International Conference: Women Phenomenologists on Social Ontology, 11-12 February 2016, University of Paderbon

Phenomenological Reviews

The conference “Women Phenomenologists on social Ontology” financed by DAAD, University of Paderborn, and Gender Studies Centre, was held at the University of Paderborn from the 11th to 12th of February and aimed at highlighting the phenomenological thinking of some women scientist of the previous century, namely: Gerda Walther, Edith Stein, Hedwig-Conrad Martius and Simone de Beauvoir. The thinkers lived contemporaneously and their contribution to philosophical thought turned out to be fundamental for the field of phenomenology since the problems they undertook to work on are still today worth negotiating and discussing not only from an exclusively theoretical standpoint, but also on a level we could define as “ontological” and “political”. These keywords constituted the basis of their phenomenological proceedings in close relation to an analysis of the world of humans and the individual as a fundamental element of society. This type of problematization which clearly distinguishes between the single individual and the society it finds itself inserted in turns out to be a recurrent theme in the contemporary philosophical landscape and a sine qua non leitmotiv of fundamental reflection in modern thought.

The necessity to concentrate on these women philosophers’ thought is primarily justified by the fact that their contribution to phenomenological thinking and to philosophy in general has up to now remained nearly unexamined or sometimes even misconceived, most of the time with reference to the question of their “feminine gender” and even though neither Heidegger nor Husserl pronounced any distinction between these authors and their other colleagues of the epoch. Although phenomenology in fact defines itself from the beginning as a philosophical current based on very precise methodological parameters – or the “return to the things themselves” – and Husserl really aimed at creating a “proper” philosophical movement based on an evident knowledge of ideal objects, the methodological approach chosen by these women philosophers at times proves to be “different” as it tries to analyze the profundity of a human being immersed in a world which in some ways can be society itself.

Husserl’s phenomenology had already proven the impossibility of reducing a mathematical object to psychological rules, since the acts of thought (Noesis) and intentional comprehension are mutually closed off by the so called “objects” of thought. Thus the aim of phenomenology has right from the beginning been to define the thought objects’ ideality in order to arrive at a clear vision of the essence. In the wake of the master, Husserl, these women philosophers take up this characteristic of the thought school, although with some substantial modification, as was highlighted and problematized in these two days of study. Despite of the fact that one of the fundamental premises of phenomenology is to create an opening preceded by an Epochē – or the suspension of judgment concerning all acquired knowledge and believes -, the theoretical and systematical proposition of these women philosophers rather tended to describe a structure of the human essence as a basis for the implementation of phenomenology. From this derives the importance of analyzing, always in front of a strictly phenomenological background, the relationship between the individual and society, or, more specifically, between singularity and totality.

Now the description and summary of the interventions of the research Professors and doctors who participated in this conference and which follow this premise of notable philosophical importance.

11th February

Prof. Dr. Antonio Calcagno (Western University Canada):

Edith Stein and Gerda Walther: The Role of Empathy in Experiencing Community

In his opening contribution, Professor Antonio Calcagno payed special attention to the role of empathy in collective experience in the philosophy of Edith Stein and Gerda Walther.

Departing from the analysis of the individual act where the knowledge of the other is understood as “empathy”, at first was emphasized the intersubjective experience in Stein’s philosophy which reflects on a human being as a psycho-psychological individual. Then two particular aspects were highlighted: corporality and lived experience. It thus emerged that i) if corporality becomes a necessary means of this same conscience, conscience in its animated and living quality becomes an integrated part of affections, impulses as well as of thoughts, reasoning and decisions; ii) and in this same lived experience can be delineated “similarity” as a uniting factor of all cultures. As a consequence, also emotions like happiness or pain experienced by the others must be conceived by way of the perception connected to our bodily senses, showing the impossibility to trace back the profundity of life to an psychological object.

The development of these two points demonstrates that, in Stein’s thinking, the lived experience inserts itself into these same acts of conscience, and for her it is this same community suffering its influence and at the same moment exhibiting itself as a social and solidary organism.

