By Philip Newman Lawton


The Montréal Review, May 2024



It was not as a student of philosophy that I learned about Edith Stein. The luminous books she wrote as a phenomenologist and a Christian metaphysician did not figure in any of my academic courses. Rather, on my way to work one morning, I chanced across her religious name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, on a bronze memorial plaque inside Our Lady of Victory Church in downtown Manhattan. Identified as a “Gift of the Edith Stein Guild,” the plaque stated, “Her Calvary was Auschwitz.”

Since her canonization in 1998, the major philosophical and theological works that Stein wrote after her conversion to Roman Catholicism (Knowledge and Faith, Potency and Act, Finite and Eternal Being, and The Science of the Cross) have rightfully attracted international attention. Stein’s early studies in social and political philosophy are less prominent. Yet, many of her observations on empathy and the complex, often discordant relations between individuals and collectives are of enduring value.

Stein studied philosophy under the direction of Edmund Husserl, one of the principal founders of the phenomenological movement. Briefly stated, the phenomenological approach consists in suspending one’s natural belief in the existence of the external world (including such realities as the state, moral custom, law, and religion) and examining one’s experience as it is lived in the stream of pure consciousness. In this view, the philosopher’s mandate is to describe things, not as they supposedly are in actuality, but rather as they indisputably manifest themselves in memory and the free play of imagination. In Ideas, Husserl wrote, “The decisive factor lies before all in the absolutely faithful description of that which really lies before one in phenomenological purity, and in keeping at a distance all interpretations that transcend the given.” This rigorous method enables philosophers to grasp the eidos or essence of both physical and abstract entities.

In her 1916 doctoral dissertation, Stein applied Husserl’s methodology to the question of empathy, framed as “the perceiving of foreign subjects and their experience.” Except for an opening chapter on the historical development of the problem, the dissertation was published under the title, On the Problem of Empathy. Among other aspects, Stein describes how empathy contributes to the constitution of the psycho-physical individual as a living body, one which is located at “the zero point of orientation of the spatial world” and moves voluntarily through fields of sensation. When I meet another individual, I do not see her as a merely physical body. Rather, I empathically perceive her as “a sensitive, living body belonging to an ‘I,’ an ‘I’ that senses, thinks, feels, and wills,” a sentient, active body that “not only fits into my phenomenal world but is itself the center of orientation of such a phenomenal world.” From this viewpoint, however, I must see my own zero point as one spatial point among many, and I learn to see myself as a physical body. Then, in “reiterated empathy,” I once again interpret my own physical body as a living body. “And so it is,” writes Stein, “that I first am given to myself as a psycho-physical individual in the full sense.”

Stein examined possible modes of living together in “Individual and Community,” a treatise in Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities (1922). In the sphere of life, individuals are sustained by a finite amount of sensate and mental life-power [Lebenskraft] which is replenishable by influxes from the external world. When, for example, I am too weary to do any more work, I might be reinvigorated by an unexpected encounter with a friend who is absorbed by a compelling philosophical question. Then I don’t notice how tired I am. Life-power is a crucial element in Stein’s understanding of individuals; we will see that she also considers it an important property of communities. For the moment, note that the power transfer is possible only if I am open to my friend.

People in masses—crowds or mobs—treat one another neither as objects to be manipulated nor as subjects with whom they live in common. Instead, their sentient lives occur isomorphically, and they form a unity only because they are gathered together spatially, for instance, in a town square. The behavioral consistency that makes masses appear to be “collective objectivities” is due to the individuals’ irritability or “touchiness” [Reizbarkeit] with regard to the sentient life of others, who respond in kind. In addition to touchiness, a certain “readiness to be convinced” by others’ stances may contribute to the consolidation of a mass. Stein identifies touchiness and conviction-readiness as two senses of “suggestibility” in the sense of susceptibility to the influence of nearby individuals.

