Eva Reyes-Gacitúa, Antonio Calcagno (Eds.): Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics

Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics Book Cover Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 110
Eva Reyes-Gacitúa, Antonio Calcagno (Eds.)
Hardback 103,99 €
XIII, 148

Reviewed by: Jorge Varela (Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University)

The forgetfulness towards Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State is telling about the fate of phenomenology. Over the past century its political concerns were mostly overlooked. The noticeable return to political phenomenology since the post-cold war period has had the peculiar character of neglecting most of the preceding political phenomenologies from the past. So, the publication of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics, edited by Eva Reyes-Gacitúa and Antonio Calcagno has the value of calling attention to one of the earliest texts on political phenomenology. While there a few occasional analysis of Stein’s contribution on the state to Husserl’s Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung, the essay is far from being a canonical text in phenomenology, regardless of its unique object in the early period of the phenomenological movement.

The encompassing nature of the book edited by Calcagno and Reyes-Gacitúa reflects its genesis. It results from the 2016 symposium by the Edith Stein Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies held in Chile, a centre that convenes annually to contribute for the expansion of scholarship on Stein’s work. 4 years ago, they attempted to introduce most of the content of Stein’s exploration into the state. The book has two parts, the first offers 8 chapters in an exhaustive presentation of the contents of Stein’s book, the 5 following chapters explore the usefulness of the book to approach current topics that were less salient in the 1920s.

As the essay was written between 1919 and 1921, and published in 1925, one wonders why did it take so long for any attention to be devoted to it? The editor’s introduction offers three reasons, 1) Stein is mostly associated with phenomenology or with Christian philosophy, and the State is not seen as a particular concern, 2) research on Stein’s wider works has only recently started and this book is part of her earlier unexplored texts, 3) for its association with the German intellectual mood of the interwar years (viii-ix). Strangely, the first two points assume that her readership would be constituted of specialists on Stein, without the inclusion of intellectual historians or other readers of phenomenology. The third point directs us into a more interesting dimension. On the one hand, the editors claim that the entire inter-war period is tainted by the involvement of Germany in the two most violent processes of the preceding century. More importantly, the intellectual explorations that have similarities with what lead the extremist policies of the period, were pushed aside, and ignored. This may make some sense as a fault of Stein’s support for World War I, before she started to write the essay on the state, but she was not a supporter of the Nazi regime. Indeed, she died in a concentration camp. Thus, the similarities between her work and some of the rising totalitarian ideas should be explored to understand the multiplicity of voices, and the specific differences of the period. What remains most surprising is that the editors did not mention Martin Heidegger’s collaboration with the Nazi regime. Heidegger isn’t even mentioned in the book, and his political choices are likely to have served as a greater deterrent for the development of political phenomenology. The specific reasons for overlooking An investigation Concerning the State seem insufficient to explain such a long delay between publication and its recent critical reception.

The opening chapter of part I by Mariano Crespo offers an allusion to the earliest works of political phenomenology that precede Stein’s contribution. Crespo’s attempts to provide prior explorations in the two most clear phenomenological influences for Stein, Husserl, and Reinach serve to emphasize the relevance of Stein’s endeavor. It becomes obvious that Husserl’s late emphasis on intersubjectivity and Reinach’s take on law inform Stein but both fall short of arriving at the political as their object. At the same time, the influence of Reinach is well presented and his apriorism constitutes a driving force for Stein’s considerations, a topic that is recurrent across the edited book. Stein replaces Reinach’s term apriori law for pure law and uses it to distance her approach from the concrete forms positive law assumes, while also avoiding the pitfalls of natural law and the apriori contents it offers. As Crespo states “a priori theory of law is nothing more than a theory of the ‘formal norms of legality’” (10). What applies for this first presentation applies for the entirety of the Stein’s perspective and for the chapters that are contained in this book.

