I was unable to enroll today for my master’s thesis. The secretary of the Philosophy Department of the Ateneo de Davao University said that they are currently not offering the graduate course Thesis 1 for the upcoming 1st semester.
But she assured me that the department will offer it now because there’s at least me who will enroll. She told me that she will text me when the course is formally open for enrollment, which will probably be this week or next week.
Thankfully, the visit to the University was not a total waste. The thesis course will be opened. Hopefully, I won’t be the only one to enroll. I expect 3 of my friends also to enroll.
Edith Stein. Jew by birth. Catholic by conversion. Philosopher. Martyr. Saint.
Instead of posting yet another biography of Edith Stein (a great resource can be found here), what I want to post is about how her philosophy, particularly her dissertation, was affected by her life’s experience. Indeed, at the background of her great work was her personal experience.
Are We Really Alone? An online article caught my attention. The title is Edith Stein: Are We Really Alone? and was written by Jeffrey McLeod, PhD. I read the article and have gained some insights into the life of the saint. Early in the article, McLeod talked about how Edith Stein was a “rising star,” and how she, during a war, voluntarily served as a Red Cross nurse aid at a military hospital and a year after this service, wrote her dissertation. Further on, he talked about the saint’s philosophical view on empathy and the person.
“As a nurse, Edith Stein learned that we can know the inner experience of others directly. In her dissertation, based off this experience, she constructed a compelling response to modern skepticism (McLeod).”
McLeod is saying that Edith Stein’s philosophy was directly influenced by her service as a nurse aid. She didn’t write just for academic purposes. Instead, she wrote her dissertation with the inspiration and valuable insights of her service.
Edith Stein directly experienced the reality of human suffering. You can just imagine what she witnessed and went through in the hospital. There were certainly soldiers who were screaming in pain, who came with incomplete body parts, who lost so much blood, who were amputated, and who lost their consciousness. Just imagine her taking care of the sick and the wounded. Just imagine her witnessing the loss of life. She witnessed first-hand the pain, grief, suffering, and the brokenness of these soldiers.
Her dissertation On the Problem of Empathy was a product of this personal experience. She was perhaps asking how she could have a genuine experience of the patients. She certainly could feel their pain, grief, and suffering. How and why could she feel for the patients, she might have asked. The result, of course, was a phenomenological presentation of empathy as a genuine recognition of the other person’s experience, a counteraction against the prevalent view in her time that true knowledge is impossible.
Being Human Grounding in the phenomenological analysis of empathy, Edith Stein explained how a person can gain direct knowledge of another person, how an “I” can truly know another “I.” For her, this experience of another person is not a logical inference, but a truly personal experience. So, instead of a self-absorbed ego, Edith Stein presented a self that can have a genuine relationship with another self, where care is possible. For Edith Stein, this is being human. The value of her work, then, is not limited to being an academic paper. Rather, it has an immense implication about the truth of the human person and the possibility of truly human socialization.
It is also notable that her work as a nurse was voluntary. This just shows that Edith Stein really had a heart for the sick and the wounded. Her dissertation was just an academic expression of her already good heart.
Edith Stein might be a gifted intellectual, but her life indicated a truly human side of her. She didn’t only voluntarily work as a nurse, she also incorporated her insights in her dissertation.
Empathy is an “experience of foreign consciousness (Stein 1989, 11).” [emphasis added]
Just briefly, I want to explain the concept of experience because for one thing, it holds massive importance in the field of phenomenology, and another thing, it is crucial in the analysis of empathy. For Edith Stein, empathy is a sui generis experience.
“Experience, in a phenomenological sense, includes not only the relatively passive experiences of sensory perception, but also imagination, thought, emotion, desire, volition and action. In short, it includes everything that we live through or perform (Mastin).”
Phenomenologically speaking, then, experience is everything that happens interiorly in our life. When we’re thinking, sensing, desiring, deciding, this means that we are experiencing. It simply is part of our life.
If we employ the phenomenological reduction (a term that I’ll explain some other time), we’ll arrive at the fundamental structure of subject-experience-object. In this case, experience is our way of grasping the world (object). We have access to the world because we are an experiencing subject. Conversely, the world presents itself to us through experience. Experience, thus, is a fundamental part of our being-in-the-world.
So, experience is not an inward relation, even if it’s in the interior of one’s life. This means that it doesn’t exist solely for the subject, the one experiencing. Rather, it has an outward way of relation. A subject’s experience is always toward something. Thus, whenever we experience (i.e., thinking, sensing, desiring, etc.), it is always about something, an object. This is what is called intentionality, which I’ll tackle some other time.
Experience is mostly taken for granted. But if we analyze it, we’ll arrive at the recognition that it is a fundamental part of life, in which if it isn’t existing, we can’t relate with others, the environment, and the world.
“All controversy over empathy is based on the implied assumption that foreign subjects and their experience are given to us (Stein 1989, 3).” [emphasis added]
As I read Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy, one of the first things I noticed was the term given or givenness. Her dissertation is indeed full of the use of this term. So, it is truly crucial in her study of empathy. In fact, the quote above is the very first sentence of her dissertation (of chapter 2 because the historical chapter 1 was lost).
