Edith Stein and the nature of knowledge

Brief biography

Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany. She was the youngest of 11 children in a Jewish family. Her father died when she was two years old. At the age of 14, she gave up her Jewish faith, but it was not replaced by anything. She enrolled in 1911 in the University of Breslau and became a radical suffragette, although she later lost interest in such activism. After transferring to Gottingen, she completed her degree in 1915 under the tutelage of Edmund Husserl, who later directed her doctoral work, the title of which was “The Problem of Empathy.” There she also met Max Scheler. For much of the First World War, she worked as a nurse in an Austrian field hospital, taking care of wounded and dying soldiers. She completed her doctorate in 1917. In 1922, she converted to Roman Catholicism and later, in 1934, entered the Carmelite order. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, and, along with her sister Rosa, who had also converted to Catholicism, was gassed on August 7, 1942. She was canonised in 1998 by John Paul II. As Husserl’s assistant in 1916–1918, she was a significant collaborator in the development of phenomenology and helped with the editing of some of his work. Later, she was to develop an interest in the work of Thomas Aquinas and translated his work on Truth (De Veritate) into German.

In this brief paper, we provide an account of Stein’s phenomenological account of knowledge that appears in Knowledge and Faith (pp. 65–73), a collection of her essays published in 2000. It is by no means a complete account, but it gives us an insight into how she weaves a phenomenological account with the insights gained from her study of Thomas Aquinas.

Stein begins her brief account of knowledge by stating that knowledge is the mental [geistig] grasping [Erfassen] of an object, moreover, she adds, this is a grasping of something that has not been grasped before (p. 65). It is apparent that the approach to the question of the nature of knowledge that Stein takes will be preoccupied with how phenomenology – in particular, Husserl – thinks about knowledge. How Aquinas considers knowledge is also significant when Stein considers the nature of knowledge.

The standard analysis of knowledge – called the tripartite analysis – says that when we say someone, X, knows that p that: (i) He or she believes that p; (ii) It is true that p; and (iii) X has adequate, relevant grounds that p. The main problem with this analysis centres around what might be meant by having adequate relevant grounds for p, that is, our reasons for believing that p is the case. It should also be noted that the second condition, namely that p is true, is established independently of the grounds that X might have for believing that p is the case, though this does not mean that the grounds and truth conditions for holding that p are completely different. An example might help illustrate what is meant here.

Suppose that Peter is walking along a country lane at dusk and, in the hilly paddock that he is walking past, he sees a creature that he takes to be a sheep and, while on his mobile, reports to his friend, Marjory, who happens to be sitting on top of the hill in the paddock, that he knows that there is a sheep in the paddock because he can see it. Marjory, who is a sheep farmer, can confirm that it is indeed a merino that Peter can see.

Although Peter has good grounds for believing that what he sees is a sheep, since he is in sheep country, signs indicate that sheep cross the lane, there is a sign saying welcome to sheep country and Marjory confirms what he sees, what determines that it is actually a sheep will be an identification of the animal in terms of particular attributes that belong to the essential being of a sheep. It is these, rather than the kinds of evidence that Peter and Marjory might have, that determine whether what they see is a sheep or not.

Stein makes the seemingly obvious point that all knowledge is the act of a person. This does not mean that knowledge is subjective. The tripartite analysis points to the public nature of all knowledge: a claim to know has to be assessed against public criteria and not simply in terms of what a particular individual holds. This is assumed in what Stein says because the phenomenologist is not interested in what a particular person experiences, but what is common about experiences, hence, phenomenologically, a knowledge claim is about what is common. In claiming to know, knowledge is the grasping of something new by an individual.

The grasping of something can be understood in two ways: (1) we can think of it as sense knowledge that is received from outside – and there is much to be said about how it is we come to grasp something about the world through perception – and (2) knowledge that is a judgement about a particular state of affairs, that is, it is a grasping of the relations between things that are already in the mind. To the extent that it is already in the mind, it is a kind of internal knowing. Stein says that at bottom, our grasping is intuitive, whether it is sense perception or intellectual viewing. It might also be added here that grasping suggests that we do not know anything in an unmediated way, that is, we do not have direct perception of the world, but always see it mediated by the intellect. In this, Stein follows Aquinas.

