Edith Stein and the Recognition of the Eternal at the heart of the Finite

Edith Stein first attempted a reconciliation of Aquinas and Husserl in her contribution to the invited collection prepared for Husserl’s seventieth birthday Festschrift collection in 1929.[^49] There she began by emphasising the link with Brentano and the Scholastic background of exact concept formation. She portrays both Husserl and Aquinas as seeing philosophy as a matter of reason (logos orratio ) not ‘feeling and fancy’ or ‘soaring enthusiasm’.[^50] Stein says that Husserl would not have accepted Thomas’ distinction between natural and supernatural reason. Husserl would have seen that distinction as empirical; he is referring to ‘reason as such’.[^51] Stein recognises that Husserl, like Kant, begins from the critical and transcendental standpoint: we can work only with our own organs of knowledge - ‘we can no more get free of them than we can leap over our shadow’.[^52] Stein focuses on the fact that for Husserl philosophy and reason unroll themselves endlessly and that full truth is a Kantian regulative idea. Aquinas, on the other hand, holds that ‘full truthis ’, God as truth is ‘fullness at rest’.[^53] Furthermore, Stein believes in a distinction to be made between original and fallen reason. Not everything that is beyond our mind in its natural setup is beyond our mind in its ‘original makeup’.[^54]

For Stein, as for Aquinas, God as ultimate being is the first principle of knowledge, and hence epistemology is really a chapter in ontology. Stein contrasts phenomenology asegocentric with Thomistic philosophy which istheocentric . Her basic criticism is that transcendental phenomenology can only uncover being which isfor consciousness; being is understood as that which is constituted by consciousness, whereas for Thomas being has to be what it is in itself.

The ego, for Stein too, is the primary transcendent entity but in a manner which is very difficult to articulate. There is ‘fragility’ of the ego (FEB, p. 53). According to Stein, following Husserl, the ego relies on a two-fold transcendence: one that is ‘external’ and one that is ‘internal’. The external is, of course, the content of the world. The internal transcendent is mood, emotion, inner experience. She writes:

The conscious life of the ego depends thus by virtue of its contents on a twofold beyond [transcendence in Husserl’s sense of the term], an external and internal world both of which manifest themselves in the conscious life of the ego, i.e. in that ontological realm which is inseparable from the ego [immanence in Husserl’s sense of the term]. (FEB, p. 54)

Edith Stein, however, in herFinite and Eternal Being mingles Heideggerian with Husserlian descriptions of our subjective life. Thus, besides talking of the ego, she invokes the Heideggerian notion of the ‘thrownness’ of existence (FEB, p. 54), which she interprets as meaning that humans do not know the ‘whence’ of their existence. Stein maintains that the starting point of inquiry is the ‘fact of our own being’ which, and here she quotes St. Augustine’sDe Trinitate Book Ten, is given to us as certain (FEB, p. 35). Husserl following Descartes asks for an abstention of judgement concerning everything human and relating to the natural world to get at what remains over namely ‘the area of consciousness understood as

the life of the ego’ (FEB, p. 36). My self-certainty is the most immediate and primordial knowledge I have; it is an unreflected knowledge prior to all reflection. This being I am conscious of (myself) is inseparable from temporality (FEB, p. 37). This very temporality of my being gives me the idea of eternal being. This is Stein’s way of moving beyond Husserl and Heidegger.

Later in the book she writes much more extensively about the ‘ego-life’ (Ichleben ) and its relation to the soul. At one point she says:

Ego-life is a reckoning and coming to terms of the soul with something that is not the soul’s own self, namely the created world and ultimately God. (FEB, p. 434).

There is a constant self-transcendence going on in the soul and its ‘ego-life’ (FEB, p. 425). This ego is characterised by a ‘being-there-for-itself’ (Für-sich-selbst-dasein , FEB, p. 430):

The primordial undivided ego-life already implies a cognitive transcending of the sphere of the pure ego. I experience my vital impulses and activities as arising from a more or less profound depth. The dark ground from which all human spiritual life arises - the soul - attains in the ego life to the bright daylight of consciousness (without however becoming transparent). The ego-life thereby reveals itself as soul-life, and the soul-life - by its going forth from itself and by its ascending to the brighness of light –simultaneously reveals itseld as spiritual life. (FEB, p. 430).

Depth of soul is something Stein analyses subtly and at great length. She gives the example of two people hearing of the assassination the Serbian monarch that gave birth to the First World war (FEB, p. 437). One person hears it, registers it and goes on planning his vacation. ‘The other is shaken in his innermost being’ (FEB, p. 437) and foresees the outbreak of war etc. In this latter case, the news has struck deep in his inner being:

In this latter kind of thinking the ‘entire human being’ is engaged, and this engagement expresses itself even in external appearance. He thinks with his heart (FEB, p. 437)

She goes on to write that the personal I is most truly at home in the innermost being of the soul (p. 439), but few human beings live such ‘collected’ lives.

