently doing my Term paper on her. Such a great help.

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