In 1916, 25-year old Edith Stein wrote a doctoral dissertation, ON THE PROBLEM OF EMPATHY. Empathy she described as a way of knowing other people as beings like ourselves. Her major philosophical questions were:
-- (1) Is empathy a form of knowledge that reaches truth?
-- (2) If so, how do you or I correct empathy when it makes mistakes?
-- (3) What makes empathy possible?
Edith Stein (1891 - 1942) was a brilliant Jewish-Christian thinker whose importance is more widely appreciated day by day. She was canonized as Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross by Pope John Paul II in 1998. She was raised conventionally Jewish in Polish-Prussian Breslau, but became a precocious atheist at age 14. At two German universities (Goettingen and Freiburg) she studied first psychology, then philosophy. Her dissertation director was the great Edmund Husserl (1859 - 1938) founder of the experience-oriented school of Phenomenology. In her 1916 dissertation, Edith Stein, who had already won a medal for service as a near-Russian-front line nurse early in World War I, applied Husserl's phenomenological methods to the subject of our ways of knowing other persons as persons like ourselves: empathy. By 1916 there was not much written by psychologists or philosophers about our ability to see things from other's perspectives, to intuit their mental states from their frowns, their laughter, their dismissive hand gestures.
But Edith Stein laid out her own ideas, while reviewing those of other pioneers of empathy such as Max Scheler, Eugene Merleau-Ponty and Wilhelm Dilthey. At a deeper level Stein disagrees with the earlier sceptical views of David Hume on whether we can know a world outside our own senses. To paraphrase Hume, our eyes only bring us a disorganized jumble of colors, our ears sounds, our tongues sour and salty tastes, etc. There is nothing but chaos in the raw data of our senses. And yet that is not what we experience: we see a window between us and a willow tree; we hear a symphony, we feel another's cold or sweaty hands when we shake them. Hume explained this perceived common sense order and roundedness in our experiences as things that our psyches add to, impose on the raw data, through association of ideas, memory and imagination.
Edith Stein's take was different. And she would invite readers to make their own experiments independently confirming hers.
We experience ourselves causing one of our thoughts to replace another. We experience ourselves choosing to move our bodies from my "here" to your "there" and you doing the same thing in reverse. We use words for what is happening to us, words and sentences from languages and via cultural prisms that we have inherited from others.
Stein is thought to be the first philosopher to notice how phenomena look different when we are tired or ill. She gives hundred of examples, e.g. of how you can be healthy even with a broken arm. Stein asserts that our senses put us in touch with a real world of bodies, some of them "ensouled" bodies outside our personal consciousness and awareness. Using techniques created by Edmund Husserl, Stein dissects nuances of friendship and the structure and unity of the human person. She thereby, in this 1916 apprenctice's dissertation, lays the groundwork for her more profound follow-on philosophical studies of man in society and man in the state.
Who can read Stein's EMPATHY without having to make special preparations?
-- Only philosophy students familiar with phenomenology and existentialism (especially that of Martin Heidegger, like Stein an outstanding student of Professor Husserl).
Who should want to read Stein's EMPATHY?
-- Persons devoted for whatever reason to Saint Edith Stein. They may already know her mystical writings as a Carmelite nun. They may have read Stein's warm autobiography of her early years, LIFE IN A JEWISH FAMILY 1891 - 1916. Such readers want more information as to how the Saint moved from Judaism to atheism to philosophizing to her 1922 Baptism.
If you are not, alas, au courant with 20th Century Continental philosophy, what is a good way to read EMPATHY?
-- Edith Stein's EMPATHY is a doctoral dissertation. It is scientific, scholarly, argumentative and often abstract. Stein's great-niece Waltraut Stein, decades ago, as part of a Master's Degree project for Ohio University, translated Stein's dissertation into workable English. And that is probably the text that you will read. If you try to read EMPATHY straight through from beginning to end without a guide, you may feel that you are tackling a philosophical cousin of James Joyce's FINNEGANS WAKE. Very tough going.
Help is thankfully available. First read philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's 2006 EDITH STEIN: A PHILOSOPHICAL PROLOGUE 1913 - 1922. His Chapter 9, "Stein on Our Knowledge of Other Minds," gives the highlights of EMPATHY and in context of their times.
Finally, there is another, simpler way to tackle Stein's dissertation. I have found it helpful simply to open EMPATHY at random, anywhere. As some people do with texts of Scripture. Read three or four sentences slowly then meditate on them. You can't read a paragraph without being struck by provocative, wise insights or at least by accurate observations of phenomena or by discussions of the history of philosophy. For instance:
(My living body has a) "second constituent ... its position at the zero point of orientation. The living body cannot be separated from the givenness of the spatial outer world. The other's physical body as a mere physical body is spatial like other things and is given at a certain location, at a certain distance from me as the center of spatial orientation, and in certain spatial relationships to the rest of the spatial world. When I now interpret it as a sensing living body and empathically project myself into it, I obtain a new image" (Ch. 3).
With her 1916 EMPATHY Edith Stein launched a vary serious personal effort to break through the glass ceiling preventing women from becoming tenured faculty members of German universities. It did not help that she was also Jewish. Soon enough, even more profound philosophical works failed to win her admission to an exclusively male, overwhelmingly non-Jewish elite world of German university professors. But Stein went on to make a name for herself as lecturer on women's rights to intellectual careers. Then, under Hitler, at age 41, Stein became a cloistered nun. In her every incarnation, scholars and the general public are finding things to like about Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross -- Edith Stein.