Dietrich Von Hildebrand and Edith Stein: Husserl's Students

By Kovacs, Stephen J. | New Oxford Review, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Dietrich Von Hildebrand and Edith Stein: Husserl's Students


Kovacs, Stephen J., New Oxford Review


Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein: Husserl's Students. By Alice von Hildebrand. Roman Catholic Books. 52 pages. $5.90.

Since the death of the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), his widow, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, has dedicated herself to furthering his work and telling the story of his extraordinary life. In this short book, she has the unique aim of drawing parallels between her husband's early life and that of another philosopher of his generation, Edith Stein (1891-1942). A major similarity between these two provides the framework for this book: von Hildebrand and Stein were both favored students of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who in the early 20th century founded the so-called Phenomenological School. Later, as Catholic converts, von Hildebrand and Stein made important contributions to phenomenology - which has its starting point in human experience - in part by trying to harmonize it with the objective, realist metaphysics central to Catholic philosophy, thereby putting this new school at the service of the Church.

As fascinating and worthwhile as it is to read the works of great thinkers such as these, it's sometimes just as edifying to read about their lives, with knowledge of their personal background often shedding new light on their writings. Think, for example, of how our understanding of St. Augustine's theology of grace is so enhanced when placed against the backdrop of the dramatic conversion story told in his Confessions. In the pattern of St. Augustine, von Hildebrand and Stein each wrote their memoirs, chronicling important events and personal developments. Our author bases her book on these memoirs, and throughout it she compares, and occasionally contrasts, the early lives of these philosophers, to offer an intimate look into the personalities of two outstanding modem Catholic thinkers. She makes no attempt to draw parallels between the philosophical achievements of her husband and Stein, but she does suggest that this task be taken up by scholars in the future. (We may hope somebody will accept the challenge!)

At first glance it's hard to imagine as many similarities as there are existing between Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein, coming as they did from such different backgrounds. Von Hildebrand was bom into a life of privilege as the son of the famous German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand. Though irreligious, the von Hildebrands were highly sophisticated and mingled with the cultural elite. In stark contrast, Stein was born into a simple working-class family of German Jews.

Early on, Dietrich exhibited a sanguine temperament, while Edith had strong melancholic and phlegmatic traits. Both youngsters, however, could be "unruly and rebellious." Once, Dietrich got so frustrated with his mother that he threw a can at her head. Edith would throw such wild tantrums that her older sister finally tried to subdue her by locking her in a dark room. As they grew, they quickly overcame their volatile tendencies, and Edith became a peacemaker within her troubled family.

Even in youth, Dietrich and Edith had a "strong innate moral sense, and [were] spontaneously attracted by the true, the good and the beautiful." For instance, both were naturally repulsed by sexual impurity and had great reverence for the dignity of love and marriage. This is all the more remarkable because neither had real religious faith (Dietrich was nominally Protestant; Edith renounced her family's Judaism for atheism by her early teens). …

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