Edith Stein’s Starting-Point: Natural Experience

For Edith Stein, both phenomenology and Thomism begin with ‘natural experience as the starting point of every kind of thinking that goes beyond natural experience’ (FEB, p.333). She continues:

Even though not all knowledge rests exclusively on experience and even though there is, rather, a valid basis of experience which can be known by pure reason, it nonetheless remains the aim of all thinking to arrive at an understanding of the world of experience. Thinking which does not lead to the establishment of the bases of experience but to the abrogation of experience … is without any real foundation and inspires no confidence. (FEB, pp. 333-34)

Stein thinks that Husserl and Thomas both begin from experience and respect the givens of experience. For Stein, the tacit assumption of natural experience is that there is a multiplicity of objects (FEB, p. 333). There is an assumption that there is a natural world. But, following Husserl, Stein points out that this concept of ‘nature’ is actually partly constituted by culture; it emerges from an ‘interlacing’ (Verflechtung ) with mind (FEB, p. 334) The natural world is always already united with intellect, but, Stein goes on, not just finite minds but also refers to infinite mind:

The worlds of nature and mind, however, do not exhaust all that which is if by “world of the mind” we mean only a world of finite minds and of structures created by finite minds. The totality of the created world refers back … to those eternal and non-become archetypes [Urbilder ] of all created things (essences or pure forms) that we have designated as divine ideas. All real being (which comes to be and passes away) is anchored in the essential being of these divine ideas. (FEB, p. 334-5)

Here Husserlian essentialism is wedded to Thomistic reflections on the relation between the finite, created order and its infinite ground.

It is important to emphasise that, inFinite and Eternal Being , Stein is emphatic that her inquiry is philosophical and not dependent on revealed truth, nevertheless, she recognises, at the same time, that her inquiry has to be constrained by revealed truth. For her, theological knowledge gives philosophy the distinction between essence and existence or between person and substance (FEB, pp. 23-24). Philosophy uses theology but is not the same as theology. The philosopher who borrows from theology is concerned with revealed truth but not with that truthqua revealed (FEB, p. 24). On the other hand, the ultimate ground of our existence is unfathomable, and hence philosophy needs to be, following Erich Przywara who strongly influences her thinking in this regard, ‘reduction to the mystery’ (reductio as mysterium ). Stein recognised, as did Husserl (inPhilosophy as a Rigorous Science and in theCrisis ) that a purely methodological conception of philosophy could not satisfy the age. People seek truth, they need meaning in their lives; they seek a ‘philosophy of life’.[^45] Both Stein and Heidegger agreed on this point. They further agreed that the existing philosophies of life were flights into irrationalism.

With regard to the religious orientation of Husserl’s own thinking, Edith Stein reports (albeit in fictional form in her dialogue between Husserl and Aquinas) Husserl as saying:

It never occurred to me to contest the right of faith. It (along with other religious acts that come to mind, for I have always left open the possibility of seeing visions as a source of religious experience) is the proper approach in religion as are the senses in the area of external experience.[^46]

But knowledge through faith or the faith-intuition is different from rational reflection on faith. Aquinas on the other hand, believes faith makes truths accessible which elude the grasp of reason; and that reason can ‘analye’ these truths and ‘put them to use’.[^47] Stein’s point, which she puts in the mouth of Aquinas, is that natural reason is not able to set bounds on itself.[^48] Faith, for Stein and Aquinas, on the other hand, provides its own guarantee.