German philosopher Edith Stein (1891-1942) was a leading proponent of the phenomenological school of thought led by Edmund Husserl in the first half of the twentieth century. In her writings, Stein attempted to reconcile phenomenology with her Catholic beliefs in works on Thomas Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, and the topic of women in the Church. A Jew by birth who converted to Catholicism, she was killed in a Nazi concentration camp and beatified as a Catholic martyr in 1987.
The twentieth-century German philosopher Edith Stein was a student of Edmund Husserl and a prominent supporter of his theories on phenomenology. Born into a Jewish family, Stein's search for spiritual truth led her first to atheism and later to the Roman Catholic Church, where she eventually became a Carmelite nun. She attempted to connect her philosophical and religious beliefs in her writings that discussed topics such as the role of women in the Catholic Church, Thomism, and the mysticism of St. John of the Cross. She is considered a martyr by both Jews and Catholics for her death in the concentration camps of the Nazi regime during World War II.
Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany. She was the youngest of eleven children born to Jewish lumber merchants hailing originally from Silesia (now part of Poland); four of her siblings had died before Stein's birth. Stein's father died when she was only a year old, leaving her mother, Auguste Stein, in charge of the debt-ridden business and the surviving children. Because her mother was required to devote most of her time to work outside the home, her oldest daughter, Else, took on much of the responsibility of raising the other children. As a child, Stein became known for her intelligence and sense of humor—she would often recite poetry and make clever remarks. But she disliked her reputation as "the smart one" of the family and began to develop a more isolated, introspective nature in her early school days. She attended the Victoria School in Breslau, where she not only began classes early, but quickly became the best student in her grade. Her love of learning extended to her hours at home as well, where she spent much of her free time reading.
Religious Crisis Led to Atheism
At the age of 13, Stein underwent a crisis of faith and decided to leave school. Although she no longer believed in God, she did not discuss her beliefs with her family and continued to attend religious services. Thinking that she was suffering from poor health, her mother sent her to rest at the home of her sister Else, who had married and moved to Hamburg. After eight months in Hamburg, Stein came to terms with her new ideas and decided to devote her life to teaching and the pursuit of the truth. She returned to Victoria School and completed her coursework in anticipation of attending college.
She began her advanced education at the University of Breslau in 1911. In the hopes of gaining some insight into the mysteries of human experience and the soul, she took a psychology course, but was disappointed at its emphasis on quantitative experimentation. About this time she read the philosophical work Logische Untersuchungen ("Logical Investigations") by Edmund Husserl. Husserl, who was a professor of philosophy at Göttingen University, was the founder of the school of thought known as phenomenology, an examination of the development of human consciousness. The book was a revelation to Stein, who decided that she wanted to study with Husserl himself. She transferred to Göttingen, where she was one of the first female students to attend the university. There she found a group of philosophers who shared her interests, and she was encouraged by Husserl, who told her that the practice of phenomenology could lead her to the truth she sought.
Became Leading Phenomenologist
It was at Göttingen that Stein was first exposed to the Roman Catholic faith. A fellow student, Max Scheler, who was also a Jew by birth but would later convert to Catholicism, gave lectures on religious philosophy that introduced Stein to the tenets of the faith. Scheler's work involved the ranking of human values, and he placed religious values as the factor that defines humanity. While his teachings showed Stein the richness of the Christian faith, it also made her reflect on her own lack of religious beliefs and started her on her own search for religious meaning. She was also influenced in this thinking by another phenomenologist who converted to Christianity, Adolf Reinach.
With the beginning of World War I in 1914, Stein volunteered her services at a hospital that treated soldiers suffering from cholera, typhus, and dysentery. The hospital closed a year later, and Stein returned to the university and completed her doctoral studies. She had selected the idea of empathy as the subject of her investigations in phenomenology, and Husserl was very impressed with her work. Although he had several distinguished students, including the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Husserl considered Stein to be the best student he had ever had. When in 1916 he took a professorship at the University of Freiburg, Husserl requested that Stein join him as his graduate assistant. That year she completed her doctoral dissertation, "The Problem of Empathy," and received her doctoral degree with honors. She was then hired as a faculty member at Freiburg, where she taught phenomenology and helped Husserl to edit his manuscripts. She was very successful at Freiburg and soon became known as a top philosopher at the university.
Converted to Catholicism
Stein's interest in Catholicism increased in 1917 with the death of her friend Reinach, who had been killed in battle at Flanders. She was approached by Reinach's widow, who asked her to organize her husband's academic papers. In Reinach's writings, she found many references to Jesus Christ, and this led her to read the New Testament. These experiences convinced Stein that she believed in God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, but she did not yet take steps to convert to an organized religion. She returned to her work in philosophy, applying to Göttingen to work as a professor. But the school's longstanding ban on female professors was upheld, despite a glowing recommendation from Husserl. Stein returned to Breslau in 1919 to teach and continue her research. It was during this period, in 1921, that she finally was inspired to commit to the Catholic Church. While visiting friends in Bergzabern, Germany, that summer, she discovered the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She found herself unable to put down the book, and after spending a whole night reading it, she was certain that she was ready for conversion. She attended her first Mass and requested that the priest baptize her, but she found that she had to complete a period of instruction first. She returned to her work in Breslau but came back to Bergzabern to be baptized on January 1, 1922.
