Edith Stein

Edith Stein
Edith Stein

Edith Stein was born into a German Jewish family on October 12, 1891, on Yom Kippur, in the Silesian capital Breslau, Germany (after 1945,Wroclaw, Poland). She was the youngest of eleven children, four of whom died in early childhood. Her father, Siegfried Stein (1844–1893), had a small trade with coals and wood and died too early for his youngest child to have any memory of him.

Her mother, Auguste Stein, née Courant (1849–1936), was a matriarchal, warm-hearted woman who tried to educate her children in the traditional Jewish faith and in the celebration of the rituals. Nonetheless, the industrious and highly intelligent girl became an agnostic from her puberty onward and already in school became a champion of women’s liberation.

After a brilliant performance on school examinations, she studied psychology with William Stern, philosophy with Richard Hönigswald, along with German literature and history, at the Universität Breslau from 1911 to 1913.

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Auguste Stein

One can obtain a good sense of her feelings from that period, up to her doctorate in 1916 from the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, from her fragmentary autobiography Life in a Jewish Family, written in 1933 but first published in 1965. In 1913 Stein went to Göttingen to study under the famous founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), and with his assistant Adolf Reinach (1883–1917), whose death in World War I affected her very deeply.

In 1915 she worked as a Red-Cross nurse in an international soldiers’ recovery hospital in Weißkirchen, Mähren (now located in the Czech Republic). After completing her state examinations, she followed Husserl to Universität Freiburg in 1916, where she completed her dissertation On the Problem of Empathy summa cum laude.

From 1917 to 1918 she served as Husserl’s private assistant, transcribing, ordering, and completing his manuscripts, preparing for publication his Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, books 2 and 3, along with his On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, later published in 1927 by Martin Heidegger.

Edmund Husserl
Edmund Husserl

Between 1918 and 1932 Stein attempted four times to qualify for a habilitation (the highest qualification in the German university), at the universities in Göttingen, Freiburg, Breslau, and Kiel, but she failed partly because she was female and partly because she was a Jew.

During a deepening personal as well as academic crisis as her relationships with the phenomenologists Roman Ingarden and Hans Lipps weakened, she started studying classical Christian literature, especially St. Teresa of Ávila, as well as Martin Luther, Søren Kierkegaard, and St. Augustine.

Her Catholic baptism on January 1, 1922, separated her in a painful way from her family, especially from her mother, who received a second, almost unsustainable blow in October 1933, when Stein entered the Carmelite order in Cologne.

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Martin Luther

From 1923 until 1931, she worked as a teacher of German and history at a girls’ college, Mädchen-Lyzeum, in Speyer on the Rhine, and from 1932 until March 1933 she taught as a docent at the Deutsches Institut für wissenschaftliche Pädagogik (German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy) in Münster.

From 1928 through 1933, her spiritual mentor was Raphael Walzer OSB, arch abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Beuron. During the same period she became well known in Catholic circles in Germany, Austria (Salzburg, Vienna), and Switzerland (Zurich) through her lectures on Christian anthropology and Christian feminism.

After the removal of non-Aryans from official positions in the spring of 1933, Stein left the institute to fulfill her wish for a Carmelite existence. In April 1933 she wrote a famous letter to Pope Pius XI asking him to protest against the humiliation of Jews and predicting a coming prosecution of the Catholic Church too.

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Teresa of Ávila

From 1933 through 1938 she stayed in the Carmelite cloisters in Cologne, using the name Sister Teresia Benedicta a cruce of the Cross OCD. In 1939 she moved to the Carmelite cloisters at Echt, Netherlands.

After the protest of Dutch Catholic bishops against prosecution of Jews, she and her sister Rosa were arrested by the Gestapo on August 2, 1942, brought first to the Dutch camps of Amersfort and Westerbork, and taken from there by train to Auschwitz. The day of her arrival on August 9, 1942, is most probably the day she was killed. In 1987 she was beatified, in 1998 sanctified, and in 1999 named copatroness of Europe by Pope John Paul II.

Philosophical Works

In the first, strictly phenomenological period of her writing while she was one of Husserl’s leading students (1916–1922), Stein employed Husserl’s phenomenological method in fundamental analyses in anthropology, focusing on psychology, psychophysical interactions, intersubjectivity, and personhood.

Theodor Lipps
Theodor Lipps

Her dissertation investigated empathy (a field neglected by Husserl) as the basis for intersubjectivity and the experience of the other’s and one’s own body, referring to the tradition of Theodor Lipps, Max Scheler, and Alexander Pfänder, and then developing independent conclusions.