But I was not at all surprised that this term would appear in her dissertation. Edith Stein was a known follower of phenomenology, and her advisor was Edmund Husserl, himself, the founder of phenomenology. Besides, I know this phenomenological term because I encountered it already in the courses of Hermeneutics and Advanced Ethics. I just want to explain this term briefly.
What does “givenness” mean?
In the field of phenomenology, givenness means the way things or circumstances are present to us. It implies that no choice is involved. One just found himself/herself in a specific situation. For example, I was born in a specific family. I’m brown-skinned. I’m Filipino. I’m Bisaya. I’m an introvert. I’m idealistic. These circumstances are circumstances I didn’t choose, but I have them. These are given to me.
This givenness is what makes me what I am and who I am. It determines my destiny here on earth (only partly though; freedom takes a crucial role too). It limits what I can achieve, but it also opens up many possibilities. Because of my idealistic personality, for example, I can think of some ideals and do them for my family and friends. I’m being friendly for I believe that the world would become a better place if all people are friends. This is what givenness can do to a person.
In the case of the above quote, it means that we just found ourselves with other people, along with their own experience. Without any special intervention or action, we just discover them, whom we can have a genuine relationship. They are already here with us. They are given to us.
Givenness may have a sense of being limiting and rigid, but it can nonetheless become a source of freedom and, indeed, meaning for us, humans.
References: Stein, Edith. 1989. On the problem of empathy. The Collected Works of Edith Stein. 3rd Rev. ed. Translated by Waltraut Stein. Vol 3. Washington, DC: ICS Publications.
“Empathy, for Stein, is a sui generis form of intentional experience directed upon the mental, or better, the experiential life of others. Put differently, empathy is a genuine other-directed experience (Szanto and Moran 2015, 450).”
For Edith Stein, empathy is not an emotion, fantasy, memory, or simulation. Rather, empathy is an experience distinct from the other forms of experience. It is, thus, a class of its own.
According to phenomenology, every experience is directed toward something. When we are experiencing, it is always about something, an object. We do not just experience out of the vacuum. An experience, by phenomenological definition, is intentional.
An empathic experience is intentional. It is other-directed. Empathy is directed toward the experience of the other person. When we empathize with another, we experience what the other person is experiencing. The object of empathy is, therefore, the experience of the other person.
For example, if I see my friend laughing out loud, I can directly experience his joy. I empathize with him. This is not a simulation of my friend’s experience, nor an interpretation of what is happening. It is, rather, a fundamental recognition or understanding of my friend’s experience of joy. I know that my friend is joyful because I am experiencing his joy, myself.
I experience not a joy that comes from me, but my friend’s. I’m not experiencing this joy as if it is my own, but rather I experience the lived experience of joy of my friend. So, this joy I experience in my friend is non-primordial (not happening in me). But my experience of my friend’s experience of joy is primordial (happening in me). This kind of experiencing is what Edith Stein means by empathy.
Borden (2003, 29) sums this up nicely, “Empathy is thus a two-sided experience: it is both our own and announces an experience that is not, and has never been, our own.” This is what makes empathy unique. It is a genuine experience of another person’s experience.
(This is just a rough sketch of my understanding of empathy, indeed a very short one. I still have to understand this concept deeply because I might be wrong in my interpretation.)
Szanto, Thomas, and Dermot Moran. 2015. Introduction: empathy and collective intentionality – the social philosophy of edith stein. Human Studies 38, no. 4 (Winter 2015), https://www.jstor.org/stable/24757458 (accessed January 17, 2019).
St. Edith Stein (or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) is my chosen philosopher for my master’s thesis. I’ve chosen her concept of empathy as the crux of my thesis.
But why her?
Initially, my choice was between St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo, two of the most influential figures in philosophy and theology. Their treatment of reconciling faith and reason made me want them to be my philosopher. I’m deeply religious and my field of specialization is philosophy, so anyone who attempts to reconcile faith and reason would be very interesting to me.
But when I had my Advanced Ethics course, my choice changed. I got very intrigued by the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (1906 – 1995), a French Jewish philosopher. His “ethics of the face” was my assigned topic to be reported in class. It’s found in his Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Levinas attempts to describe through phenomenological analysis the encounter with the Other. He tries to explain that the other invites us to never violate its existence. This, he says, is an encounter. It’s non-violent. For Levinas, ethics is first philosophy, meaning that ethics takes the primal role, not metaphysics. I didn’t totally understand, but there was this vague feeling which made me want him. This is why I had decided to choose him. Maybe it’s because of his emphasis on the ethical rather than the metaphysical, which is so abstract. Also, phenomenology was probably so appealing that I got interested.
But to be honest, Levinas’ philosophy was very difficult to read and truly understand. When I read Totality and Infinity, even just partially, there were quite many things which I didn’t understand. Of course, I consulted some resources to help me. I’ve partially read The Levinas Reader, an introductory book for the philosophy of Levinas. But his whole philosophy was just so difficult, and I was afraid that I might struggle in my thesis if I stick to him. Furthermore, my master’s professor admitted that Levinas’ philosophy is one that he couldn’t grasp. He said he wouldn’t recommend Levinas for thesis or dissertation to anyone. (I even recently saw a review of a book about Levinas’ philosophy that states that Levinas’ philosophy is difficult.)
