Thomas Gricoski: Being Unfolded: Edith Stein on the Meaning of Being

Being Unfolded: Edith Stein on the Meaning of Being Book Cover Being Unfolded: Edith Stein on the Meaning of Being
Thomas Gricoski. Foreword by William Desmond
The Catholic University of America Press
Hardback £64.60

Reviewed by: Steph Marston (Birkbeck, University of London)

Edith Stein’s best known work is her phenomenological investigation of affectivity and philosophy of mind, and especially her treatment of empathy. Relative to these, her ontology is somewhat neglected even though it is of great interest, both as a transition between her academic and theological writings and as a development of concepts of essence implicitly present in phenomenology more widely. This is an acknowledged gap in Stein scholarship which Thomas Gricoski aims to bridge with Being Unfolded, a rigorous and insightful philosophical-theological interrogation of Stein’s Finite and Eternal Being (Endliches und ewiges Sein, hereinafter EeS).

Gricoski’s opening chapter lays the foundations for his characterisation of Stein’s ontology as a correlational realism. Contextualising Stein’s work within two philosophical traditions, the Husserlian phenomenology of her academic beginnings and the neo-Scholasticism with which she engaged in her later phenomenological inquiries, he argues that Stein developed a correlational philosophy in which phenomenological method is used to address traditional Thomist metaphysical questions. The result is an ontology of multiple modes of being whose common attribute is unfolding:

Finite being is the unfolding of meaning; essential being is the atemporal unfolding beyond the contraries of potency and act; actual being is the unfolding outward of an essential form, from potency toward act, in time and space. Mental being is unfolding in multiple senses… (10, citing Stein, EeS 284-285)

Stein’s own work is notoriously unspecific about the concept of  Entfaltung, ‘unfolding’ or ‘blooming’, and it is this gap that Gricoski seeks to fill in Being Unfolded. He proposes that for the unfolding which characterises being throughout Stein’s ontology is a “self-transcending relationality”:

The key to understanding Stein’s sense of being…is the transcending nature of the relations between being and meaning, and between each mode of being. (32)

Clearly, such a proposal stands in need of further elaboration, and Gricoski unpacks it over subsequent chapters, offering a close reading of Stein’s texts which moves from the logical questions arising from the concept of being itself, through different aspects of being and meaning, to conclude with a reaffirmation of unfolding as transcendence.

The motivation for Stein’s concept of unfolding is located in the tensions in Aristotelian philosophy between actuality and potentiality, acting and resting. Traditional ontological formulations of this dichotomy tended to situate ‘real’ existence in acting; this was especially true of Scholastic interpretations, which drew parallels with Christian concepts such as creator and soul. Gricoski demonstrates in the second chapter how Stein’s own work on potency and act underpins her concept of unfolding. Refusing the need for selecting between potency and act, Stein insists that they are unique modes of being, potency as ‘resting’ essential being and acting as actual being, inextricably related in what Stein calls ‘close belonging-together’. Gricoski’s argument is careful in following Stein’s text so as to show that her ontological project retains a recognisably phenomenologist character in its recognition of a diversity of modes of being and meaning which, rather than being hierarchically related, are drawn together in her correlational principle of unfolding. Within this complex analysis, he argues, there is a harmony in which “a transcending relation holds the relata in a creative tension, without resolving the tension through overcoming difference” (59).

While Stein’s engagement with Thomist philosophy is her unique contribution, there is nonetheless an implicitly Aristotelian flavour to the phenomenological project of seeking to grasp essential meanings. Underlying Stein’s resolution of the acting-resting dilemma is the problem of how to characterise the meaning of essential being, and this is Gricoski’s theme in the third chapter. As with the potency-act question, Stein seeks to refute a philosophical tradition in which different elements of being are ordered as to precedence: in this case, the priority of essence over existence. Arguing that being is non-identical with existence, since existence is temporal whereas being can also be atemporal, and that essence without instantiation cannot count as being, she posits that essential being is irreducibly constitutive of meaning in all being. Gricoski clearly sees this move as pivotal to Stein’s philosophy. It enables her to avoid traditional critiques of essentialism while incorporating essential being into her ontology rather than simply ‘bracketing’ it in Husserlian mode. More significantly, it motivates her evocation of ‘unfolding’ as characterisation of the relation among different modes of being:

