Catholics and Personalist Philosophy . . .

Courtesy of The Acton Institute, Kevin Schmiesing presents a History of Personalism, with a look at key figures of the loose-knit philosophical tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. From Germany: Edmund Husserl (1859—1938), Max Scheler (1874—1928), and Edith Stein (1891-1943) — known to Catholics as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, martyr and Co-Patroness of Europe.

A Jewish convert to the Catholic faith and member of the Carmelite order, she was martyred under the Nazi occupation in 1942; beatified in 1987 and canonized in 1998 by Pope John Paul II, who as priest/scholar Karol Wojtyla was himself a student of phenomenology.

From the essay:

. . . When Edmund Husserl moved from Göttingen to Freiburg in 1916, he took with him a particularly impressive graduate student to be his assistant. The young protégé was Edith Stein, a woman of Jewish descent destined to be a first-rate philosopher, a Carmelite nun, a casualty of the Holocaust, and a canonized saint.

Stein began her education at the University of Breslau in 1911. During her stay there, she came upon a book that “revolutionized her intellectual life”; it was Husserl’s Logical Investigations. In 1913, she managed to come under Husserl’s tutelage at Göttingen, where she also befriended Adolf Reinach (1883—1917), and participated in the Göttingen Philosophical Society with Husserl, Reinach, and Scheler, among others. Reinach, she once observed, “was the link between [Husserl] and the students since he had a gift for dealing with people whereas Husserl himself was rather helpless.”

Like other students of Husserl, she looked to the founder of phenomenology as “the Master,” but, also like many other students, could not follow the leader’s move from realism to idealism. Stein’s own work focused on the notion of empathy (Einfühling), an idea Husserl mentioned but never investigated. In Stein’s view, empathy was “an experience of other individuals, the prerequisite to knowing the objective outer world (only experienced intersubjectively, through a plurality of perceiving individuals who relate in a mutual exchange of information).” Empathy, then, was the key to understanding intersubjectivity, which was in turn the pivotal point of epistemology, since knowing took place in the context of personal relationships. [Note: On the Problem of Empathy, Stein’s doctoral dissertation under Husserl, is made available along with the rest of her writings by the Institute of Carmelite Studies].

Influenced by her association with the Reinachs, who were devout Lutherans, and her encounter with Scheler (whose lectures were the “first push along the road to conversion”), Stein embraced the Catholic faith and was baptized into the Church in 1922. Prefiguring Karol Wojtyla’s synthesis, she undertook a “phenomenological translation” of Aquinas, rendering the great scholastic’s thought intelligible to modern German philosophy.

Although shielded somewhat by her adopted religion and Carmelite habit from the designs of the Nazis, she was transferred to Holland in 1936 to avoid the increasingly bold grasp of Hitler’s minions. The border proved to be little protection and Nazi occupation of The Netherlands brought with it constant fear of deportation. That fear was realized in 1942, when the Dutch Catholic bishops issued a public protest against Jewish persecution. The fallout included reprisals against Jewish Catholic converts, and Sister Benedicta of the Cross was soon among the victims. She was last seen at a train stop in eastern Germany by a mail truck driver who noticed her religious dress. The train was bound for Auschwitz.

Personalism is more an approach than a philosophical school per se, and the entire article reads like a game of “six degrees of separation”. It’s fascinating to see so many Catholics among them, including: Gabriel Marcel (1888—1973) and Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) of France; Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in Poland, who studied under Roman Ingarden (a student of Husserl’s), and about whom

. . . a debate has raged over the philosophical orientation of the Polish philosopher turned pope — that is, over whether he is indebted mainly to phenomenology or to scholasticism. Because of Wojtyla’s eclectic education in, on the one hand, modern philosophy at the Jagiellonian, and, on the other, traditional Thomism at the Angelicum in Rome, powerful arguments can be made on both sides of the dispute . . . all commentators admit that both Thomism and some kind of phenomenology were synthesized in Wojtyla’s approach to philosophy, but the debate centers on which school holds primary importance in the pope’s view. . . .

[I]t is perhaps most accurate to consider Wojtyla’s work to be a true synthesis, in which the insights of personalism and the insights of Thomism were both given equal play, and something new created, that can properly be called personalistic Thomism, or Thomistic personalism. As one former student of Wojtyla’s has put it, the Polish pope’s philosophy might best be characterized as an “existential personalism, which is metaphysically explained and phenomenologically described.”

Also, discussed: Dorothy Day (1897—1980), co-founder of the Catholic Workers under the influence of the personalist teachings of Peter Maurin (1877—1949).

Related Links

  • What It’s Like To Be a Christian, by Peter Simpson. First Things 144 (June/July 2004): 23-28. An exploration of the Pope’s “phenomenological personalism.”
  • The Phenomenology of Edith Stein, by Marianne Sawicki, Ph.D., abridged from lectures delivered at St. John’s University in New York on October 15, 1998, and at the Carmelite Monastery in Baltimore on November 13, 1998.
  • For comic relief, there’s nothing like discussion of the John Paul II’s phenomenology to throw traditionalist Mario Derksen into a hissy-fit: “Having studied the issue for quite a while, I must say that I find it to be, at best, nothing other than utterly verbose sophistry with little substance.”
  • Perhaps Mario might make use of John Crosby’s The Selfhood of the Human Person (Catholic UP, 1997), which Dr. Blosser regards as possessing “remarkable clarity and assibility” particularly for those who have “languished through the iniquitous translation of Karol Wojtyla’s The Acting Person, or finds phenomenological approaches frequently impenetrable and mystifying.” (I’m adding this to my Amazon wish list as well).
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