At this point, Stein’s philosophy was juxtaposed to that of Gerda Walther: by confronting them, it emerged that, for the second thinker, empathy becomes “constitutive”, a clearly visible fact: despite the fact that societies are inclined to “passivity”, it influences its individual members’ and individuals in general: it is constitutive for it. Husserlian echoes clearly resound in Walther’s concept of society; active as well as passive elements appear in the ‘Vergemeinschaftung’. The active parts of a community are constructed by way of empathy and the reciprocal exchange between the subject and the world, in accordance with Husserl’s statements; but the community manifests itself through a passive synthesis where the subject develops a sense of itself and from which point it is also possible to extrapolate their feelings, impulses, impressions, instincts etc. Moreover, Professor Antonio Calcagno showed the uniqueness of describing a habitual derived society, meaning a silent or reposing one. As a conclusion, his contribution revealed the profound sense of collectivity of not only Stein’s, but also Walther’s philosophy.

Prof. Dr. Sara Heinämaa (University of Jyväskylä, Finland):

Simone de Beauvoir on Sexual Difference

This contribution centered on the idea of the phenomenology of the body and sexual difference in human society which fundamentally structure Simon de Beauvoir’s thinking. Consequentially, the intervention initiated with the discussion of de Beauvoir owed to existential and classical phenomenology concerning the concept of incarnation. Then it proceeded to analyzing the thinker’s discussion of phenomena of sexual difference and pregnancy, which was seen to be related to human coexistence or Mitsein. These premises on one hand allowed for a short reflection on the concept of couples, on the other for obtaining her position on the analysis of human beings. Furthermore it emerged that, although the interpreters of de Beauvoir’s thinking tend to privilege the aspects of her reflection found in her novels and essays, the tribute this woman philosopher has given to the sociological aspects of phenomenology is really very important.

Contrary to those who misconceive the philosophical content of her writings, here the phenomenological elements of the concept of the body and of sexuality were emphasized especially referring to “Le Deuxième Sexe” (1949). The ample descriptions offered by de Beauvoir in this essay provide us with an image of the living sexual body, physically and with spiritual aspects, from which also emerges her relation to the other entities and to the entire world and went on to suggest to treat this question departing from the conception of sexuality in philosophy itself. From this point of view it became evident that sexuality is not one of many details of our existence, but that it rather provides its structure, its basis, equal to mortality; it thus becomes impossible to imagine a society without any difference of the sexes. Although such differences seem to be profoundly engrained into our experience of people and human beings – and even more so than those of skin color or racial -, it also becomes clear that de Beauvoir insists on the fact that not all experiences of a person’s individual state need to imply sexual differences – deducing the importance of the role the experience of the lived body (Leib, corps vivant, corps vécu). plays for the concept. Here was introduced the experience of pregnancy which became an emblem of representation for the convergence between nature and culture and the dialectic collision of this two instances. In this process, man and woman act together – and their bodies can be perceived as active and passive; The experience thus does not emerge on an experiential level, but in relation to the temporal organization of the sequence and succession. In the woman’s life, constituted of an alternation between passive and active moments, exists a scheme different from that of the man, despite of the fact that both experiences of the body are active and passive and both draw from the experience of the specific other, from the Mitsein. So one can easily sense that pregnancy acquires its dramatic nature from its event-related character of something happening inside the woman, be it related perceived as enrichment or mutilation.

Prof. Dr. Ronny Miron (Bar-Ilan University, Israel):

The Self of Reality – A Metaphysical Commentary on Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Idea of the Internality of Being

Professor Ronny Miron’s contribution highlighted the aspects of “the consolidation of a unique vocabulary whose objective is to dub the real being and Being in general with what she terms ‘outside-spatial designations’.” Departing from this viewpoint was investigated the classical realistic phenomenology in order to obtain a comprehension of reality as well as of perception and conscience in general.

From Hedwig Conrad Martius’ genealogy it was derived that the ‘outside-spatial’ in whose center is constituted by the dimension of being exists a trilogy of concepts, namely: “essence, abyss, and ‘self’ (Selberkeit) or “self-adherence” (Selbsthaftigkeit).” Professor Ronny Miron paper centered on the development of these concepts, which for Martius thinking realize a constitution of reality which does not manifest itself in a special manner.

