Phenomenology and the Meaning of Being

Edith Stein claims--paralleling Heidegger--that the Greeks’ great question concerned the nature of being. Modern philosophy, however, has lost interest in being and turned instead to epistemology. However, Stein says, again in agreement with Heidegger, ontology was revived by Husserl with his ‘philosophy of essence’ (Wesensphilosophie ), and thereafter by Heidegger with hisExistenzphilosophie , and by Hedwig Conrad Martius with her ‘ontology of the real’ (Realontologie , FEB, p. 6). Stein in fact sees phenomenology as deeply concerned with the sense of being. She defends Husserl’s ‘doctrine of essences’ (Wesenslehre ) against some Neo-Scholastic misconceptions. For her, the lesson is that factual being requires a timeless ground:

Nothing temporal can exist without a timeless formal structure (Gestalt ) which regulates the particular course of the temporal sequence of events and is thereby actualised in time. (FEB, p. 102)

Stein takes a traditional view of the divine nature as a self-contained timeless plenitude (Fülle ), but she also emphasises the divine as Person and uses typically phenomenological ways of articulating both this plenitude and the concepts of personhood and subjectivity, taking her beyond her Thomistic beginnings and into an interesting elaboration of Husserian phenomenology. Being, for Stein, is to be understood as plenitude or ‘fullness’:

Being is one … Its full meaning corresponds to the fullness of all existents. And when we speak ofbeing , wemean this total fullness. (FEB, p. 332)

Stein grasps this meaning of being in intentional terms. When we refer to, intend or mean (meinen ) something, we mean the whole thing, even if we are only presented with one side or aspect of that thing. Hence Stein concludes that our aim is to approximate to fullness:

To approximate the apperception of this fullness is the infinite task and goal of human knowledge. (FEB, p. 332)

All plenitude of meaning is contained in the divine being. This for Stein is one possible interpretation of the opening sentence of the Prologue of John,en arche en ho logos: ‘in the beginning was the meaning (Sinn )’ (FEB, p. 106). Interestingly, Husserl took makes use of the concept of plenitude or ‘fullness’ in his own description of the manner in which an object is intended as a whole while at the same time is seen only in part. For Stein, however, to recognise this timeless ground of temporal entities is not to assert that humans have direct intellectual cognition of the purely intellectual or spiritual sphere. Stein denies, with Kant and Husserl, that we can have knowledge of ‘things in themselves’ (FEB, p. 104). Our knowledge of essences is always ‘fragmentary’ (FEB, p. 104).