Because of its essentially changing nature, Stein characterises the being of the ego asreceived being (ibid.). (Jaspers has a very similar claim in hisExistenzerhellung, Volume Two ofPhilosophie where Jaspers describes my being as temporal and partial but in ‘metaphysical transcending’ I can address my being on the basis of a completed temporal existence –the view from eternity as it were.[^55] ) For Stein, as for Augustine and Jaspers, my own experience of myself is a kind of void or nothingness (p. 55). Again Jaspers writes:

I myself as mere being am nothing. Self-being is the union of two opposites: of standing on my own feet and of yielding to the world and to transcendence. By myself I can do nothing; but once I surrender to the world and to transcendence, I have disappeared as myself. My self is indeed self-based but not self-sufficient.[^56]

On Stein’s account, there is something very similar in regard to my zones of self-familiarity. My self-experience runs off into vagueness. I don’t have awareness or direct intuition of the origins of my ego. There is always a horizon of vagueness. It is precisely this sense of horizonality that leads Stein to think of the ego as finite and created.

In fact, Stein, following Husserl (and Augustine) takes the divine self-revelation as the ‘I am who am’ and interprets that as meaning that the personal I has primacy (FEB, p. 342).[^57] Only a person can create according to Stein (ibid.). She conceives of the I in Husserlian terms as a standing-streaming. For her, the ego on its own is empty and needs to be filled from without (FEB, p. 344). The divine being on the other hand has no contrast between ego-life and being.

Stein says that Husserl calls the self that is immediately given in conscious experience: the ‘pure ego’ (FEB, p. 48) which in itself has no content. This is rather like a point from which streams come out. It is the pure I of Husserl. But there is, also following Husserl, a fuller more concrete ego. This ego is alive and we can speak of different degrees ofLebendigkeit . As Stein writes:

The pure ego is, as it were, only the portal through which the life of a human being passes on its way from the depth of the soul to the lucidity of consciousness. (FEB, p. 501)

Stein tends to think of the ego as rooted in a soul and this soul has a character and individuality uniquely its own:

The innermost center of the soul, its most authentic and spiritual part, is not colourless and shapeless, but has a particular form of its own. The soul feels it when it is ‘in its own self’, when it is ‘self-collected’. … The innermost center of the soul is the ‘how’ of the essence itself and as such impresses its stamp on every trait of character and every attitude and action of human beings, it is the key that unlocks the mystery of the structural formation of the character of a human being. (FEB, pp. 501-2)

The ego-self arises from the hidden depth of the unique soul.

For Stein, the being of the ego is being to a pre-eminent degree but at the same time it is fragile as it cannot say when it began and it is surrounded by a zone of haziness. It is in this experience of my own ‘livingness’ or liveliness, of the unbounded horizon of my life that I experience transcendence. Jaspers, Stein and Husserl all coming from their different perspectives agree on this point. This I think can be contrasted with Levinas. There is an excess in my self-experience and there is also rupture and pointing beyond.

Now in Husserl, Jaspers, Heidegger and Stein the experience of horizons and horizonality so intrinsic to my existence is also a feature of the transcendent world. Givenness by its very nature requires horizons within which it can be encompassed and hence grasped. Jean-Luc Marion, on the other hand, maintains that the very notion of an intuition in Kant and Husserl is of something necessarily constrained by limits, by boundaries. There can be by definition no intuition of the unbounded or infinite. For Marion, failure to make something an object is not failure to appear. There is for him the possibility of an intuition that passes beyond the concept.

The phenomenon is exceptional by excess (see ‘Saturated Phenomenon’ inTheological Turn , p. 209). It is a dazzling phenomenon, the ‘eye cannot not see it , but neither can it look at it as its object’.[^58] Marion describes this excessive phenomenon as ‘invisable’ (cannot be intended, aimed at,ne peut se viser ),[^59] unforeseeable, ‘unbearable’, ‘absolute according to relation’, ‘unconditioned (absolved from any horizon)’ (p. 211), irreducible. This again is the paradox of the horizon.

According to Marion, Husserl’s principle of all principles has to be revised and re-thought because it cannot cope with the condition of the absence of horizonality and also the absence of reference to a constituting I:

…the “principle of principles” presupposes the horizon and the constituting I as two unquestioned presuppositions of anything that would be constituted in general as a phenomenon; but the saturated phenomenon, inasmuch as it is unconditioned by a horizon and irreducible to an I, pretends to a possibility that is freed from these two conditions; it therefore contradicts and exceeds the “principle of all principles”.[^60]

Marion’s saturated phenomenon gives itself ‘without condition or restraint’ (ibid., p. 212). It is not the sum of its parts. It is experienced through a kind of non-objectifying counter-experience.

But can we abandon this horizonality? Can we really go beyond the horizons of the I? I think we have good reason for staying with Jaspers, Heidegger, Husserl and Stein, against Marion, in thinking of transcendence as something related to the fractured nature of our self-experience, not as something that either annihilates or cancels the self. Selfhood, subjectivity and self-experience are the very space where the transcendent is experienced. As Jaspers puts it inPhilosophie II:

I stand before transcendence, which does not occur to me as existing in the world of phenomenal beings but speaks to me as possible – speaks to me in the voice of whatever exists, and most decidedly in that of my self-being. The transcendence before which I stand is the measure of my own depth.[^61]