Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922

Article excerpt

The Beginning of the Journey EDITH STEIN: A PHILOSOPHICAL PROLOGUE 1913-1922 by ALASDAIR MACINTYRE Rowman & Littlefield, 224 pages, $25.95

IN THE SUMMER OF 1921, while visiting friends, Edith Stein chanced upon the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Reading through the night, she completed an important stage in her own intellectual and religious development. She decided to become a Catholic and to follow the path of St. Teresa into the Carmelites.

Now, with Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922, Alasdair Maclntyre has written a remarkable intellectual biography of Stein that ends, rather than begins, with her conversion.

The author of such influential books as Marxism and Christianity, After Virtue, and Dependent Rational Animals, Maclntyre is not writing hagiography but a "philosophical prologue" to a conversion-though that carefully chosen word prologue invites thoughts about the life that Stein would lead after her conversion.

Edith Stein has much to say about reason and faith, the nature of conversion, the relation of phenomenology to Thomism, and the understanding of philosophy as a way of life. In Stein, Maclntyre detects an exemplary philosophical life, not so much in the conclusions reached but in the questions formulated and the integration of thought and life. Maclntyre opens with a reference to the ancient genre of "Lives of the Philosophers," and Maclntyre's account of Stein's life is a contribution to that venerable genre: a counter to the trivializing relegation of philosophy to the professionalized and specialized world of academia, which too often reduces the life of a philosopher to salacious gossip.

MacIntyre's book is at once an example of, and yet transcends, the contemporary philosophical impulse to recover what philosophers call the "situatedness of thought." He does indeed locate Stein -a female, Jewish philosopher who was killed at Auschwitz and canonized as a Catholic saint-in the context of her Jewish upbringing, her philosophical apprenticeship under Edmund Husserl, and her growing awareness of German nationalism and its attendant antiSemitism.

But the book is not finally about the background history of Edith Steon's intellectual development. Instead, it defends a thesis about the unity of thought and life and about Stein's own life as an embodiment of a certain form of philosophical life.

MUCH CONTEMPORARY philosophical biography involves unmasking scandal. Among modern philosophers, Martin Heidegger is the most widely mentioned case and the comparison of Heidegger with Stein illustrates the centrahty of truthfulness in the attempt to think clearly about how thought and life might be integrated.

At various points, Maclntyre offers tantalizing comparisons of Stein and Heidegger, whose lives have intersecting but opposed trajectories. Heidegger began as a Catholic, studied with Husserl, abandoned Husserl to embark on a radical deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, and ended up an ally of the Third Reich. Edith Stein began as a practicing Jew, turned to atheism, studied with Husserl, struggled to move beyond the limitations she detected in Husserl's phenomenology, became a Catholic, moved toward traditional metaphysics, and was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

But MacIntyre's Edith Stein also concerns the history of modern Thomism, to which Maclntyre has since the early 1980s himself been a contributor. In his 1990 book Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Maclntyre argued that, by making epistemology into first philosophy, certain strains of Thomism inevitably dissolved into a number of competing schools. Of course, MacIntyre does not think that Thomism can simply seal itself off from modernity. Instead, what is needed is a way of engaging modern philosophy without succumbing to its epistemological assumptions.

One possible way to address this problem is through the kind of phenomenology that Edmund Husserl began. …

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