Rather than analysing the concrete appearance of the state, the book chapters follow the ways Stein approaches the conditions of possibility of the state: Law (“Certain Legal Presuppositions About the Idea of Law in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State”, by Marcelo Gidi SJ), Community (“People and State in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” by Marcela Aranda), Ethics (“Sovereignty and the Ethical Demands of the State, by Luis Mariano de la Maza). Aranda presents how Stein takes the People to be a special form of community, Gidi approaches the specific function of Law in Stein edifice, and de la Maza analyses the Ethical realm, particularly in its relation to Stein’s Aristotelian conception of autonomy, in opposition to modern conceptions of sovereignty.

Stein’s personal trajectory, and mostly her conversion to Catholicism, ended up by determining the audience for her writings as she seems to be more popular among catholic intellectuals than phenomenologists, some statements about her life assume a particularly important role. The text on the state was written before her 1922 conversion, and both the editors and de la Maza suggest that it is related with her affiliation with the German Democratic Party. De la Maza suggests there may be a “tension between the interests and personal involvement of Stein with the social and political reality of her time in Germany and the philosophical intent to address the subject of the state in the most objective and neutral way possible” (63-64). While it is difficult to argue that any thinker can develop a thought totally bracketing their own time, these assertions require explanation beyond mere biographical assertions. So, rather than suggesting that her adherence to the German Democratic Party was an influence on her thought on the state, they should have elaborated on how is such an influence felt, mostly when Stein leaves the state open to any ideological actualization. Or, perhaps more productively, they should have explored how Stein’s emphasis on the appearance of the state as either a community or a law creating entity, are the result of the increased bureaucratization of early 20th century state or of an increased perception of a rupture between community and authority. The diverse conceptions of the latter point drove much of the political instability of the interwar period, with competing understandings, from nationalism to Marxism, taking it as a point of dispute.

Likewise, Eva Reyes-Gacitúa’s “Woman and the State in Edith Stein’s thought” offers an important consideration on Stein’s thought on the necessity for an increased role of women in politics, accentuating particularly the contribution women may bring to a reform pedagogical culture. The relevance of women and any other fringe group remains highly relevant to this day, and the way their contribution can be valued and promoted should remain a central concern for conceptualizations of the state and politics. But her positions should also be viewed in relation to the period’s increased involvement of women, and catholic women in particular, in the public sphere to promote specific topics usually associated with education and family. Stein likely outpaces many of these proposals for the centrality of the civic dimension in her thought on women, but it is still remains part of this greater awareness of women’s activity. Reyes-Gacitúa’s chapter occupies a strange place in he edited book, as the Stein’s concern about women is posterior to the essay on the state, and she fails to make a relevant connection between Stein’s two explorations.

To this day, Stein’s continued influence comes less from her collaboration in phenomenological circles than from her spiritual quest that led to her conversion to Catholicism. Even though the book was written just prior to her conversion, it certainly represented a step in the journey that led to it, even if just as an exploration of the fields in which a mystical experience was supposed to remain absent. The significance of this element is felt throughout the recently published edited book and particularly explored in Juan Francisco Pinilla’s “Religion, Mysticism, and the State”. This chapter advances a challenging quest: to explore the mystical dimension of the state, particularly through the connections between the early book by Stein on the state and her later mystical writings, this despite of Stein’s refusal of a spiritual dimension in the life of the state. Pinilla’s parallelism between the two periods of Stein thought brings them together through a politico-theological perspective that clearly deserves further exploration in an analysis of Stein’s early forcible rejection of a religious enmeshment into the state.

Calcagno’s “The Challenges Posed by the Community of Law-Givers and Law-Followers in Edith Stein’s Idea of the State” that appears at the end of Part I is the most challenging and interesting chapter of the entire book. The chapter brings together much of the content of the preceding chapters, while also attempting to challenge and overcome Stein’s proposals. Calcagno’s analysis starts by approaching community, and the related concepts masses and society, in Stein’s works. This section is followed by an analysis of Stein’s approach to the state, and the chapter is concluded by a proposed alternative. By focusing on the centrality of sociality in Stein’s approach to the state, Calcagno attempts to avoid an excessive emphasis on philosophy of law to prioritize the sociological dimension of her proposal. Calcagno’s aim is to claim that “the intimacy and intensity that typify Steinian community pose a challenge for her understanding of the state”. Overall, his claim is that the value of Stein’s analysis lies outside of political theory, and that her conceptual apparatus is inadequate for an understanding of the state. It is surprising that the most interesting chapter in the book is an opposition to the relevance of this Stein’s book.

