Empathy, Sociality and Personhood: Essays on Edith Stein’s Phenomenological Investigations

Empathy, Sociality, and Personhood: Essays on Edith Stein’s Phenomenological Investigations Book Cover Empathy, Sociality, and Personhood: Essays on Edith Stein’s Phenomenological Investigations
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 94
Elisa Magrì, Dermot Moran (Eds.)
Springer
2017
Hardback 93,59 €
VI, 218

Reviewed by: Davide Perrotta (Roma Tre University)

Empathy, Sociality and Personhood is a collection of essays about Edith Stein’s thought and its surrounding theoretical context edited by Elisa Magrì and Dermot Moran. Both of the editors have worked on several books about Husserl, the phenomenological tradition, and, in particular, on Edith Stein.

In the Introduction the editors carefully reconstruct the interdisciplinary debates motivated by Stein’s theoretical concepts, which are discussed at length and relevant to many different philosophical and scientific fields. The Introduction points out that there are at least 43 different definitions of the term ‘empathy’ and this circumstance strongly motivates the phenomenological research which investigates empathy as a philosophical issue. Edith Stein’s interest in the topic constitutes a key aspect of her work which has attracted much attention and study. The debate concerning an emotive account of empathy and the extent to which it is present in both humans and animals, has a long history and can be traced in the Darwinian conception of animal sociality, and within the Theodor Lipps’ thesis from the psychological side[1]. The Introduction also makes reference to Vittorio Gallese’s conception of the emphatic process, which leads us into the realm of contemporary neuroscience and cognitive debates[2]. It is part of contemporary common practice to compare scientific definitions of empathy with those from the philosophical tradition, however, the empirical approach of the natural sciences is largely missing from Stein’s phenomenological descriptions.

In contrast to the prominent empirical status of the contemporary approach, this text instead refers to the phenomenological approach. As it becomes clear within the text: only with Husserl’s epistemological turn in the investigations of conscious life are we really able to describe experience structures. The essays in the collection acknowledge Edith Stein’s assimilation of the phenomenological method in order to develop new intentional investigations. Stein’s interest in empathy as a topic stems from her recognition of the importance of this theme in Husserl’s dissertations, for Stein he did not adequately treat or fully elaborate on empathy as a specific intentional act. Stein’s investigations of empathetic psychological acts is therefore profoundly intertwined with Husserl’s account and empathy is defined as an intentional act near to perception and imagination, but different from both.

The book is divided into four parts: the first part contains several essays which treat the concept of ‘Person’. This notion shouldn’t be defined as a single unit, but integrated within a whole series of psychological acts including relational spatiality. The second part integrates this topic with the affective theme of the human experience; regarding the peculiarities of intentionality in relation to the emotional style of the subject. Related to these discussion, themes such as ‘empathy’ or ‘imagination’ are carefully introduced. In the third part, different essays discuss the topic of communal experience which is  very important for integrating the description of the human experience. In the fourth part, the essays discuss the thought of some lesser known  phenomenologists which  nonetheless, supply us with very important descriptions of the communal experience.

The first contribution in the collection is entitled ‘Edith Stein’s Encounter with Edmund Husserl and Her Phenomenology of the Person’ and is by Dermot Moran. The essay begins with a brief introduction which covers the career of Edith Stein, Moran then explores the context in which Husserl’s first book of Ideas was received by his students. The transcendental turn in this book proved difficult to accept for those who were bound to the strong realism of Husserl’s Logical investigations. However, in contrast to his other students, Edith Stein found it easy to grasp, understand and appreciate Husserl’s turn in relation to e.g. both eidetic analysis and the embodied state of consciousness. Moran communicates how Stein conceptualizes the differences between ‘originary and non-originary experience’[3] which is an essential aspect of the phenomenological analysis of consciousness.  Within these theoretical features Stein conducted careful examination of the description of the empathetic act essence, and used this to develop her own conception of the subjective and inter-subjective ‘living body’. Moran then describes the way in which she worked on the affective account of subjectivity beginning with psycho-physical conditionality and moving towards the spiritual peculiarities of the emotional life. He then goes on to explain the peculiarity of Stein’s studies on the essence of the ‘individual person’; he adequately communicates the complex relation between the metaphysical influences on her thought and the phenomenological method. In spite of the complex relation between the two, Moran concludes that Stein proposes a very deep phenomenological description of the person that is strongly philosophical with theological influences.

