According to Edith Stein, empathy is “the experience of foreign consciousness in general, irrespective of the kind of the experiencing subject or of the subject whose consciousness is experienced (p. 11).”
I constantly go back to this definition of empathy because I believe, and obviously, it is crucial for my thesis. The Steinian definition of empathy given above is broad. It is probably because Edith Stein was establishing it as an act revealing the presence of other individuals. Precisely, this is the background in which Stein explored empathy. It was the fact that, as Stein pointed out in her dissertation, the subject has an awareness of other individuals. How this is so, the act of empathy is the answer. So, for Stein, regardless of the nature of the subjects, the knowledge and experience they have with each other are based on the act of empathy.
*All of the above is based on Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy.
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.