Calcagno’s discussion of sociality in Edith Stein pays attention to her relation to contemporary sociology and the emphasis on the mass or crowd, society, and community. Soon after completing her An Investigation Concerning the State she published her essay on the Individual and Community. Calcagno, just like Steiner, passes quickly through the notion of the masses as it seems of little relevance to the state for her, a position that Arendt would later regret to be false in the rise of totalitarian regimes. Calcagno also adds a dismissive note to the conceptual apparatus supporting an analysis of the masses by defining it as “marked either by imitation or what Stein and others call psychic contagion”. In the end, the analysis of the support of the state gets reduced to the two opposing social bonds that were central for Tönnies, society and community. Fundamentally, the distinction ends up by being supported by the individual’s relation to the form of sociality. In a community the individual assumes an objective character and it is guided by the attempt to achieve a certain goal, it is “an overextending desire for complete unification that cannot be practically achieved within material and historical circumstances” (88). Stein is explicit that it is community that is best suited as a foundation for law and the state. This very definition of community already pushes it to the constitution of the state. But is this a fair assessment of the value of her analysis of the relation between community and the state? It partly is, and Calcagno’s knowledge of Stein’s work is hardly reproachable, but there is an interpretative overstretch that deserves further exploration.

Calcagno’s interpretation of Steinian community is not exclusively based on her book on the State, but he gets most of his support from the 1922 text on the “Individual and Community”. While this is a common practice, it should be noted that Stein presents the community that feeds the state as a special type of community, unlike for example the family, and it should be noted that this difference makes the state community less intense than the smaller forms of community. Furthermore, the later text is closer to Stein’s conversion to Catholicism, and the limitations of earthly community are more explicit for her, but in her case that points towards a mystical experience that includes a relation to a dimension that supersedes sociality. Stein does assumes that there is a spiritual dimension to the state, but as Calcagno recognizes, it is because the state “appertains to the realm of freedom and motivation” (91). It can hardly be claimed that in the 1921 text she would accept that this could be brought back into a religious experience. So, the overlap of these two works to dismiss the political relevance of the earlier text require much more sustenance than what was done by Calcagno.

At the end of the chapter Calcagno uses the earlier analysis to support a liberal society as a more viable source for the state than community. Calcagno’s criticisms of Stein are generally informative, but his inclination towards society as a better support for the state is based on dubious assessments of Stein’s perspective. First, Calcagno seems to read Stein’s analysis of the state as a set of positive normative proposals. While there is no doubt there are several normative considerations guiding her inquiry, the inadequacy of this view is revealed by Calcagno’s puzzlement at the lack of explorations of specific political ideologies (84). Hers is not intended to be an ideology of the state, but a phenomenology of the state independently of the ideology that is to be deployed. Second, Calcagno is correct to claim that “her philosophical view of the underlying sociality required for statehood runs certain risks” (92), that is, the risk of totalitarianism that incidentally followed the writing of Stein’s book. But by reducing the hazards to an authoritarian personality becoming the leader of the community, Calcagno misses the point that the difference between society and community as support of a state that becomes totalitarian is the difference between a bureaucratic and a nationalist totalitarian state. Third, when Calcagno views society as a better means to achieve unity, he misses the point that this claim can only be done through profound reconceptualization, as he attributes a function to society that it necessarily is not able to sustain. While Stein clearly fetishizes the unity associated with community at a political level, Calcagno’s depoliticized fragments hardly seem to be ready for the task he proposes.

The emphasis Calcagno places on the role of sociality as the basis of the state is the best analysis of the implications of Stein’s work offered in the entire book. All the other elements, including her philosophy of law, remain void without a critical assessment of this point. For Stein, the question is how all the components of the state are experienced, and Calcagno offers a rich introduction to Stein’s ground-breaking dislocation of the support for the state to a careful analysis of sociality.