The second essay is by Hans Rainer Sepp and it explores ‘Edith Stein’s Conception of the Person within the Context of the Phenomenological Movement’.Sepp discusses the concept of personhood in Stein’s phenomenological investigations, in which the structural conception of individuality emerges. He explores the way in which personhood is analyzed by Stein with a focus on descriptions of the intentional structures of conscience life. In the same way in which consciousness organizes our own experience of the world, for Stein personhood is constructed through a multi-stratum ontology, where the deeper found the higher ones. Fort example: we must define the sensorial psychological dimensions as an integrating part of the more complex spiritual values. Sepp explains this important definition with reference to Stein’s distinction between soul and spirit; soul relates to contemporary psychological themes, spirit concerns the values sphere, where social values emerge as the ‘responsibility’.

Sepp then compares Stein’s concept of ‘person’ with that of Max Scheler. Scheler had similar notions about personhood as  Stein, but he also presents differences concerning the relation between the person and their own acts; the person is defined by Scheler as not comparable with their own acts, however, these acts continuously modify their personality. The last part of the text returns to Stein’s concept of personhood, this time focusing on Husserl’s notions of ‘ego’. Stein points out that the Greek notion of oikos, with which she spoke about an oikological conceptuality, in relation to the human spatiality. This interesting topic is well presented by Sepp as, by revealing Stein’s interest in the phenomenological spatiality among peoples the concept is not only defined by her as functional, but as essential in order to define personhood[4]. The topic concerning the spatiality of the own experience is an important prerogative for understanding the concept of ‘person’. The environment is an integral feature for  understanding our relational habits, and this concept shouldn’t be avoided in the psychological understanding of the human life.

The second part of the book is entitled ‘Empathy, Subjectivity, and Affectivity’. The first contribution is by Ingrid Vendrell Ferran and is entitled ‘Intentionality, Value Disclosure, and Constitution: Stein’s Model’. Ferran retraces the debate on the relation among values and emotion from Brentano to the phenomenological context. Her brief but efficient introduction is useful for understanding the distinctness of Stein’s model of affectivity and she presents Stein’s account of the ‘ontology of person’ which is explained with care in its peculiarity. The various elements of affectivity are explained with an accurate relation to the intentional aspect of them. In this way, the author discloses these essential notions to explain the role of emotionality in the perception of values. In contrast to perception and other theoretical acts, the role of the emotional act in the constitution of values is explained coherently. Values are defined not only in the sense of ‘material objects’ but also as formal and it becomes clear how emotions have their own intentionality. In the last part of the essay Ferran uses the drafted instruments for connecting to the discussion of axiology in Stein’s thought. The topic of intentionality in relation to the affective style is an important prerogative for understanding the contrast with Scheler’s realism. Relating to the latter peculiarity, Ferran describes an affinity between Stein and Husserl’s thesis. Even though the theme of the ‘discovery’ of values seems to speak about a realism, she conceives support for the thesis of a ‘constitution’ of values in both in Husserl and in Stein. The constitution of intentional structures allows us to avoid a strong realism about values, paying greater attention to the relation between the consciousness and the world.

The contribution by Michela Summa concerns two main topics: the multiple-level structure of intentionality in Stein’s work and the presentation of various proposals in relation to the complex theme of ‘simulation’  in the emphatic intentional act. Hereafter, the essay contemplates the thought of Peter Goldie, a lesser known philosopher who makes an interesting contribution to how Stein’s work relates to these areas. Summa carefully explains the relation among understanding and imagination in Goldie’s thought overall in relation to the empathetic grasping of individual narration. Goldie shows the role of the imagination in the understanding of the other’s lived events. So, Summa shows how, in Goldie’s thought it is not only the single mental act that is to be grasped, but an entire event of the other’s individual narration. Goldie’s phenomenological description of empathy is classified with several steps, from the more cognitive level toward the most affective attitude of sympathy. The importance of the intentional directivity toward the other’s narration is described with different levels of complexity; from the essential pre-cognitive backgrounds, with which important aspects of the personality are grasped, towards the cultural features or higher motivational states.