From then on, I decided to drop Levinas and find someone else. I went back to St. Thomas Aquinas, but I thought that his philosophy is so monumental that I felt overwhelmed. To learn him meant to learn Plato, Aristotle and St. Augustine of Hippo.
But I really liked St. Thomas Aquinas. And because I was familiar with the Neo-Thomism movement (a movement to revive the importance of scholasticism, especially St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy and theology), I decided to explore some Neo-Thomists. I came across two great Neo-Thomist philosophers: Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. I studied their philosophies briefly. But I was more inclined to study Jacques Maritain.
But I dropped Jacques Maritain because I found just a few relevant journal articles. I couldn’t see some contemporary debates regarding his stance on various issues (it’s imperative for me to search for contemporary debates for my chosen philosopher because a friend told me that the Ateneo de Davao’s MA thesis trend is critiquing).
When I searched on the internet for more Neo-Thomists, I came across Edith Stein (1891 – 1942), a German philosopher. I didn’t know her. I hadn’t read nor heard about her. But some websites put weight on her philosophy. Some websites said that she reconciled phenomenology and Thomism through her work Potency and Act: Studies Toward a Philosophy of Being.
I got very interested in her because as I read about her, I learned that her life and philosophy was similar to Levinas’. Edith Stein was Jewish, and her specialization was phenomenology. From then on, I’ve chosen her for my thesis. Instead of ethics, Edith Stein focused on empathy. This further piqued my curiosity about her philosophy. Moreover, I learned that her “master” was Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938), the founder of phenomenology. I also found several relevant journal articles, contemporary ones, which tackled about her position on various issues.
Late that I learned that Edith Stein was a convert to Catholicism. Not only that, she joined the Discalced Carmelite and became a nun. She took the name Teresa Benedicta. I, then, learned that she is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and declared as a co-Patroness of Europe. These discoveries cemented my choice.
And there you have it. I’m not sure how, but I could really sense that God was guiding me for my thesis. I liked Levinas’ philosophy, but I dropped it. God knew how I like Levinas. So He guided me to St. Edith Stein’s philosophy, which has similarity with Levinas’ philosophy. Although her concept of empathy was developed in her pre-conversion years, the fact that I would be studying a saint is already a great honor.
P.S. The Pope who beatified and canonized Edith Stein was Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005), himself a saint and a known phenomenologist.
I’m XhenEd, and this is my blog. I won’t state my real name here as I intend to be semi-anonymous.
This is not my first blog. I had created a few blogs in the past, but they were never successful. Hopefully, with this one, given my fresh perspective about blogging, I won’t be overwhelmed by blogging expectations.
I’m 26 years old. Single. Male. NGSB (No Girlfriend Still Blessed :p ). Religious. Simple. Quiet. Introvert. INFP. Melancholic-Choleric. Smiling person. Lover of theology and philosophy. The Feast Tagum Sunday attendee (Light of Jesus Family). Singles Light Group member. A resident of Tagum City, Davao del Norte, Philippines.
Since 2017, I’ve been a part-time College Instructor, hired to teach philosophy subjects. Mostly, I teach basic logic and ethics. But there are instances where I teach subjects not in line with philosophy. This is okay. At least, I’m learning new things.
Since 2015, I’ve been a graduate student of the Ateneo de Davao University, my alma mater. I’m currently taking up master’s in philosophy. Just last year, in September, I passed my comprehensive exam. This month, I will be enrolling for my thesis.
This blog is a personal blog. I’m keeping this to track my progress as a graduate student. It will mainly be about my thoughts on my master’s thesis. This is also to force me to write and think more deeply. There might also be documentation (photos and videos) about my thesis journey. My focus will be on St. Edith Stein’s phenomenology of empathy.
As you may have noticed, the title of the blog is Empathy. Empathy here does not connote the typical meaning. For Edith Stein, empathy is not an emotion or feeling, but an experience. Indeed, it is an experience of the other’s experience. This is the term I wish to explore. Empathy is mainly discussed in Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy, her PhD dissertation. I wish to analyze empathy and see it in the perspective of the young Edith. This is a phenomenological analysis of empathy.
If you like the saint, or like to explore her concept of empathy, or just inclined in the field of phenomenology, then you’re welcome to read my blog. Or if you just like to journey with me in my thesis writing, then feel free to be my follower. Beware, though, my blog might be very philosophical. But I do wish my blog to be interactive. You may comment on my posts. Constructive criticisms are always welcome on my blog.
Note, though, that I’m not an expert. I know much about philosophy because that’s my field, but I do not claim to be an expert. I’m a master’s student. There’s still so much to learn. Also, my apologies for my noobish blogging. I’ll try to be good at blogging, but I intend not to fall into the trap of too much expectation of blogging. I’m trying to avoid being overwhelmed again.
My goal for this blog is to see the development of my thoughts and ideas. I will post until I earn my master’s degree in philosophy.