In close proximity, then, people can catch wind of strong opinions about states of affairs, convictions that are in the air, and, once infected, they can uncritically adopt those judgments in the mistaken belief that they are their own original ideas. Similarly, moods or feelings that may not be grounded in individuals’ authentically held values can be contagious: “Just as theoretical convictions, intellectual attitudes, can be ‘propagated without any logical basis,’ so emotional attitudes, enthusiasm, disgust, and the like, along with the convictions that are to be inferred from them at any time, awaken without any axiological basis.” But, whatever their source, content, or worth, these attitudes belong to the mental life of individual people in the street. Masses are not, in themselves, super-individual personalities.

“It’s obvious,” Stein remarks, “that a mass of mental individuals has need of management to supply it with guiding ideas (to ‘suggest’ them, in a third sense.)” It may, indeed, call for a manager who does not belong to the mass, who stands outside or above it, and so retains relatively unimpaired mental productivity. In this case, the reciprocal understanding established between the manager and the mass implies that there is a bond of community.

Unlike masses, associations [Gesellschaften] are unions among individuals who are not merely receptive but mentally active on their own. Associations also differ from masses in that they do not emerge spontaneously or organically. They are founded by the deliberate act of one or more unique individuals who institute them for a stated purpose, such as raising awareness of a particular need, supporting a specific policy, or soliciting money for a certain cause. They can also be dissolved by an optional act before they reach their natural end. Over the course of their existence, associations can develop, again, not organically, but by making functional arrangements (for example, creating offices and organizational units) to facilitate achieving the overarching goal. These functions need not, and commonly do not, fully engage the distinctive individuals who fulfill them: anyone with certain abilities can perform the work, and no one is irreplaceable. Correlatively, membership in the association typically absorbs only a part of the individual’s life.

Although associations presuppose bonds of community [Gemeinschaft], relations between individuals are primarily utilitarian. Stein does not use this language, but, borrowing from Kantian ethics, we might say that people in associations treat one another as means to an end—whether the association’s overt aim or their own more or less masked purposes—rather than ends in themselves.

Communities are, in certain vital respects, unlike masses and associations. Stein sees them as analogous to individual subjects who do not merely exist as interchangeable functionaries but live as unique personalities proceeding to develop and deploy their distinctive talents. “The genuine being of the community,” she says, “has its origin in the personal distinctiveness of the individuals.”

While retaining some reserves for themselves, individuals contribute life-power to the community, and they draw upon the collective stockpile as needed to support their own mental activity. Such exchanges are different from mass contagion because they presuppose the participants’ openness to one another. “The possibility of community formation,” Stein writes, “reaches just as far as the zone of reciprocal understanding by individuals.” There is a “unity of life,” a “community of life,” only when individuals do not disingenuously see others as objects, as they do in associations, but are instead “naively given over to one another.” Then we recognize the other person as a value-tropic being [Werthaftes Sein]: “we see what the person is when we see which world of value she lives in, which values she is responsive to, and what achievements she may be creating, prompted by values.” And so does she see us. It is, finally, in entering a such a community of life with other mental subjects that we become members of a super-individual personality and fully participate in a common current of experience.

Stein sometimes calls upon our common-sense knowledge of states, peoples, and nations to illustrate ideas in “The Individual and the Community.” One instance will suffice: noticing that events may draw our attention away from individuals and toward the community, she says, “For example, when two nations wind up in a hostile engagement with one another, they rise up before our gaze as unified patterns like individual personalities.” But, far beyond these passing comments, Stein systematically examines the “ontic structure” or essential composition of the commonwealth in An Investigation Concerning the State (1925).