‘Stein’s understanding of Mental Health and Mental Illness’ is the contribution by Mette Lebech, in which the topics concerning Stein’s treatment of the empirical psychological tradition are discussed. Lebech describes an interesting difference between the natural stance of the illness and the individual story. Nature intervenes in the individual story, but it doesn’t coincide with individual motivations. In Lebech’s reconstruction, the spirit is presented as the most important dimension of the person which is not only influenced by natural causes. Lebech uses a metaphor of the battery to speak about the psychological process to show how the spiritual attitude of the person lies outside of mechanical dynamics. As with Stein’s reference to God, the latter activity motivates consciousness without a strong requirement of the psychological energetic dimension. Lebech also writes about the group dynamics of the psychological affection and even in the latter case, the passive processes, like imitation, are defined differently to the higher ones – such as the sharing of common values in the community – as mere natural processes.

The third part of the book is entitled ‘Empathy, Sociality, and Medical Ethics’. The first article of this section is ‘From I to you to We: Empathy and Community in Edith Stein’s Phenomenology’. The first contribution in this part is written by Timothy A. Burns and he begins by speaking about Stein’s dissertation in which the intentional act of empathy is deeply analyzed. Burns shows the necessity of distinguishing between ‘primordial’ and ‘non primordial’ acts. The primordial part of the empathetic act belongs to the perception of the other’s physical body, while the other’s experience is defined as the ‘non-primordial’ content. Empathy, as distinct from memory, fantasy or expectation, is defined as an act that transcends the ego. Empathy doesn’t regard the ‘I’ as a subject of its acts, but instead allows us to represent the other’s experience. For this reason, Burns notices, that in empathy an ‘apperception’ is not established, because I don’t apperceive myself as subject of the act. Burns reveals two different levels of empathy: the first is defined as ‘sensual’ and concerns the bodily experience of others, the second is reiterated empathy with which we may grasp the acts by which the other experiences us. Burns uses Stein’s account of empathy in relation to the topic of the community; despite the inalienable aloneness of each individual subject, we can join each other in one community through empathetic acts. Burns explains that, through the possibility of a communal experience, the ego remains ontologically separated from the others because our own experience relates first of all to the subject to whom it belongs. So, the communal intentional structure is not independent of the subjectivities, but is a product of them, and this peculiarity is coherently treated by the author as an essential ‘noetic’ sense of communal experience, belonging to a multiplicity of subjects.

Antonio Calcagno’s contribution is entitled: ‘The Role of Identification in Experiencing Community: Edith Stein, Empathy, and Max Scheler’. Calcagno contemplates the topic of ‘shared experience’ by debating the ideas of Edith Stein and Max Scheler together. Although they use different terms, Scheler and Stein both speak about a ‘we’ experience, or GemeineschaftErlebnisse to use Stein’s terms. In Stein’s first work we find the tension between ‘individuation’ and ‘identification’ and, in contrast to Scheler, Stein ascribes greater importance to personal individuation and argues that it shouldn’t become lost when the person lives within one community. The community itself is described as an intentional structure, stratified like the other form of intentional objects. Calcagno explains how the community is constituted by categorical acts other than by the psychological process of imitation. Indeed, the logical-linguistic dimension is an important aspect which defines a spiritual community and is different from one guided by a ‘psychical infection’[5].  On the other hand, the author reconstructs Scheler’s discussion about values in strict opposition with skeptic theories of morality. Scheler claims the possibility of discovering an eidetic structure of values that characterizes his strong realism about this theme. The author correctly shows the propensity of Scheler concerning a more communal ethical thought in comparison to Stein. Scheler, indeed, speaks about the importance of the spiritual values, with which we can become a ‘collective person’, rather than a community of single individuals organized by each other.

In ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Empathy and Medical Ethics’ Fredrik Svenaeus speaks about the relation between the concepts of ‘person’ and ‘patient’. In the first part of the text, Svenaeus explains the multi-level status of the empathetic act. The most elementary phase depends on the perception of the other’s body; the second step concerns the role of the imagination, with which the other’s experience can be simulated. At the last step, the cognitive elaboration returns to the first person perspective, with an enriched intentionality. Stein speaks about the lack of this capacity for the most part in medics who work on the ‘medical body’ rather than on the ‘lived’ one. Empathy must not necessarily become ‘sympathy’, but it is an essential step we must take to grasp the other’s world, through meaningful events relating to their existence.

In the fourth part of the book is discussed the topic of ‘Edith Stein and her Contemporaries’. The first essay is entitled ‘Kurt Stavenhangen on the Phenomenology of the We’ and is written by Alessandro Salice. Salice examines the thought of Kurt Stavenhangen; a less famous phenomenologist whose work is interesting nonetheless. Stavenhangen worked on the thesis of shared intentionality, and, in line with his thinking, Salice observes that the plural pronoun ‘we’ is not merely a simple function of grammar; it is a change in the intentional structure of experience. The shared experience is characterized by the phenomenologist as a reference to the selfsame intentional object, like a general ‘we like G’. This abstract sentence is shown to explain the structural property of the communal experience. We are not describing a specific cultural expression, but the universal structure of the shared experience. So, being aware of the selfsame object, whatever it was, is not only a theoretical act, but, as Salice explains, it concerns the establishment of shared preferences within the community. What follows is a debate concerning the intentional classification of the ‘we experience’ as examined by Stavenhangen with two peculiar, different intentional forms.

‘A Philosophical Resonance: Hedwig Conrad-Martius versus Edith Stein’ is the final essay in the book and it is written by Ronny Miron. The essay focuses on the relationship between the two phenomenologists quoted in the title and how they have influenced one another. Hedwig Conrad-Martius had strong relationship with Edith Stein, and in such a way there are conspicuous theoretical resonances between them. Hedwig Conrad-Martius based her thought on several critics of Husserl, since she claimed that his thought was flawed by a lack of reality. Indeed, she did not appreciate Husserl’s turn to the transcendental ego and judged that this theoretical move concerned only a ‘pure’ investigation. She remained, for this reason, strongly bound to Husserl’s Logical investigations. Even Hedwig Conrad-Martius, as Edith Stein, spoke about theology as an essential philosophical theme, in which can be applied the phenomenological method. Indeed, the description of the eidetic structure of intentionality could be applied to ‘faith’. For both phenomenologists faith is an essential step for the construction of our own world of meaning, and for this reason it concerns an intentional act considered important for philosophical conceptualization.

In summary, this book makes an important contribution to discussions regarding the definition of empathy not only in respect to traditional philosophical approaches which concern ethical peculiarities on the topic, but also in respect to other theoretical features. The latter characteristic is important, not only to obtain a theoretical understanding of the topic, but also in respect to the experimental practice of modern psychology. ‘Empathy’ is a complex concept which warrants philosophical investigation if we are to  better understand an essential feature of human beings.

 


[i] Husserl, E., Logische Untersuchungen (1900); Husserl, E., Logical Investigations, 2 vols, Trans, J.N. Findlay, New York, Humanities Press, 1970.

[ii] Husserl, E., Ideen zu einer reinen phänomenologie und phänomenologischen philosophie (1912-1928);  Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, Dodrecht, Kluwer, 1989.

[iii] Husserl, E., Ideen zu einer reinen phänomenologie und phänomenologischen philosophie (1912-1928); Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book, Dodrecht, Kluwer, 1989.

[iv] Husserl, E., Erfarhung und Urteil: Untersuchungen zur Genealogie der Logik; Husserl, E., Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. Northwestern University Press, 1973.

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