Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Edith Stein on Evolution

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Edith Stein on Evolution

Article excerpt

The entelechy ... is living power, as if something of the creating breath were left behind in it. (1) EDITH STEIN 

EDITH STEIN (St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, 1891-1942) sketched out her thoughts on evolution in the sixth and final chapter of Potenz und Akt, the postdoctoral thesis she wrote in 1931 as part of her application for a lectureship in the University of Freiburg im Breisgau. (2)

Today our theological problem with evolution is that divine guidance seems redundant since mutations occur at random. In Stein's time scientists had yet to understand the workings of genetic material, but she did indeed address this "on purpose or by chance" question. (3) Her answer was strongly teleological (she often used the word "telos"), but "creationism" was not her worry. The Catholic Church at the time was more concerned about human origins than about evolution as such. (4) Stein of course respected the positions of the Church, but refers to them in only three footnotes (291, 308, 324). Her teleology is the Thomistic analogy of being (analogia entis) set in a temporal framework: the ascending levels of creation--the " hierarchy of formed matter" (matter, plants, animals, human beings)--become stages in evolution.

In her philosophy of science Stein is similar to other thinkers of her time who suggested counters to a mechanistic view of life: the entelechy of Hans Driesch (also prominent in Stein's theory), Henri Bergson's Elan vital, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's hominisation, and the "Trieb" of Stein's friend, Hedwig Conrad-Martius. (5) Indeed, Stein worked out her thoughts on evolution "in contrast to the Metaphysische Gesprache by Conrad-Martius." (6)

What Stein said of Conrad-Martius was true of herself in a way: she seems to be cautiously "feeling her way forward." She was juggling not only philosophy and science but two quite different philosophical approaches: the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas. Within phenomenology itself, her "formal" philosophical analysis alternates with "material" or "empirical" scientific description. As a phenomenologist, she focuses on "possible worlds," conceivable "in principle"; but she must also address scientific theory that accounts for "our own sphere" (22). (7) At times it is unclear which of the possibilities she thinks is actual. This interplay between the "ontic" and the "empirical" may be one reason why she titled her work "potency and act."

After recounting the origin of Potency and Act and summarizing Conrad-Martius's cosmology, I shall explain Stein's views on taxonomy and on the evolution of living things as well as of human beings and their communities as she developed them in this work. Then I shall describe her criticism of Conrad-Martius and offer a final reflection.

Potency and Act

Stein's philosophical development falls into two stages. She did her early work as a phenomenologist, but after becoming a Catholic she began to pursue her "proper mission," her "life's task": merging phenomenology and Scholasticism, in particular the philosophy of Aquinas. (8) She was not content to "contrast" the two philosophies; she wanted to "fuse" them into her own "philosophical system." (9) She was searching for a "perennial philosophy," "something beyond ages and peoples, common to all who honestly seek the truth." (10)

Potency and Act is the second of three works in which Stein carried out her program. (11) The first was a "play" in which Husserl and Aquinas appear on stage together. At the suggestion of Martin Heidegger she revised it for the journal of phenomenology where it appeared in 1919. (12) Potency and Act was written in 1931 but published for the first time in 1998. The third was her major work, Finite and Eternal Being, written in 1935 and also published posthumously in 1950.

After teaching for a number of years at the college of the Dominican sisters in Speyer (1922-29) and lecturing widely in Germany and abroad, Stein applied for a teaching position at the University of Freiburg. …

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