John Maynard Keynes had warned in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were both politically humiliating (the war guilt clause) and financially menacing (the provision for reparations). Indeed, the Weimar Republic in the early 1920s was convulsed by riots, unstable coalition governments, and political assassinations, as well as severe economic hardship due to capital flight, adverse terms of trade, mass unemployment, shortages of consumer goods, and, famously, inflation. It was a polity in acute distress. Stein cannot have been unaware of the disorder outside her window in the turbulent first half of the decade. But, resolutely adhering to the phenomenological method, she explains that she is interested neither in “the actual facts of state life” nor in the de facto norms to which those facts are supposed to conform. “We’re trying instead to establish which of the factors identifiable in the actual composition of the subsisting state [Staat] constitutes the state as such, and in this way to clarify that concept of the state which is presupposed by the empirical science of the state but not examined.”

“The state,” Stein says, “is a mode of society,” a way of being together that objectively exists apart from the subjects that belong to it. In this context, she usefully distinguishes between civil and ethnic communities. A nation is a people [Volk] whose individual members are more or less conscious of their affinity. But the national state is not the state as such, it is just one kind of state among others. The state’s existential possibility [Existenzmöglichkeit] is “not bound to the ethnic unit.” In other words, a state, a civil community, does not require a people, an ethnic community, as a basis for its being. Yet, it is essential for ethnic communities to be culturally creative, and, as they look to the state for protection, the state “calls for a creative power that lends content and direction to its organizing potential and confers an inner authenticity [upon it].” Rather than an ethnic identity, then, the state needs an underlying culture expressing the mind of a community where subjects flourish in mutual recognition and respect. In retrospect, however, one of Stein’s observations about the “detachability” of state and ethnicity is chilling. “It’s only when civil law and ethnic personality are directly opposed to each other,” she remarks, “that the survival of one of them, or even both of them, is imperiled.”

In contrast, the idea of the state and the concept of sovereignty are inseparable. It is of the essence of statehood that the state be sovereign: the state “has got to be its own master.” It is “an inalienable property of the state that its actions and its laws originate from itself and not from any community standing under, beside, or above it;” the state “has authority to command within its territory while standing under no other command authority itself.” Stein holds this feature to be so fundamental that it “makes no sense to talk about non-sovereign states.”

The interpretation of sovereignty as the state’s commanding authority in its dominion brings into view the relationship between the state and the law. Stein distinguishes between pure and positive law. Pure law, which subsists independently of any legislation, is right as opposed to wrong. (Stein credits Adolf Reinach with primacy in describing the phenomenological sphere of pure law.) She offers examples—"any claim that arises through a promise expires through performance” and “it is wrong not to repay a debt”—and states that pure law is universal because “it is eternal and does not enter into existence here or there or now or then.”

Positive law is created through deliberate acts and can deviate from pure law. “The first law that must be made and recognized so that further laws can attain validity is the right to make law.” The self-establishment of the civil authority is a claim of entitlement to make laws, and, by implication, the claim requires at least tacit recognition on the part of those to whom it is addressed in order to become legally binding. Stein returns to this idea in a passage on the idea of legal protection, where she writes, “for law to be in effect, it must be not merely made but also recognized on the part of those for whom it is made.”

This supposed requirement that the law be acknowledged marks a point of tension, if not an outright contradiction, in Stein’s thought: if the force of law is contingent upon popular acceptance, then it is the populace, not the civil authority, that is sovereign. The discordance is not resolved. Indeed, Stein takes it up again in writing that this stipulation—“that every free act of a community or a commonwealth requires the sanction of everyone involved in it”—is “the true core of contract theory.” The state does not owe its origin to an agreement. If, to cite Stein’s example, a conquering tribe subjugates a people, there is a state but no social contract. Nor do individuals surrender a “natural right” by recognizing the state (there is “no such thing as a ‘natural right,’ there are only such rights as positive law may grant). But contract theory is true, she allows, in one respect: it “correctly recognized that law-making, as a free act, can be executed only by persons.” Every member of a social formation must somehow be involved in lawgiving. “In order to establish itself and make its law, the state must avail itself of free persons, nor can it strip the persons who belong to it of their freedom.”

