“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.

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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.

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.