Edith Stein Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Stein, a disciple of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, became herself a leading proponent of his method of philosophy. Alongside her spiritual evolution from Judaism to atheism to Catholicism, she tried, in her writings, to relate phenomenology to personalism, Thomism, the Catholic tradition on women, and the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross.

Early Life

On the Day of Atonement, the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishri) in the Jewish calendar (October 12, 1891, in the Christian calendar), Edith Stein was born in Breslau. She was the youngest of eleven children, and Auguste Stein, her intelligent and devout mother, thanked the God of Israel in her synagogue for this sign of the special election of her last child. The Steins were merchants who had come to Breslau from Silesia in central Europe (now in southwestern Poland) when the family’s lumber business failed. Soon after he had settled in Breslau, Edith Stein’s father, who was only forty-eight, died of a stroke. Edith was only a year old, and her mother was left with the management of a debt-ridden lumber business and the care of seven children (four had died before Edith arrived).

With Auguste Stein’s energies absorbed by her duties as principal provider, Else, her eldest daughter, assisted with the children’s upbringing. Edith was a gifted but high-strung young girl, difficult to control. She possessed an agile mind and an independent spirit, which she enjoyed exhibiting by reciting poems and making witty remarks. Around the age of seven, however, she isolated herself from her family, perhaps because they treated her as “Edith, the smart one.” This characterization hurt her feelings, since she recognized, even then, that being good was much more important than being smart. She did not reveal these emotional undercurrents of her interior world to her sisters or mother, and her great firmness of will allowed her to construct a placid temperament for the exterior world.

Her formal education began at the Viktoriaschule (“Victoria School”) in Breslau, where, at her own insistence, she was admitted early. She quickly established herself as the best student in the class, a position she maintained throughout her schooling. She once said that she felt more at home in school than in her own family. In fact, in her need to nourish her hungry mind, she turned her home into a school by her voracious reading. Her academic success made it all the more shocking to her family when, at thirteen, she announced that she was leaving school. Unknown to her mother, Edith was passing through an adolescent religious crisis. Though remaining publicly observant, she no longer believed in God and had abandoned private prayer. The family attributed her change in personality to frail health, and she was sent to recuperate to the home of her sister Else in Hamburg (Else had married a doctor and already had three children).

After an eight-month hiatus, Edith returned to the Victoria School to recommence a college-preparatory program, for she had decided to become a teacher and dedicate herself to the discovery and communication of truth. In choosing teaching as a career, she was being faithful to the evolution of her personality as she experienced it in her thoughts, feelings, and abilities. Despite her youth, she manifested a remarkable insight into her own intellectual development and a daring independence from her family, religion, and society.

Life’s Work

Stein entered the University of Breslau in 1911, and not long after, she came into contact with phenomenology, the philosophy that was to dominate her intellectual life. Her path to phenomenology began when she attended lectures in psychology. She hoped to discover through this “science of the soul” the undergirding coherence of human existence, but the course, which emphasized experimental psychology, disappointed her because the teacher completely ignored the soul. Amid this disillusionment, she read Logische Untersuchungen (1900; logical investigations), by Edmund Husserl, phenomenology’s founder, and this experience revolutionized her thinking. While attending classes at the university, Stein lived at home, but her enthusiasm for phenomenology grew so keen that she soon expressed her strong desire to leave Breslau and to study with Husserl at the University of Göttingen. By this time her mother had become aware of her daughter’s apostasy from Judaic beliefs and her recent conversion to a modern philosophy, and she was deeply disappointed, but she did not prevent her daughter from transferring to Göttingen.

As one of the first women admitted to Göttingen, Stein stood out at the university, but she found a comfortable philosophical home with the phenomenologists. She had come to Husserl searching for truth, and he convinced her that phenomenology, when practiced rigorously, would lead to the truth. In her early days as a phenomenologist, Stein found that empathy was her key to the truth.

Although Stein became friendly with several Catholics at Göttingen, her main entré into Catholicism came through Max Scheler, one of Husserl’s Jewish pupils who would later convert to Catholicism. His lectures on religious philosophy, which were attended by Stein, made her an admirer of the spiritual beauty of Catholicism. She was sympathetic with Scheler’s attempt to rank values hierarchically, ascending from sensory through life to spiritual values. Scheler held that religious values make a person fully human, and the empathic heart of Stein responded to the message of Christianity, even though it led her to acknowledge her own spiritual poverty. Adolf Reinach, another phenomenologist who would later convert to Christianity, also helped her to start the internal transformation that would bring her to the Christian faith.

When World War I began in the summer of 1914, Stein, who had absorbed an intense patriotism from her family, felt a sense of duty to her country. She volunteered her services and was assigned to a hospital for infectious diseases in Austria, where she cared for soldiers suffering from typhus, dysentery, and cholera. After the hospital closed in 1915, she returned to Göttingen and resumed her doctoral studies. Building on her concrete wartime experiences, she was able to probe the subject of empathy more pointedly as a special kind of knowing involving the entire human person. Husserl was very impressed by her work and called her the best doctoral student he had ever had (which was high praise, indeed, since Martin Heidegger was also his student at the time). When Husserl was offered a professorship at the University of Freiburg in 1916, he asked Stein to come with him as his graduate assistant. During her first summer in Freiburg, she completed her dissertation, “The Problem of Empathy,” and after its successful defense, she was awarded her doctoral degree summa cum laude. She then became a member of Freiburg’s faculty and quickly gained a reputation as one of the university’s leading philosophers. Her main duties were to initiate new students into the strange world of phenomenology and to edit Husserl’s manuscripts.

At the end of 1917, she received the sad news that Reinach had been killed on the battlefield of Flanders, and, while attending his funeral, Stein was approached by Frau Reinach to put her husband’s papers in order. Stein discovered that many of Reinach’s writings were concerned with the person of Jesus Christ, and this caused her to read the New Testament. The experience of Frau Reinach’s faith at the funeral and of Jesus Christ’s message in the Gospels led her to abandon her atheism, and she began to wonder whether she would eventually convert to Lutheranism or Catholicism. Although intellectually convinced of God’s existence and the Incarnation, she nevertheless found herself unable to take the practical step of conversion.

Upon her return to Freiburg, she applied to the University of Göttingen, where she wanted to work on her Habilitationsschrift (a second dissertation that would qualify her as a university lecturer), but, despite a laudatory recommendation from Husserl, Göttingen’s reluctance to hire a woman professor proved to be unconquerable. Thus, in 1919, Stein returned to Breslau, where she gave lessons and continued her philosophical research. A turning point in her life occurred during the summer of 1921, when she was visiting friends at Bergzabern in southeastern Germany. She happened to pick up the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila, which so fascinated her that she continued reading it all night. On completing it in the morning, she had an overwhelming sense that the Catholic Christianity that guided Teresa was the truth for which she had been searching. She immediately bought a catechism and went to her first Mass. She wanted to be baptized, but the local priest informed her that a preparation period was required. She returned to Breslau and continued her teaching and research, but she returned to Bergzabern to be baptized on January 1, 1922. Prior to her conversion to Catholicism, she had always assumed that she would eventually...

(The entire section is 3766 words.)