Without splitting being into apparently irreconcilable ‘modes’ and arranging them in such a way that the modes ‘overlap’ or coincide in beings, there would be no need for the correlational principle of unfolding to bring the modes together. (252)

Here one may query whether Gricoski imputes too much to Stein in his elaboration of her concept of unfolding. Stein’s own underdeveloped treatment of unfolding might seem to undermine the thesis that it cements her ontology in the way that he indicates. Indeed, Gricoski acknowledges that the more conventional reading of ‘unfolding’ is as a bridge between the demands of Stein’s dual philosophical tradition, phenomenology on the one hand and Thomism on the other. Whether Stein scholars will find his case for viewing unfolding in a strong ontological sense is an interesting question.

The defence of Stein’s concept of essential being provides a springboard for subsequent chapters where Gricoski, turns his attention from being to meaning. Like being, meaning in Stein’s later work is multiple and relational; the different modes of being are all meaning-bearing, as are the relations among them. Gricoski proposes that the relationality present in being is not only reflected in meaning is constituted by the connections among actual beings which derives from their participation in essential meanings:

Through actualised essential structures, every individual actual thing is related in some way to every other actual thing that shares one of the same essentialities. Actual things are connected to each other through the nexus of essential meanings. (109)

Again, the question arises of how far this is Gricoski’s picture and how far it is Stein’s. It seems as though the delicate balance and parity of ontological standing which Gricoski perceives in Stein’s philosophy is threatened by situating the source of their relationality in essential meanings and hence implicitly in essences. If actual things derive their meaning form the meanings of essences, then why not their being also? This is a question which Gricoski takes himself already to have settled but readers may find it pressed anew by chapter five, where Stein’s theistic commitments come to the fore in an exploration of the origin of meaning.

Here, Gricoski’s exposition of Stein’s work takes what appears to be a more traditionally Scholastic turn. Finite being is “the dim analogue of eternal being” (110); actual being qua act echoes the actus purus of divine being; the intrinsic meaningfulness of essential being resembles Logos. It is challenging to read this other than as a hierarchy of meaning, and thus as at least potentially reductive; this suggestion becomes more forceful in the claim that essentialities reflect only the meaning aspect of divine being, so that finite acts of actual being are closer to God than finite instances of meaning which have only essential being. With such a structure in play, can Gricoski uphold his thesis that Stein’s ontology avoids hierarchy by foregrounding the relationalities within being and between being and meaning? Stein’s own answer is reminiscent of theological mysteries:

We can only conclude that everything finite – its quid as well as its being – must be predetermined as being-in-God, because both [principles] come from him. The final cause of all being and quiddity must however be both in perfect unity. (111, fn3, citing Stein, EeS)

More compelling is Gricoski’s account of how Stein takes herself to have overcome not only the intrusion of hierarchy into her adaptations of ontological categories but also the problems of Aristotelian teleology. While the suggestion that every object has meaning which it unfolds is undeniably reminiscent of a form-matter ontology of substances, Gricoski persuasively proposes that Stein balances the priority of actual being in its closeness to God with the argument that essential being is prior to actual being insofar as actual being aims at a goal, and thus at the rest represented by essential being. While essentialities bear the meaning of finite beings, those meanings can only be unfolded by finite beings; further, since being and meaning are correlative and not reducible to one another, there are no unfolded essentialities waiting in some metaphysical realm to be unfolded into being. This delicately contrived equilibrium indicates the scale of the challenge inherent in Stein’s project of articulating a Thomist phenomenology.

