Edith Stein, a Saintly Thinker Waiting to Be Discovered

Interview with Angela Ales-Bello, Dean of Philosophy at the Lateran

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ROME, NOV. 8, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The thought and current importance of Edith Stein, a co-patroness of Europe, is yet to be discovered, says a dean of philosophy.

Angela Ales-Bello, the dean of the School of Philosophy of the Lateran University, is a specialist in Edmund Husserl and Edith Stein (1891-1942).

Sixty years after her death in Auschwitz, Stein — or Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, as she was known in religious life — continues to be one of the most important figures in the field of phenomenology and philosophical anthropology, Ales-Bello said.

Q: Will Edith Stein be proclaimed soon a doctor of the Church?

Ales-Bello: Perhaps our Pontiff might think of this possibility in a relatively short period of time. In any event, she is already a patroness of Europe and for the time being no mention has been made of her proclamation [as doctor].

Q: Why does Edith Stein’s philosophy continue to be of importance?

Ales-Bello: Edith Stein is not removed from the world. Her complex personality did not allow her to forget any element, either human or religious. She knew how to combine human, worldly, and political interests with spirituality. Herein lies her great current importance.

Moreover, she knew how to synthesize medieval and contemporary thought.

Q: What was Stein’s contribution to phenomenology?

Ales-Bello: Edith Stein followed her teacher, Edmund Husserl, succeeding in explaining the analysis of the human person in a rigorous and clear manner. Stein was able communicate and be a mediator between Husserl’s fine and lofty analysis and the anxieties of the young students of philosophy.

She herself, out of modesty, said that she did not know to what degree the intuitions she referred to were her own or her teacher’s.

Q: How did you discover Edith Stein’s thought?

Ales-Bello: While studying Husserl in the ’60s, I realized that it was very important to keep in mind the phenomenological school he created. I found out that there were very interesting women in the group: Edith Stein, H. Conrad-Martius and others. It was then that I began to be interested in Edith.

I think one cannot understand this woman if one does not know Edmund Husserl: to isolate Edith from her philosophical milieu would result in a partial, superficial study of her thought.

Q: Much emphasis is placed on Stein’s spiritual dimension and less on the philosophical. Is the latter less important or is it, rather, because it is not known?

Ales-Bello: There is no discussion of her philosophy because of ignorance. We must keep in mind that the first writings made available came from the Carmelite world, which gave preference to her spiritual texts.

This does not mean that her philosophy was not appreciated at Carmel. Let’s not forget that she wrote “Finite Being and Eternal Being” in her cell. Obviously, however, her less philosophical writings are preferred.

Her philosophy is complex. It is good that works on Edith Stein and her spirituality are being published, but her philosophical facet must not be forgotten. There must be further study of this aspect, which clearly distinguishes her from other saints.

Her theoretical research is not abstract; it is linked to important social, political, juridical and ethical questions. Her spiritual life cannot be separated from her philosophy. Philosophical research structured her life radically, which was enlightened by her spiritual journey.

Q: What is Edith Stein’s concept of the person?

Ales-Bello: For Edith Stein, as well as for Husserl, the person is divided in three parts: body, psyche and spirit. When Edith transcribed the second volume of “Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology,” a text of Husserl, her teacher, she was impressed by this tripartite approach.

She went deeper into this aspect and through the method of phenomenology showed how the actions of a person demonstrate that these divisions exist.

The tripartite division of the person was useful in her approach to mysticism and in explaining that God dwells in the soul.

Potentially, we have all three aspects. However, it can happen that one or another is developed according to one’s education. This explains Edith Stein’s commitment to the educational realm and to formation.

Q: “Whoever seeks truth seeks God, whether he knows it or not,” this German philosopher said. Is Stein’s philosophical research a constant quest for God?

Ales-Bello: She said the phrase about Husserl, her teacher. Stein felt that Husserl had not demonstrated his religiosity sufficiently, because he did not want to mix the academic aspect with religious questions. She recriminates him for this diffidence, this lack of commitment.

In fact, for Edith, whoever seeks truth through philosophy seeks God, because God is Truth. So, for her, it is clear that whoever seeks truth is, in fact, seeking God.

Q: What model of life has this co-patroness of Europe left us?

Ales-Bello: A possible model that is not easily attained. Edith Stein succeeded in combining many different aspects; she was interested in different topics, and had great intellectual capacity.

Her proposal of the three-dimensional person — body, psyche and spirit — is a call. Today it is difficult to speak about the spiritual; there is a great tendency toward immanentism.

Edith Stein arouses great interest among those who know her. It is interesting to see how in civil universities doctoral theses on her philosophy are proliferating.

The clarity of her intuitions and the multifaceted character of her interests urge us to go deeper into existential situations that we meet in daily life. In this sense, we can speak of a thinker for our time.

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