In 1919, in Einführung in die Philosophie,Stein critiqued Husserl’s idealistic position on the ego, contrasting his view of the monadic ego with arguments for a real external world. Her habilitation Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities (1922/2000) differentiated the psyche and the soul with reference to causality and motivation.

Causality determines the bound psyche with the help of conditions and psychic laws, while motivation inspires the free, creative will of the personal soul. Respectively they constitute the sensual, receptive subject and the rational, active subject.

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Alexander Pfänder

She takes an analogous approach in her treatment of the community and its transindividual reality in Individuum und Gemeinschaft (Individuality and community; 1922). The essential difference between psychic bindings and rationally deciding leads to the difference between psychology and the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften).

The voluminous study Eine Untersuchung über den Staat (A study of the state; 1925) illuminates the ontological basis of sociology by differentiating between community and society and showing the roots of society in community and the roots of community in the individual.

In her second period after her baptism (1922–1937), Stein, in analyzing important parts of the Christian tradition but still doing so in a phenomenological way, was drawn to classical ontology and metaphysics.

Erich Przywara
Erich Przywara

Inspired by the Jesuit Erich Przywara, in the 1920s Stein translated John Henry Newman’s Letters from the Anglican Period and Idea of a University, and Thomas Aquinas’s Quaestiones disputatae de veritate (Disputations on truth; 1931–1934) and De ente et essentia (On being and essence; unpublished yet).

Her studies in Christian feminism and female education, including essays on Elisabeth of Thüringen and Teresa of Avila, revealed a remarkable phenomenology of womanhood, especially in reference to the interrelation of body, soul, self-concept, and being divinely gifted.

While teaching in Münster from 1932 to 1933, she wrote a philosophical anthropology and a fragmentary theological anthropology in Der Aufbau der menschlichen Person (The structure of human person) and Was ist der Mensch? (What is a human being?).

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Elisabeth of Thüringen

The difference, but also the possible connection, between phenomenological method and scholastic ontology is shown in Was ist Philosophie? Ein Gespräch zwischen Edmund Husserl und Thomas von Aquino (1929) a Platonic dialogue between Husserl and Aquinas, with Aquinas as the leading speaker.

In Potenz und Akt (Potentiality and act; 1931) and Endliches und ewiges Sein (Finite and eternal being; 1936/37), Stein tried to reconcile phenomenology and scholastic philosophy in a contemporary fashion.

Referring to Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, pseudo-Dionysius, Heidegger, Jean Hering, and Hedwig ConradMartius (her godmother, famous for a philosophy of nature and of space and time), Stein tried to analyze different conceptions of being and to reconcile phenomenology and classical and medieval ontology into a philosophy for all time.

Jean Hering
Jean Hering

Though she started with Aquinas, who maintained an Aristotelian ontology, she ultimately ended up closer to Augustine’s personalism and his trinitarian view of creation. The aim of her philosophy was a theory of the person, not of ontological being.

In her third period (1940–1942), Stein composed two important studies on Christian spirituality and mystics. To prepare for a modern analysis of the great Spanish Carmelite reformer John of the Cross (1542–1591), she translated the complete works of pseudo-Dionysius (the Areopagite), the father of occidental mysticism, and dedicated to him the essay “Wege der Gotteserkenntnis” (Ways to recognize God; 1940/41). She reconstructed and commented on the three classical Areopagitic ways of pursuing theology: the positive, the negative, and the mystical.

As an immediate fruit of rethinking the basics of mysticism, Stein provided an immanent interpretation of the theory and poetry of mystical ascent by John of the Cross, in her last, almost completed work The Science of the Cross (1950/2002). In his three-dark-nights theory of spiritual development, one must pass through the night of sentiment, the night of mind, and the night of faith before ascending to God.

John of the Cross
John of the Cross

She also held that one must annihilate the self before reaching the glory of God—a theory that sheds light on Stein’s own inner spiritual development. Her reflections retain language and methods close to phenomenological research.


Until 1930 the writings and translations of Stein were published for the most part during her lifetime. All of her other works, letters, and uncompleted projects began to be published from 1950 to 1998 in Edith Steins Werke in 18 volumes by Herder in Freiburg.

A new critical edition of all her writings, based on the complete material in the Carmelite Archive in Cologne and including translations and scattered pieces, is being projected from 2000 to 2010 as Edith Stein Gesamtausgabe (Complete works of Edith Stein) in 25 volumes, also by Herder.

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The interest in her life initially led to many hagiographic studies. Meanwhile, since the 1990s her philosophical work on Husserl and Heidegger has met with strong interest and received an increasingly positive appraisal. Stein’s importance and influence in the history of phenomenology has yet to be fully explored.
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