Dr. Anna Jani (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary):

The Ontic-Ontological Aspects in Edith Stein’s Contribution to the Social Life

The ontico-ontological aspects in Edith Stein’s thinking and her contribution to social life emerged from Dr. Anna Jani intervention, which concentrated on Stein’s dissertation investigating the acts of empathy as personal acts and related to the individual’s interactions. “While in her first work on the empathy Edith Stein investigates how the act of empathy as a personal act relates to the experiences of the community and how the personal value becomes a communal value; in her study, entitled Individual and Community, she investigates the common ontological background of the individual and the community. According to the thesis of Edith Stein, the community is from the view of the individuality an ontical reality, which is independent of the individual life, and the community is for the individual life an experience of the outside world.”

“Both the individual and the community have an internal and an external or objective appearance, which are naturally able to transform into each other and the properties of the individual and the community are in analogical relationship. The objective appearance of both is constituted by their values.” At this point arose the fundamental question of “how the individual value system belongs to a common value ethics, that is, whether the individual values are constituted by the communal values or vice versa?” From this point of view “[t]he super-individual personality of the community [überindividuelle Persönlichkeit], which is the carrier of the higher values of the community is not different in its actions from a personal activity, however this activity is regarded as independent from the members of the community.” Conclusively it is possible to argue that it is the same Edith Stein who “describes the function of the community as pure action that is confined to external activity. So the communal life has an internal life form, the inner value judgment of the individual, and an external appearance in the form of the activity.” Thus, social life presents itself as a performative art form which helps liberating oneself from the weight of existence.

Dr. Michela Summa (University of Würzburg, Germany):

Empathy and Anti-Empathy. Which are the Problems?

The goal of Dr. Michela Somma’s presentation revealed itself to be double: if on one side the discussion centered on “why we need a ‘multi-layered’ account of empathy”, secondly it also sought to clarify the role “of imagination in empathy, with particular attention to the process of ‘centrally imagining’ what the other is experiencing.” Her argumentation then developed departing from a juxtaposition of the idea of empathy in Peter Goldie an Edith Stein.

In the first part of her contribution, Dr. Michela Summa presented the problem of otherness in Peter Goldie and particularly concentrating on his text “The Emotion” and his critical article “Anti-Empathy” in which it emerges that the understanding of the other does not really aim at clarifying a certain phase of an emotion but rather seeks to retrace the significance of its emotional and intentional experiences, which implicates attributing a constitutive role to imagination as the highest manifestation of personal understanding. Thus, “empathy, in its different layers, significantly relies on imaginative components, and more precisely on ‘central imagining’”, implying that Goldie’s rather sophisticated concept of empathy already presupposes basic layers of understanding.” In the second part was highlighted how this concept becomes in some way “thoroughly clarified in Stein’s analyses”, since Stein’s empathy concept reveals itself, contrary to Goldie’s, to be basic, constitutive in so far as it proposes to shed light on our experience of the others in the sense of a recognition of – in Levinas’ words – of an autrui, which, though it preserves characteristics different from us ourselves, always maintains its own subjective qualities. And still the other is always conceived as an entity possessing a psico-psichological structure, by way of a process put in motion by the empathies understood as perceivable and which then passes on to understand the others as persons tzo be comprehended in the spirituality. From the juxtaposition of Goldie and Stein thus emerged a stratification with which one needs to understand the phenomenon of empathy; in Stein’s philosophy, Dr. Michela Summa proposed to accentuate the distinction existing in the empathy of psycho-physical individuals and of individual persons; and then Goldie’s point where she argued that his merit lay in having underlined the role of imagination internal to the empathetic process; thus also presenting a critique which Goldie also had put to himself; the assumption of the individual characterization of the others.