Stein observes that, as a practical matter, contract theory has contributed to the historical development of modern constitutional states. As we have seen, however, her fundamental effort is to describe intrinsic aspects of the state as such, the eidetic state, not actual states in their concrete existence. This intention sometimes induces her to make statements that seem to disregard public experience, defy common sense, and gainsay her premises. In the present case, the state can clearly rescind rights that it previously conceded, effectively reducing its members’ civil liberties to the freedom to think for themselves in private. But perhaps that is, in the end, her conception of the fully developed person’s freedom vis-à-vis the state.

In Stein’s account, the state’s empowerment does not end with law-making. To “the right to make law” in the key sentence cited above, she subsequently adds the phrase “and to govern,” where governing is accomplished by issuing regulations and commanding that they be followed. Acts of governing, she specifies, “belong to the state just as essentially as does law-making.”

Stein takes law-making to be a special kind of free, voluntary act typified as the spontaneous realization of an “I,” the free mental deed of a subject or a person. Only individuals, standing in for the state as its representatives or agents, can make laws and enforce them: “in the republic as well as in the monarchy, every action of the state has to have an individual person who sets it in motion.” In the best case, those who fulfil executive functions are “carriers of the life of the state” in whom “there dwells a consciousness of affiliation, a devotion to the life of the whole, and a responsibility which the great mass of citizens neither know nor need to know.” But it is also possible for offices and institutions to be turned into “spoils of private interests” by individuals who “allow themselves to be determined by motives and pushed into actions that are alien to the state.” In view of this possibility, those whose lives are regulated act rationally in demanding civil rights.

The relation between the state and religious life is inherently conflictual because the state’s ordinances and God’s commandments both require complete obedience. “Here,” Stein says, “we confront two claims to sovereignty that mutually exclude each other in their absoluteness.” It is entirely possible for the state’s demands of individuals to conflict with what they hold to be God’s will. If they decide in favor of their religious conscience, then they are enemies of the state: by opposing its command, they undermine its existence. Within limits, the state can exercise self-restraint and follow a “precept of prudence” by which it refrains from formulating and interpreting its regulations in such a way that they are likely to arouse passionate resistance. Or, given the arbitrariness of positive law and the potential imperiousness of individuals in authority, the state can instead elect to promulgate and enforce civil statutes that would “restrict liturgical services or hamper the clergy in the activities of pastoral care.”

For Stein, religious belief belongs to the sphere of freedom. The state can interfere with religious expression, prescribe or proscribe forms of worship, require or forbid public confession of one set of beliefs or another. “But,” she maintains, “upon the relationship of the soul to God, no commandment or prohibition can exert any influence.” This is, again, inner freedom, mental freedom, the right to think for oneself.

It was, finally, a confrontation between the state and the church that played out at the untimely end of Stein’s life. Early in the Second World War, the religious order to which Stein belonged—the Discalced Carmelites—transferred her and her sister, Rosa, from Germany to a monastery in the city of Echt, Holland. On Sunday, July 26, 1942, a pastoral letter written by Dutch bishops of various denominations was read from the pulpit in Catholic churches throughout the country. The letter itself quoted a telegram, addressed to “the authorities of the occupying forces,” in which the bishops deplored the transportation of workers and deportation of Jews to Germany. The church’s action in sharing the letter with parishioners at all Masses that Sunday angered Reich Commissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart (who would ultimately be tried and executed in Nuremberg). He instructed other Nazi officials, "Since the Catholic bishops interfered in this matter which was not their concern, the entire population of Catholic Jews are to be deported this week.” Accordingly, the state, in the person of Seyss-Inquart, shipped Edith and Rosa Stein to Auschwitz in a boxcar.


* Dr. Jon D. Wisman of American University offered helpful comments on a draft of this essay. The author alone is responsible for any misstatements.


Philip Newman Lawton is a former investment professional with major insurance companies and international banks. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium), an MBA in finance from Northeastern University (Boston), and a graduate certificate in international economic relations from American University (Washington, DC). His work has appeared in numerous academic journals and literary magazines.




The Montréal Review, February 2024




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