Biography

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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.

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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,...

(The entire section contains 3766 words.)

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