Knowledge and Faith Summary
by Edith Stein

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Knowledge and Faith Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Edith Stein’s Knowledge and Faith, a collection of five philosophical essays (three of which are fragments), was written between the years of 1929 and 1941 after the Jewish woman’s conversion to Christianity. In 1942 Stein, then a Carmelite nun, was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

The five documents in Knowledge and Faith are “Husserl and Aquinas: A Comparison,” “Knowledge, Truth, and Being” (a fragment), “Actual and Ideal Being” (a fragment), the foreword to “Finite and Eternal Being” (a fragment of a draft), and “Ways to Know God.” The first complete document presents similarities and differences between the ideas of Stein’s teacher Edmund Husserl (founder of phenomenology) and the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas. The second complete work, “Ways to Know God,” investigates the instructions given by Dionysius the Areopagite about the mystic’s path toward God.

Stein presents Husserl’s main theories about knowledge and consciousness in the first essay. He held that reality consists of objects, events, and ideas as they are understood by human consciousness alone. No other reality exists above or apart from human consciousness that cannot be accessed by human consciousness. In examining consciousness, philosophy aims to apply the same rigorous methods as science, with the goal of achieving perfect, complete knowledge. This knowledge is gained only by an intentional act of will and by careful, step-by-step analysis. Over time, humankind can know all there is to know, including the Logos (ultimate truth).

Thomas Aquinas would agree with Husserl, Stein believes, that human beings can come to understand the Word, or Logos, that supports all of creation. Stein notes disagreement between them, however, in how far Husserl’s method can take human thought toward ultimate truth. Aquinas would not accept that full knowledge can be achieved by means of an unending process of inquiry. Instead Aquinas thought divine knowledge is infinite; it embraces all knowledge. The extent of the knowledge humans can have on earth is limited by the finite character of their minds. Complete knowledge is possible only in the presence of God after death. Aquinas believed that knowledge of spiritual things in the earthly time frame can be achieved only through faith, a kind of knowledge imparted through revelation by God.

Husserl maintained that religion has no place in philosophy. If philosophy accepts that truths are accessible only through faith, then there can be no claim for philosophy to contain perfectly correct, universally verifiable truth. In pursuit of this pristine knowledge, or prima philosophia (first philosophy), Husserl spent a good part of his philosophical career eradicating irrational and uncritical elements in methodology to arrive at a transcendentally purified consciousness. By superimposing Husserl’s thought on that of Aquinas, Stein shows that the conflict between science and religion, a persistent part of Western intellectual history, continued into the twentieth century.

After Stein’s conversion to Christianity in 1922, all her writings contained a spiritual purpose. In 1929, as Stein moved closer to entrance into the life of a Carmelite nun, she found phenomenology—indeed, all philosophy—to lack the answers to questions that trouble scholars and nonscholars alike. Stein believed that people needed something to cling to other than “methodical deliberations.” She concluded that her era required a “philosophy for life.”

The second complete essay in this volume was written in 1941, a year before Stein’s death. It is a study of Dionysius the Areopagite, a somewhat mysterious figure in church history whose works were known around 600 c.e. Stein’s treatment of Dionysius emphasizes several key ideas. First, faith has less to do with intellectual assent to propositions about God than with the acceptance of received revelations. Second, these revelations require a solid...

(The entire section is 1,101 words.)