 12th February

Prof. Dr. Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir (University of Iceland, University of Helsinki, Finland):

Gerda Walther’s Social Ontology and the Relations of the Sexes

Prof. Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir lecture treated the fundamental questions at the basis of Gerda Walther’s “Phänomenologie der Mystik”, namely in what consists a mystical experience; she particularly insisted on the fact Walther’s interrogations about mysticism meant a completion for the phenomenological method initiated by Husserl. Hence, one of the key aims of the contribution was it to underline that man understands himself in the likeness of God and not God in the likeness of himself. In this way it was tried to show that the mystical experiences described by Gerda Walther are no fantastic visions which man could never rationally explain, but on the contrary, that it is possible to legitimize the mystical experience, or rather to convert it into a recurrent phenomenon, which would imply a phenomenological approach due to its total extension. We can follow this reading as well for an understanding of the telepathic experience. While Husserl as well as Stein adhere to the Einfühlungstheorie, Walther in certain way overcomes it exactly by implementing this concept. In fact, telepathy is presented as a “capacity” of the body and of the sexes. The relationship the I-center builds with objectivity really implicates a counter-movement which draws the I towards its most intimate profundity, or inside itself. Thus the I-center comprehends the polarity between the inner psyche and the content of the experience of another human being, but from which movement originates. So, telepathy could either concern the other in the moment where the other itself experiences it, although there can be no identification be the two Is since the I is aware of living something that in reality is not really completely a part of it. The consequences of this conception ae also true for the members of a community, where the body, the soul, the spirit become constitutive parts of the human being. The relationship between the sexes thus acquires three fundamental characteristics: it is i) a cosmic, spiritual relationship ii) it implies an association of the sexes, iii) by way of an holistic phenomenon. Now it is not difficult to understand how Walther really divides body and spirit. The stratum, the sphere that we could define as spiritual is something which settles above the I itself and is unavoidably distinguished from the experiences themselves.


Prof. Dr. Hans Bernhard Schmid (University of Vienna, Austria):

Gerda Walther’s ‘Copernican Turn’ in Social Ontology

At the center of Professor Schmid’s contribution stands the “social role” and the sense of Zusammensein obtained through the sharing of experiences; consequentially, Professor Schmid’s explanations focused on the philosophy of Gerda Walther and on the difficulties arising when trying to distinguish between an experience lived as “Erlebnis” and experience in the sense of “Erfahrung”. By referring to Gerda Walther’s dissertation of 1923: “Ein Beitrag zur Ontologie der sozialen Gemeinschaften”, Professor Schmid particularly emphasized the significance of the We-experience, which must not be understood as a complex of “parallel individual experiences plus some structure of mutual or reciprocal social cognition”, since “the way in which it is ‘ours’ rather than yours and mine is not in virtue of reciprocal attitudes, but in virtue of plural pre-reflective ‘self-knowledge’.” So, the question he asked was what can make an experience such that it can be shared. First, Professor Schmid answered the question paraphrasing Walther, who in her text clearly stipulates that the experiences we share tend to unite us to “them in such a way that they do not ‘belong to different subjects’, and that it is not the case, in shared experience, that I ‘stand for myself’, ‘closed off’ against another subject that is conceived as similarly closed off”; and from this it becomes evident that We-experience is nothing that could belong to me or you, but realizes a We to be understood as collective. But despite of Walther’s expository clearness, according to Professor Schmid remains the question on basis exactly an experience can be considered as collective. “Walther says in her text that it is clearly insufficient for experience to be shared at each participant has his or her own experience, and, in addition to that, some empathetic experience of the other’s experience. Such experiences, she says, are still separate rather than joint. Just that I experience something and you experience the same, with each of us empathizing with the other, does, in and of itself, not make this “our” experience, in a collective sense.” His solution is it to propose a particular type of We-Experience. He then introduced an analysis of the Gemeinschafterlebnis, which could be characterized by its interactivity and its being an Erlebnis that can be repeated indefinitely. Here it becomes understandable how the incomprehension of the interpretations of the  We-experience really derive from a wrong approach to it.


Dr. Alessandro Salice (University College Cork, Ireland):

Edith Stein and Gerda Walther on Experiential Sharing

Dr. Alessandro Salice contribution examines the aspects of sharing referring to the answer Edith Stein and Gerda Walther give to this problem. The question arising is whether the predication ‘sharing’ should be understood as something to be analyzed from a linguistic viewpoint and, more precisely, how an emotion could be shared. “Currently, this question is at the core of an intense debate involving philosophy of mind and other disciplines as well, but it is by no means new. Detailed descriptions of the many forms of sociality that can affect experiences have been produced especially within the Munich and Göttingen circles of phenomenology.”

