On Knowledge and Faith: The Philosophy of Edith Stein, Edmund Husserl & Thomas Aquinas

My readings lately have involved an interest in Thomistic and Husserlian views on philosophical investigation and/or methodology. The Thomistic view on philosophical investigation and/or methodology is about what the most principled way of doing philosophy is, or, otherwise, what the most principled way of exercising practical behavior is [i]. In slight contrast, the Husserlian view on philosophical investigation and/or methodology is about what it means to ‘catholicize’ modern, or modernistic, philosophy. Notwithstanding, it seems many people think these views are necessarily antagonistic to each other. What I contend in this post is that the methods of these two views are, at their core-function, the same. There is really no need to resign ourselves to a necessary antagonism between them, and we have Edith Stein to thank for that.

Uh, what’s an “Edith Stein”?

Edith Stein (1891-1942), known by her religious name as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was a Jewish-German philosopher, Carmelite mystic, nun, and martyr who lived during the tumultuous period of Nazi occupation in Europe. According to the New World Encyclopedia, her martyrdom preceded some pretty nasty political retaliation:

            “[T]he Dutch Bishops’ Conference had a public statement read in all the nation’s churches condemning Nazi racism on July 20, 1942 […] the Reichskommissar of the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, retaliated by ordering the arrest of all Jewish converts to Catholicism on July 26, 1942. On August 2, Stein was transported by cattle train to the death camp of Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chambers on August 9. Stein’s younger sister Rosa, also a convert, died there as well.

Canonized in the Roman Catholic Church by St. Pope John Paul II in 1998, St. Edith Stein has been bestowed the honor of being one of the patron Saints of Europe [ii]. Her scholarly works, among which include: Finite and Eternal Being, Knowledge and Faith, On the Problem of Empathy, her translation of Aquinas’ De Veritate, The Science of the Cross: Studies on John of the Cross (in German: Studie über Joannes a Cruce: Kreuzeswissenschaft), and others, demonstrate a remarkable spiritual insight that is so wonderfully typical of a religious affiliation with the Discalced Carmelite Order, her own religious order. Indeed, her writings have served not only the Church, but the atonement and cleansing of Europe, the world, and the souls of numerous individuals.

Edith was a student of the Göttingen School — an association of thinkers at the University of Göttingen that stood for, or otherwise represented, one of the most prominent philosophical and academic movements of the early 20th century: phenomenology, which may be defined generally as “the study of first-person experience” or as “the study of individual phenomena according to an individual’s authentic experiences of that phenomena”. The discovery of the Göttingen School, and/or the phenomenological method associated with it, is attributed to Edmund Husserl, who is sometimes called the “father of phenomenology”. Edith Stein eventually reached her philosophical end by means of Husserl’s phenomenological method, and this end was, among other things, a spiritual and vocational calling to the Discalced Carmelite Order as a nun and mystic. If we want to understand how Edith reached her end, we ought to review the method that helped her reach it: i.e., Husserl’s phenomenological method. To do this, we can begin by comparing Husserl’s method to that of another.

It appears clear that Edith favored Husserl’s phenomenological method above other methods, like that of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Indeed, Edith’s phenomenological method was virtually indistinguishable from Husserl’s; and Husserl’s method differed from that of Heidegger’s. Husserl’s and Heidegger’s method can be distinguished by revealing what Edith identified with about each phenomenological view. What Edith identified in Husserl’s phenomenology was an adequate foundation upon which to build her own philosophical view; his was a method of application [iii]. Edith identified with Heidegger’s phenomenology in a much less satisfactory way. Edith identified Heidegger’s phenomenology as a “being-in-need” of greater, and more exact, phenomenological description [iv]. According to an account of Stein’s critique of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Heidegger’s phenomenology, and therefore his philosophical method, lacked a sense of what Husserl termed “exact science” [v]. In critiquing Heidegger’s phenomenology, Stein raises key issues about the value of mere description vs. exact description approaches to doing philosophy.

Stein’s critique of Heidegger’s Being and Time focuses on “the faithfulness of Heidegger’s phenomenological description of Dasein[vi]. Stein argues that Heidegger’s concept of Dasein (i.e., Heidegger’s term for a “being-there”), provides “no real account for the body and the soul, for they are obscured by the vocabulary of being” and, by lack of this real account of Dasein, Heidegger never really draws out the implications of his concept of Mitsein (i.e., Heidegger’s term for a “being-with”) [vii]. According to Stein and others, Heidegger’s phenomenology proposes that the “individual is charged with the task of achieving an eigentliches Sein (authentic being), whereas the community is only a receptacle for a fallen or fleeing Dasein[viii]. Stein critiques Heidegger sharply on this point: Doesn’t the community play a much greater role than that in the formation of Dasein? [ix]. Stein’s questioning points to a particular, yet more reasonable, method required for a greater phenomenological description of Dasein. She points to a need for a peri-phenomenological method, a method of exact description, or a method of descriptive science that centers on “being-around” others by means of “ostensibly peripheral phenomena” [x]. Stein also points out an inadequacy of Heidegger’s phenomenological method, because according to Stein’s own phenomenological method, we need others, the community, to help us; we need to ‘be-around’ a community so to address our faults adequately and therein be restored from our, or Dasein’s, fleeing, fallen status. According to an account of Stein’s phenomenology, our method of being is not exact without others and/or the community. Heidegger, in contrast, takes community to be something accidental, and not essential to, the restoration of Dasein. So while Stein held that an adequate philosophical method required, essentially, a “being-in-need” of community, Heidegger did not; and while Heidegger did not outright reject that a philosophical method can never include a “being-in-need” of community, he certainly didn’t think it was essential to his philosophical method.

