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How do I know you? How can you see things as I see them? Answer: through EMPATHY!

  • May 11, 2011
I give a four star rating to Dr Waltraut Stein's English translation of the 1916 German doctoral dissertation by Edith Stein: ON THE PROBLEM OF EMPATHY. Waltraut is Edith Stein's great niece.

That high rating is a composite:

-- ease of understanding by the general reader: ONE star;

-- hard work, accuracy of the English and scholarship by the translator: FIVE stars;

-- historical importance as an early philosophical study of empathy: FOUR stars;

-- easy understandability of text by graduate students familiar with modern philosophy: FOUR stars;

-- help to the general reader as the only work he/she has yet read on empathy: THREE stars;

-- importance within the biography of a (temporarily, since age 14) atheistic Jewish woman who hit a glass ceiling in the academia of post-World War I Germany: FIVE Stars.

In short, Edith Stein's 1916 doctoral dissertation at the University of Freiburg for Professor Edmund Husserl, founder of the academic philosophy's school of Phenomenology, is intrinsically valuable, but very, very tough reading for a well-read general reader without formal training in the history and methods of modern philosophy. And, I fear, that describes a lot of readers of reviews submitted to lunch.com.

But then how much fun would you expect to get from reading your nephew's doctoral dissertation on mathematical meteorology or some stranger's refereed journal article about string theory?

Think of Edith Stein's EMPATHY as part of an endless technical debate among philosophers with the Scottish genius David Hume (1711 - 1776). Hume thought it very unlikely that our five senses put us directly in touch with a real, solid world of things and people. What our senses bring us, Hume argued, is a confused jumble of colors, buzzes, tinglings, flavors and aromas. It's our imagination, our memory, our association of ideas that brings order out of chaos, says Hume, and makes us believe in a real external world independent of my individual consciousnes, full of causes and effects and real live people just like me. But we can't be sure that there is anything really "out there."

"Whoa there," counters Edith Stein! Let's be honest, she says. Let's each of us look without preconditions at what we are actually experiencing right now. My senses do not drown me in phenomena that are chaotic, unconnected. Right now I, for instance, see my hands typing a book review. I sense my breathing. I see people walking by outside my study window. I am here. They are there. But if I choose, I can stand up and replace my here with their there. And they have the power to move from there to here. From their facial gestures, I sense the same kind of pain and pleasure that I feel myself.

I am soon aware that I am just one point zero of consciousness in a world full of ensouled bodies like mine. Those other people are able to empathize their way into my mind as I am into theirs. Indeed, there are true things about myself that I know only because others, as it were, hold up a mirror to my own thoughts, prejudices and behaviors.

That world of knowing the inner workings of other through empathy is what Stein explores from a philosophical rather than a psychological point of view. Her big philosophical questions are:

-- is empathy a valid way of knowing?
-- and what makes empathy possible?

Stein was something of pioneer of empathy in 1916. But in her dissertation she continually dissects earlier views on and explanations of empathy by Max Scheler, Wilhelm Dilthey and others. Over the next few years, Edith Stein fleshed out her ideas on empathy, applied them to a metaphysics of the human person and then to man in society and man in the State. Her reasoning in 1916 is tight. The illustrative examples are not exactly abstract but not precisely memorable either. ON THE PROBLEM OF EMPATHY is the work of an apprentice philoospher, not yet a master. Her book is a tough, albeit rewarding read.

A very good, short, scholarly description and critique of Stein's 1916 work on EMPATHY is provided by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's 2006 EDITH STEIN: A PHILOSOPHICAL PROLOGUE 1913 - 1922. See chapter 9, "Stein on Our knowledge of Other Minds."

I recommend that you read other works of Stein before tackling her 1916 dissertation on EMPATHY. You might start with her her autobiography, edited and translated into English by Carmelite nun Josephine Koeppel as LIFE IN A JEWISH FAMILY 1891-1916. This reminiscense was dashed off by Stein in the early days of Hitler after Stein had been a Roman Catholic for over a decade and was in the process of becoming a Carmelite nun.

And choose as well among the growing number of Stein biographies. Alasdair MacIntyre's EDITH STEIN: A PHILOSOPHICAL PROGLOGUE 1913 - 1922 traces the mental growth of a young genius. Not bad (but, unlike Alasdair's work, not much help with Stein's philosophizing) is EDITH STEIN: A BIOGRAPHY. It is by German PhD Carmelite nun Waltraud Herbstrith, a noted Stein scholar.

Edith Stein's conversion to Christianity had been hard for her family, especially for her devout Jewish mother, to take. But during the two decades that remained of her life, both as Catholic laywoman, teacher, philosopher and intellectual and later as nun and mystical thinker, Edith Stein maintained stoutly the unity of her Jewish-Christian identity. Indeed she was executed by Nazis at Auschwitz in 1942 because she was Jewish and to cow Catholic bishops of the Netherlands (where Stein had sought refuge a few years earlier) who had publicly protested a few days earlier against deportation of all Jews, not just Christians.

Stein was beatified in 1987 by Polish former Professor of philosophy, phenomenologist Carol Wojtyla, at the time Pope John Paul II. In 1998 the same philosopher Pope declared her Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. She is popularly called Saint Edith Stein. Both Christians and Jews wrestle with Edith Stein's prayer that her foreseen death would deepen Jewish-Christian understanding and love, though that can scarcely be said to have happened yet. -OOO-

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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #6
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German
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ISBN-10: 0935216111
ISBN-13: 978-0935216110
Author: Edith Stein
Publisher: ICS Pubns

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