Both philosophers “have provided to the question of experiential sharing. It is argued that both authors consider empathy (i.e., a quasi-perceptual access to others’ mental states) to be fundamental to sharing. In addition, they both distinguish experiential sharing from other forms of sociality and, especially, from sympathy (understood as a pro-social emotional response to the other’s emotion). And they also claim that, to be shared, the individual emotions have to interlock in an adequate way, one that involves reciprocity.”

So are generated “[t]wo tensions, it is further claimed, [that] could challenge the accuracy of the account just sketched”, and which lead to two different outcomes. “The first results from two apparently conflicting considerations: (i) the focus of empathy is on the I-Thou relationship, whereas (ii) share demotions are experienced as ours. The second tension arises from the observation that, in certain cases, shared emotions could bypass the reciprocity condition – it seems plausible to argue that a single individual can feel an emotion which is adequate if assessed from the group’s perspective and that this emotion is felt as ‘ours.’”

In Stein case it was shown that in order to begin the experience of “sharing”, one needs the element of empathy in order to be together and so it becomes a sharing experience on an emotional level; contrary, in Gerda Walther’s thinking appears the holistic approach to this experience, by way of the distinction made between community and society. This opens up the question of how one has to understand an inner joining? Clearly not only from a purely cognitive standpoint. The existence of community is based on exactly this element. Furthermore, it is in Dr. Salice opinion possible to combine inner joining with Stein’s concept of Einfühlung (empathy). Here his remarks ended.

“By introducing Walther’s idea of a ‘sense of belonging or unification,’ which is considered as a further, and crucial, element of experiential sharing. This idea, it is maintained, could be used to solve both of the above tensions.”

Dr. Thomas Szanto (University of Copenhagen, Denmark):

Stein and Walther on Shared Experiences: A Critical Comparison

Dr. Thomas Szanto opened up a critical juxtaposition of the thinking of Edith Stein and Gerda Walther about the sharing of experiences by highlighting three important points, namely: i) intentionality and mutual awareness; ii) plurality of self/other differentiation; iii) integration. He began with an analysis of Gerda Walther’s thinking concentrating on the intentional sharing of object and sense and then passed on to intentional reciprocity. This led the discourse to mutual awareness in a We-experience, where the terms A and B possess not a reflective but an absorbed conscience of one another; consequently, the subdivision can be realized as follows: it can be i) between individuals (intra-group); ii) between groups and member (group-level); iii) between groups (inter-group). In consequence, the feeling of Belonging Together can lead to a reaction to the unification which ramifies into four different typologies – direct in case it is interpersonal, indirect in the case of a shared object of appraisal, actual or habitual. By way of this Dr. Szanto illustrated Stein’s position and particularly highlighted that the “same affective-intentional (noematic) core sense (Sinnkern) of intentional feelings [and] sentiments cannot be shared.” He thus further illustrated how one passes from shared emotions to collective emotions: Shared emotions can be identified through three aspects: being interactive empathy based, being directly perceptual and lastly through face to face mutual awareness. Collective emotions on the other hand are “typically not face to face, not necessarily synchronous, habitualized and robustly sedimented.”

Prof. Dr. Julia Jansen (KU Leuven, Belgium):

Social Ontology and Phenomenology: Methodological Reflections with Gerda Walther and Edith Stein

By way of a methodological reflection, Professor Julia Jansen described the most salient points in Gerda Walther’s and Edith Stein’s thinking. At first her contribution was oriented on highlighting the enrichment of ontology through phenomenology by analyzing Walther’s philosophy. It has been particularly emphasized that the Husserlian method at one time becomes understood as a alternative for describing the social ontologies and at the other as a condition for pinpointing conscience – exactly by a transmutation operated by Walther from a viewpoint we could define as epiphenomenal and which concerns eidetic reduction and transcendental reduction. This path of research allowed to enter in dialogue with Stein: For example, was underlined the only ontical aspect of her philosophy and the implications this statement could involve.

