Why Edith Stein

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.