At any rate, Stein’s critique of Heidegger’s Being and Time brings us back to our initial emphasis about the core-sameness of Husserl’s and Aquinas’ philosophical method. In Knowledge and Faith, Stein gives us three core-functions for doing philosophy. In holding to these functions, we have an adequate philosophical method and foundation that contains the key to sufficient description and which, furthermore, may free us from committing philosophical errors or mistakes, like those of, supposedly, Heidegger. For Stein, these three core-functions are three agreements shared by both Husserl and Aquinas. They are: (1) sensation, (2) intellectual processing, and (3) passivity of understanding [xi].


  • Agreement #1: “All knowledge begins with the senses.”

Commentary: It’s important to note that Aquinas and Husserl agree on a particular thing about this proposition — namely that, “[One] is very far from requiring any particular kind of sense intuition, such as an actual external perception, as a support for all knowledge” [xii]

Intellectual Processing

  • Agreement #2: “All natural knowledge … is acquired through the intellectual processing of sense material.”

Commentary: Accordingly, intellectual processing of sense material is “intellectus dividens et componens [i.e., the understanding dividing and composing]”; and, in reference to Husserl’s phenomenology, intellectual processing is an “act of consciousness that intends or refers to any object by way of a noema or noematic sense (i.e., a ‘reason of supernatural sense’).”[xiii]

Passivity of Understanding

  • Agreement #3: The meeting, or agreement, of “opposition” to “any subjective arbitrariness” is of “the conviction that intuiting, in the sense of passively receiving, is the proper contribution of the understanding and that all of its action is but a preparation for it.” [xiv]

Commentary: The passivity of understanding is not a proper form of contribution to X because it does not contribute to X by a proper form of action. In other words, the passivity of understanding is intuition without a proper form of action; as such, it does not properly contribute to X.

In summary, the contribution of understanding as something by perception alone is not what Aquinas and Husserl agree upon. What Aquinas and Husserl agree upon is the notion that the contribution of understanding is not by perception alone. They also seem to agree that the contribution of understanding is an intellectual processing of perception that manifests by a form of proper activity. In other words, Aquinas and Husserl agree on the method of doing philosophy, and this agreement is something worthy of our attention because it signifies an objectivity to the way philosophers do philosophy, and this is evinced in Edith’s analysis of virtually the same philosophical method in that of Aquinas and Husserl. What Edith Stein gives to us is a reasonable demonstration of the core-methodology that philosophers have been utilizing for at least 800 years. Given the influence of Aristotle’s philosophical method on that of St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s probably closer to 2,500 years. Once more, we have Edith Stein to thank for such a contribution to our understanding, so thanks Edith!

I mean, of course, Saint Edith.

Lance H. Gracy serves as contributor and editor-in-chief of TheEruditePress. If you want to know more about him, check out the “About the Editor” page.


[i]  Edith Stein (2000). Knowledge and Faith: The Collected Works of Edith Stein. (Redmond, Walter, Tr.). Washington: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies; 35. (Original published under the title Erkenntnis und Glaube). Print.

[ii] cf., “Edith Stein” in the New World Encyclopedia. DOI:  https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Edith_Stein. (Web accessed, summer 2019).

[iii] cf., introduction to Jon C. Wilhemsson’s The Philosophical Contributions of Edith Stein (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016). Print.

[iv] Calcagno, Antonio (2007). The Philosophy of Edith Stein.Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press; 116-18. Print.

[v] Casey, Edward S. (2017). The World on Edge.Indiana: Indiana University Press; 9-12. Ebook.

[vi] Calcagno’s The Philosophy of Edith Stein, 116

[vii] Ibid., 116, 118

[viii] Ibid., 118

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Edward’s The World on Edge, xviii.

[xi] Edith Stein (2000). Knowledge and Faith: The Collected Works of Edith Stein. (Redmond, Walter, Tr.). Washington: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies; 41-7. (Original published under the title Erkenntnis und Glaube). Print.

[xii] Ibid., 41-2

[xiii] Ibid., pp. 44-5; also, see Smith, David Woodruff, “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/phenomenology/>.

[xiv] Ibid., 46

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