Departing from this connotation, Stein’s critique of Husserl, her teacher, was introduced, about the subjectivity that in his philosophy never reaches an absolute anchoring, and how his aim rather is to unite subject and object and how one can discover in his thinking a regional ontology of the human being. One can thus claim that his philosophical anthropology lends itself to creating a system inside of which it would be possible to, by juxtaposing it with other sciences, let reemerge the results of Stein’s research that led her to an ontological level concerning the individual immersed in society. So ontology, with the help of the phenomenological method, becomes the means of investigating the experiences on an intentional level. The correlation between conscience and the world implies the admission of an essential doctrine of the objects that are understood by the conscience in the multiplicity of all possible forms.


Prof. Dr. Sebastian Luft (Marquette University, USA/ Paderborn University):

Do We-Experiences Require an Intentional Object? On the Nature of Reflective Communities

The fundamental question of “what does it mean to be a community and to be in a community ” and of what is the de facto factor that consents to analyze it was posed by Professor Sebastian Luft. Departing from a structural analysis of phenomenology, it was shown how the acts can be understood as an integrating part of sociability, or rather as their specific object. In that way it becomes possible to discover in this philosophical movement aspects that we could describe as social, in which it is possible that emerges the complement of the first person plural “us” on an account that needs to be considered from the outside – in the third person plural “they” – or from the viewpoint of a spectator who remains external. Apparently, as Professor Luft pointed out – in alignment with the Husserlian analysis of intersubjectivity followed also by Stein and Walther – every consideration of the “we” with its experiences and its objects can only go forward where there is a tension also with the “I”. It follows the creation of a space – an aspect not by chance underlined by Walther; that is to say the experience of the community and its specific intentional object and what that means for the community, a phenomenon that Walther has recognized as “reflecting” – or as the fact that a community becomes a reflection of itself.

And when Walther as well as Husserl insist on the fact that even if a community is composed of experienced bodies it is not itself an experienced body, the same type of reasoning can be followed when thinking about groups of individuals: those can be united to a point where they constitute a personality of a superior order or create a community in the true sense of the word, authentic and never dissociated from the “Einigung” one has with the others. Through this reflection Professor Luft pointed out that through the analysis of the social act and those of the community one can turn to analyzing the individuals and this is the reason why a phenomenology of the single entity can serve as methodological starting point for identifying the acts defined as social. Normally, the fact that individuals live in a community is considered a sociological problem, but the phenomenological contribution to this problem shows itself in the dichotomous relationship between We-experience and I-experience: in order to explain this question and particularly what the constitutive aspects of “true communities” could be, Professor Luft expounded on some characteristics of phenomenological egology. Referring to Husserl’s phenomenological genetic research one could see that the passive genesis obeying the formal and universal law shows how conscience from the beginning is a transcendence that differs from the ontological questions concerning the being of the subject and the object. Here was introduced a comparison to Gerda Walther who in her “Zur Ontologie der sozialen Gemeinschaften (On the Ontology of Social Communities)” of 1922 works out the structure of intersubjectivity referring to Husserl’s egology. Although there persist fundamental differences between Walther and Husserl, since his interest lay in the givenness of the other, or an intentionality that he calls empathy and Walther was more interested in investigating the “character of acts that occur when individuals unify themselves in forming a community.” Here was presented her distinction between Gesellschaft (society) and Gemeinschaft (community): “What distinguishes this sociality from a genuine community is the lack of unification (Einigung). In this community, individuals enter into it freely and unify themselves as a community, which exists for the sake of something which she also calls a ‘leading objectivity’ or a guiding idea. Communities create their own internal and power structures, their own sub-structures that require special groups or even rely on outside members to sustain them, as, for instance, members of a parliament rely on persons to heat the building, do the cleanup and arrange the work space required for their work. Hence, once again, Walther’s scenario is far from being an ideal and romantic vision of unity or cohesiveness of a group, but very sober-minded and realistic.”

Departing from this ontological research – what is community – this question becomes entwined with phenomenology and thus with the area of the experiences. Conclusively, one could understand that “the merit of Walther’s analysis, apart from her keen and insightful descriptions of the constitution of genuine, unified communities, is that she unearthed a truly constitutive phenomenon of communities, their reflective element, to which I would add that it ought to be expanded as being part of every community in some at least minimal manner.”

Reviewed by: Manuela Massa (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany)

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