Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Edith Stein

The insistence that the sexual differences are "stipulated by the body alone" is questionable from various points of view. 1) If anima=forma corporis, then bodily differentiation constitutes an index of differentiation in the spirit. 2) Matter serves form, not the reverse. That strongly suggests that the difference in the psyche is the primary one. Thorough consideration must be given, of course, to the question: To what extent can and should growth into the supernatural be a growing beyond the differences endowed by nature?
[Edith Stein, letter to Sr. Callista Kopf, OP, 8 August 1931, in Self-Portrait in Letters, 1916-1942, Gelben & Leuven, eds. ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 1993) p. 99.]

Today is the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein. Edith Stein was born October 12, 1891 to a Jewish family in Breslau. Her family was observant, but Edith became an atheist in her teenage years. She went on to study philosophy at the University of Göttingen, and there became not just a student of Husserl, but in a sense the student of Husserl: with Heidegger she edited Husserl's papers, and actually drafted, on the basis of Husserl's notes and conversations, a number of passages that made it into Husserl's posthumous Ideen II. Like many of Husserl's students at the time, Stein was interested in the implications of Husserl's phenomenology for areas of life like ethics, law, and politics.

In the 1920s, after reading Teresa of Avila's Life, she converted to Catholicism and began to teach at a girls' school run by the Dominicans, during which she began an intensive study of Thomistic philosophy, starting with a translation of Aquinas's De Veritate. She found St. Thomas somewhat confusing at first -- unlike phenomenology, which is all about proper method, Aquinas has no single method for handling philosophical problems, and this more free-wheeling philosophical style took some adjustment. In 1932 she became a lecturer at the Institute of Pedagogy of Münster, but changes were coming: she was forced to resign the next year as the Nazis passed anti-Semitic laws restricting teaching positions. She joined the Carmelites in 1933, and took the name Teresa (or Teresia) Benedicta a Cruce. There she began work on what would become her major philosophical work, Finite and Eternal Being, an attempt to address scholastic questions phenomenologically.

As the National Socialists grew in power, the Carmelites moved Teresa Benedicta, along with other Jewish converts, to the Netherlands in the hope that they would be better protected there. It was in the Netherlands that she wrote her major theological work, Studies on John of the Cross: The Science of the Cross (the two phrases are sometimes reversed). Unfortunately, the attempt to protect her failed. The Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940; the next year, they began anti-Semitic purges, at first on a small scale. The Dutch did not take it lying down; there was a nationwide strike. The Nazis, however, only became pushier. Eventually the bishops of the Catholic Church of the Netherlands published a letter of protest, which they required all priests to read at Sunday service. The Nazis retaliated by rounding up all Jewish-background Catholics they could find, as well as any priests or religious they found obstructive, and sending them off to concentration camps. Edith and her sister Rosa were shipped to Auschwitz, where they were gassed on or around August 9, 1942.

Henry Karlson has a post on Edith Stein's feminism, which is an interesting subject. In the letter quoted above, she notes that she had once considered herself a radical feminist, but for a number of reasons had come to a position she considered less subjective and more objective; her position, which would not be popular today among most feminists, was that there were was an objective core to masculinity and femininity, each of which contributed distinctive (albeit at times overlapping) values to the human race. Much of her work on the subject is devoted to the role of women as teachers, and can be found collected in Essays on Woman, volume 2 in the ICS translation of her works.

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