In Chapter Six Gricoski moves to explore the implications of Stein’s posited mode of actual being in relation to meaning. The unfolding of essential, atemporal structures of meaning in temporal finite being is characterised as “an ontological ‘conversion’ or ‘translation’” (129). On this picture, the essences of existent things are properly understood as unfoldings of meaning, such that existence realises an “irreducible” relationality of co-dependence between being and meaning in the ontologically distinct domains of essential, actual and mental. Unfolding emerges as a self-relation in which being and meaning transcend themselves both within each ontological domain and beyond any one domain. Unfolding reveals both the limitations and the powers of actual being, which Gricoski characterises in terms of deficit and surplus: deficit, in that the temporal existence of an actual object can only partially or inadequately unfold its essence, but surplus in that Stein insists on the “ontological brilliance” of actuality, without which essence cannot be realised. Indeed, according to Gricoski, actual beings represent for Stein “a leap of transcendence”: an enacting in which essence retains its essentiality even while becoming actual and in which the actual qua activity also participates in the eternity of essence. This relation of temporal, changing existence to essence’s atemporality and intransience renders existent things intelligible, capable of bearing meaning.

The complexity of this parsing of the relations among different elements in Stein’s ontology is reflected in the following two chapters, which are perhaps less successful than others in the book. Chapter 7, Matter and Meaning, presents a detailed exposition of Stein’s explorations of the relation between form and matter. Gricoski seeks to defend Stein against interpretations which take her to prioritise essence over actuality, but this defence is only partially persuasive. The challenge, as Gricoski acknowledges, is that the tensions between Stein’s phenomenology and her later Thomism are not always fully reconcilable. This chapter effectively shows how Stein’s phenomenological focus on the uncovering of meaning through essences reads into her commitment to articulating a hylomorphism which synthesises immanent and transcendent (Aristotelian and Platonic) concepts of form and in which form and matter are reciprocal, co-sustaining aspects of actuality. However, while Gricoski sees unfolding as the key to appreciating how this works out in Stein’s ontology, it is not clear that he has defeated suggestions that form takes priority over matter, or essence over existence, as a source of meaning. This difficulty is reiterated in Chapter 8, Material Beings, in which Gricoski seeks to illustrate the workings of Stein’s hylomorphism in “case studies” of the unfolding of material things of different kinds.

The case studies demonstrate the sheer intricacy of Stein’s ontology and the complexities involved in using it to illuminate the meanings of phenomena – it is tempting to wonder whether Stein’s work shows the prudence of Husserl’s strategey of epochē towards ontological questions. Gricoski is diligent in drawing the different levels and elements of Stein’s treatments of essence and being into his case studies, perhaps at the expense of a full exposition of his own thesis that her ontology is ultimately relational, based in unfolding. To be sure, the examples of organic beings have unfolding baked into their descriptions, but this is hardly surprising given the Aristotelian roots of Stein’s hylomorphism. More insightfully, Gricoski elaborates unfolding as a relational term in that material beings of all kinds depend on external beings and essential structures in order to accomplish their unfolding: the nourishment that living things require for their development; the openness to meaning that enables emotional and intellectual experience and willful acting; the processes communication and interactions which generate fuller unfolding of meaning in all beings involved in them. This seems quite true to Stein’s emphasis on the exteriority in which spirit transcends itself and in which all meaning, knowledge and creativity reside, and it would have been good to see more clearly how Gricoski’s own thought develops the insights gleaned from his exegetical work.

In addressing the mode of mental being in Chapter Nine, Gricoski touches on one of the most interesting aspects of Stein’s philosophy, the ontological characterisation of concepts, creativity and knowing. The medium of mind, he proposes, exhibits unfolding analogously to the other spheres of being:

Between an actual thing and my knowledge of it, a gap or discrepancy necessarily emerges. This discrepancy likewise reveals the dynamic process of unfolding. (196)

The discrepancies alluded to here relate to given meaning given and acquired meaning, and themselves underlie familiar mental processes of experience, concept formation, creative thinking and so forth. In each case, meaning qua acquired unfolds relative to meaning qua given, as being unfolds relative to essence: that is, into something which only partially resembles or manifests the original. Gricoski reads Stein as holding that such gaps in meaning reveal that essence and being cannot be identical, and argues that their persistence through the different layers of Stein’s ontology points to both correlational unfolding and transcendence as intrinsic features of it.