Part II of the book presents several explorations on the current usefulness of Stein’s approach to the state. These chapters analyse several of the dimensions that current researchers should be able to bring out of analysis of historical texts, how can we bring it to our day?

In “Bioethics and Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” Alberto Rojas Osorio explores how Stein’s understanding of the role of the individual contributes for an assessment on how to deal with bioethical issues raised in contemporary society. The overview of the history of bioethics and the relation of humans to non-humans is brought out as being relevant beyond the field of medical research and it is enlightening and of significant relevance for many contemporary debates on posthumanism, object-oriented ontology, etc. Focusing on Stein’s presentation of sociality as relating to a common world of values, the author offers a reading on how Stein’s approach can be relocated to a bioethical concern. Clemens Franken’s “The Issue of the State’s Power and its Abuse in the Literature of Gertrud von le Fort in Light of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” presents a parallelism between Stein and the literary productions of her contemporary von le Fort. This chapter’s interest arises mostly due to the way Franken is able to approach the two authors despite of their different ideological positions and literary genres. They obviously also had much in common, and despite von le Fort’s focus on literary production, she was also very interested in philosophy. And perhaps more importantly, both converted to Catholicism. It is this latter point that makes the most akin, as Franken shows that both authors supported a view of the individual’s appurtenance to community as breeding an acceptance of obedience, an aspect that became relevant in the contemporary development of personalism. Franken’s chapter is not only important for the relation between the two thinkers, as it also offers an insightful intellectual history of their period. The Last chapter of the book is written by a Chilean politician reflecting on the relevance of Stein’s book for an assessment of current political reform in Chile. Soledad Alvear’s “The Current Process of the Constituent Assembly and the Relevance of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” embraces Stein’s encompassing theory of the state as allowing for a continued concern with the community to which it is directed.

Unlike the other chapters of Part II, Fredy Parra’s “The Justification of the Modern State in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: A Political Theological View” and María Esther Gómez de Pedro’s “Forms of the State: An Approach to the Work of Edith Stein Based on its Aristotelian Influences” approach topics that are not alien to Stein. Parra approaches the state from a perspective that hadn’t yet been developed at Stein’s time, political theology, and he brings to discussion authors that were all born in the decade that succeeded the production of Stein’s book. Parra’s chapter introduces Stein’s analysis of the state, emphasizing how the final form of her study remains unable to hinder the seizure of the state by undesirable values. Parra brings Ratzinger and Metz to explore the current predicaments of the state, as they result from his assessment of Stein. De Pedro focusses on the centrality of the bearers of the state in Stein’s understanding of the relation between community and the state. She also extends Stein’s analysis by further presenting how a greater focus on Aristotelian virtues could add to Stein’s view, claiming a political continuum between Aristotle, Aquinas and Stein.

Edited books are always a strange endeavor, and anyone who ventures into this field should always be lauded, but the current one presents a further challenge, it didn’t start as a book. In the beginning it was a conference. Perhaps more in the present day than ever before, the bringing together of researchers into a common physical space to present, explore, and criticize on common topics is of greater relevance in the production of renewed reassessments of the legacy that the world and intellectual tradition have legated us than most publications that arrive to us. So, the present book serves as a testimony to events that are becoming scarce and that threaten to consolidate the digitalization that was already impending. At the same time, the conference was performed by a group that was mostly starting to enter into Edith Stein’s book, and this led to presentations that privileged breadth of content rather than critical analysis. So, while the book covers most topics advanced by Stein, they bring limited novelty to what Stein wrote to start with. Furthermore, most contributions had to be translated from Spanish into English to be included in the book, but that left some problematic choices. For example, it is a poor choice to retain references to the Spanish translation of a German text in an English language text, as most readers won’t find these references helpful.

Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics serves as remembrance of the relevance of books that remained undervalued. Stein brought fresh light into the problematic of the state by directly focusing on aspects that remain pertinent and unresolved to this day.