Stein felt that her new religious life included a calling to serve in a religious order, but she did not do this immediately out of respect for her mother, who was quite disturbed by her daughter's conversion. Instead, she began working at a girl's school in Speyer, Germany, run by Dominican nuns. She followed the Dominican's practices closely, even though she was not one of them, accepting only enough money to cover basic living expenses. During her stay at Speyer, she was encouraged by the Jesuit priest and philosopher Erich Przywara not to abandon her academic work. At his urging, she began a German translation of a Latin work on truth by St. Thomas Aquinas. Through her study of Aquinas and her discussions with Przywara, she was convinced that she could serve God through a scholarly search for truth. Her writing and translations became popular and Stein was invited to lecture for a number of groups on religious and women's issues in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. By 1931, these experiences had convinced her that she should leave Speyer and return to her philosophical work full-time.
Completes Book on Jewish Life
The academic world in the 1930s, however, was growing increasingly anti-Semitic, and Stein found that she was not welcome at the schools at Freiburg and Breslau. She finally managed to obtain a lecture position at the Educational Institute in Münster in 1932. There she continued her work on Scholasticism and phenomenology, but she also felt the need to address the increasing hatred and violence that she witnessed around her. Attacks on Jews were becoming frequent and in 1933, the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. One result of the rise of Hitler was that Stein, along with other Jews in university positions, was fired from her job. She felt that she had a unique opportunity and responsibility, as a Jewish-born Catholic, to bridge the gap of understanding between Christians and Jews. To accomplish this, she penned the book Aus dem Leben einer Jüdischen Familie, or "Life in a Jewish Family," which tried to show the similar human experiences of Jews and Christians in their daily lives.
In 1933, Stein felt that she was ready to devote her life more completely to religious pursuits. She applied to the Carmelite convent in Cologne, and at the age of 42, was accepted as an initiate to the order. There she took the religious name Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, in honor of St. Benedict and St. Teresa of Avila as well as the Passion of Christ. She was encouraged by her superiors to continue her philosophical writings, which included an attempt to combine the thoughts of Husserl and Aquinas in her book Endliches und ewiges Sein ("Finite and Eternal Being"), completed in 1936. Under the anti-Jewish laws in effect then, however, the book was refused for publication and was not printed until 1950.
After the Kristallnacht, a night in which numerous Jewish businesses and synagogues were vandalized and burned in Germany, Stein realized that she was no longer safe in her native country. Also wishing to avoid bringing harm to her Carmelites sisters by her presence in their convent, she moved to a Carmelite convent in Echt in the Netherlands on December 31, 1938. In Echt, she was joined by her sister Rosa, who had also converted to Catholicism. Although still not completely out of danger, Stein attempted to return to a normal pattern of life, instructing younger women in Latin and training her sister Rosa as a Carmelite. She also continued her writing, completing a phenomenological work on the life of the mystic St. John of the Cross entitled Kreuzewissenschaft: Studie über Joannes a Cruce ("The Science of the Cross: A Study of Saint John of the Cross"), a book that also would not see publication until after the war.
Killed in Concentration Camp
In 1942, the Nazis began removing Jews from the Netherlands, and Stein urgently applied for a Swiss visa in order to transfer to a convent in Switzerland. Her sister was unable to arrange similar travel arrangements, however, and Stein refused to leave without her. On August 2, 1942, the sisters were removed from the convent at Echt by Nazi troops and transported to a concentration camp at Amersfoort for a few days before being sent on to the Auchwitz camp in Poland. While nothing is know about their last days or the exact circumstances of their deaths, it is assumed that the women were among the many people killed in the Nazi gas chambers, placed in mass graves on the site, and later cremated.
In 1987, decades after the travesties of the Jewish Holocaust, Stein was beatified by Pope John Paul II, who lauded her as a Catholic martyr and also praised her phenomenological works. This created controversy among Jewish groups, who were upset that she was remembered in this way since the reason she was killed was because she was a Jew, not because she was Catholic. In an apologetic statement, John Paul II acknowledged that her fate was a symbol of the great loss of Jewish life during World War II. This discussion highlighted the difficult, but important place that Stein holds among both Jews and Catholics. She is remembered by many people for her untiring search for truth in both the philosophical and spiritual realms and her attempts to use this knowledge to promote peace and understanding in the face of hatred and war.
Further Reading on Edith Stein
Graef, Hilda C., The Scholar and the Cross: The Life and Work of Edith Stein, Newman Press, 1955.
Herbstrith, Waltraud, Edith Stein: A Biography, translated by Bernard Bonowitz, Harper & Row, 1985.
Nota, John H., "Misunderstanding and Insight about Edith Stein's Philosophy," Human Studies, Vol. 10, 1987, pp. 205-12.
Oben, Freda Mary, Edith Stein: Scholar, Feminist, Saint, Alba House, 1988.
Posselt, Sister Teresia Renata de Spriritu Sancto, Edith Stein, translated by Cecily Hastings and Donald Nicholl, Sheed & Ward, 1952.