It is not clear, however, that Gricoski does full justice to Stein’s philosophy here. While epistemologically Stein certainly speaks of a “discrepancy” of knowledge relative to meaning, of knowledge “lagging behind”, ontologically she imparts a greater reciprocity to the unfolding of mental being:

Mental being is unfolding in multiple senses: the original genesis of genuine mental constructs is as temporal as the thinking action through which they were constructed. The ‘finished’ structures have something of the timelessness of the beings according to which they were constructed, and in which they were predetermined as ‘possible’.” (200, citing Stein, EeS 285)

While Gricoski recognises this additional feature of mental being to some extent, he relates this primarily to the primacy of human minds and the intellectual capacity associated with spirit. This seems like a missed opportunity to further develop his insight of the significance of relationality in Stein’s philosophy, since the mental realm brings into relations of unfolding beings which otherwise – that is, in their actual or material existence – are not related.

The culmination of Being Unfolded comes in Chapter Ten, Unfolding, Analogy and Transcendence, where Gricoski lays out the motivation for his project of attributing to Stein an ontology of unfolding:

By unfolding, being ‘becomes’ meaningful, and meaning ‘becomes’ real. Even if being and meaning are considered analytically separable, then each ‘gains’ something in the process of unfolding…[T]he being/meaning dependent pair itself authentically ‘gains’ something by unfolding itself or being unfolded. Unfolding creates surplus even as it causes deficits.

In Stein, then Gricoski discerns an ontology of dynamism, (non-spatial) expansion and creativity. Stein’s allusions to ‘unfolding’ offer a means of elaborating this insight; and if the allusions sometimes sound metaphorical then on Stein’s own terms that is no reason for not taking ‘unfolding’ seriously:

The metaphorical figures of speech of our language express an inner correlation between the different genera of beings and thus also a correlation with the divine archetype. (176, citing Stein, EeS 213)

If unfolding pervades all the layers and entities of Stein’s ontology for Gricoski, then so does analogy, in that he takes analogy to be the relation between that which unfolds and that which is unfolded. Similarly, from the pervasiveness of analogy is inferred a universal transcendence which occurs as beings come into relation with other beings or with aspects of themselves. Transcendence and analogy are both constitutive and characteristic of unfolding: “Unfolding appears now as both transcending difference by maintaining similarity and creating difference by analogous similarity” (246).

While Gricoski’s project is firmly rooted in Stein’s ontology, the book could have benefited from greater acknowledgement of her philosophy of emotion and empathy, and from consideration of how that earlier work may have influenced her unique and productive perspective on Thomist metaphysics. If unfolding is relational, as Gricoski persuasively argues, then relations among beings will be of as much ontological significance as intra-being relations. Indeed, Gricoski emphasises that, in Stein’s ontology, “relationality respects difference in order to enable mutual enrichment” (p58). In Being Unfolded, however, there is a great deal more self-unfolding tha being-unfolded. This is a regrettable gap in Gricoski’s treatment of Stein’s philosophy, especially since one of his concerns is to demonstrate continuity between Stein’s academic phenomenology and her later work in Thomist metaphysics. Stein’s own life offers a stark illustration of just how significant are relations among beings for opening up or circumscribing the possibilities of unfolding. Nonetheless, Being Unfolded is a lucid and valuable work of scholarship. Despite the technicalities of Stein’s philosophy it is also engaging and readable for the non-specialist, offering an intriguing introduction to a relatively neglected twentieth-century thinker. Gricoski has demonstrated good grounds for taking unfolding as a pivotal element in Stein’s ontology and an ineliminable force in the creation of meaning.

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