Objects are given to us as a be-ing. What Stein means by this is that, whatever the object is, it has a characteristic way of appearing to us, and this expresses its way of existing in the world (p. 65). The human mind is structured in such a way that it is open to or receptive to objects (whether persons or things) being or appearing to us. Objects do not act on us in an unvarnished way, but we are receptive to their way of being in the world; thus, Stein says that the person’s way of being is being-there-for-itself and being-there-for-what-it-is-other [Für-anderes-geöffnet-seine]. The way of being of individual structures of the mind is being-there-through-persons and being-there-for-persons (66).

The act of knowing is, therefore, an action of a being – this is what Stein means by saying that the knowing person is a be-ing. There is activity on the part of both the knower and what is known – both in their way express their be-ing in their interaction. When the act of knowing is about oneself, that is, it is a species of internal knowing, our knowledge of ourselves is only partial, since us as knower and what we know about ourselves do not have the same be-ing, this is only the case for Pure Act or Absolute Being, where the knower and what is known have the same be-ing. This will be so even when the knowledge act is one of reflection on the knowledge act itself, that is, we are aware of ourselves as engaging in perception, say. Every finite act of knowing must transcend itself, since we cannot know without being aware of ourselves as knowing because this act of knowing accompanies every act of knowing. In Absolute Being, there is no distinction to be made between what is internal or external, since everything that is, is in it and is known in it (66)

Not everything that is intelligible, that is, a be-ing that can be known or rendered into a thought, will be known to a finite mind. Though all be-ing is intelligible to God, this does not mean that intelligibility or what is understood by thought is exactly the same for God. Finite minds are such that they have to learn, and a be-ing’s knowability makes sense only to a knowing mind that has to learn. Additionally, a knowing mind can only learn about something that it knows that it knows nothing about and to that extent must know sufficient about that thing to know that it does not know about it. We need to know that we have a gap in our knowledge (p. 67). This seems evident enough, since Stein says we can only have gaps in our knowledge in those places where we know there are gaps. Where we know nothing at all, there is not even awareness of our ignorance. This means that be-ing outruns our human resources to know.

This reflection leads Stein to ask whether (i) it must be the case that there is some be-ing that must be accessible to every finite mind and (ii) under what conditions is a be-ing accessible to a finite mind. In response to the first, Stein says that the being of persons having minds involves being aware of self and being directed towards objects and so on this definition, there can be no mind to which no be-ing would be accessible, to which nothing would be knowable. Since the mind itself can be an object of knowledge, as long as one possesses a mind, there is some be-ing accessible to it (p. 67).

In response to the second question, Stein provides three conditions under which a be-ing is accessible to a mind.

  • It must have duration, which is to say, it must take up time;
  • it remains unchanged in part of its makeup;
  • the mind must be able to hold onto what it has grasped.

The mind does this through being able to hold onto what stays the same so that it can grasp what has changed. What this suggests is that there is not a continuous set of perceptions or graspings that follow one after another successively, but that are disconnected from one another. If this were so, then there would be no way of being able to tell whether something has changed or even whether it has stayed the same. The mind has to be able to hold the sequence of impressions somehow together. In this, Stein follows Aquinas quite closely. What comes later, she adds, has to be added to what comes before (p. 68). In some sense, that Stein does not explain, what comes later has to be anticipated, or grasped in a certain way. What this means is that we need to have some kind of anticipatory knowledge so that we are already receptive to what is to be actualised. Presumably, this occurs through experience of previous sequences of occurrences of a similar kind. It is hard to see how one could have any anticipatory knowledge of matters that one has never before experienced. It would still need to remain open whether one anticipated correctly. The phases in the process of grasping Stein identifies as actual contact with the object, retention, protention, abstraction and synthesis (p. 68).

Stein, in a very dense paragraph, provides an account of what she means by self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, she says, is consciousness or self-awareness. When we are aware of our own mental life – that is, its be-ing, she explains, we are aware of ourselves thinking particular thoughts at each moment that we are doing so. We have contact at every moment that our thinking is actualised and our reflection – awareness of the thinking – is occurring at the same time. Stein puts it this way: “the actuality phase is a moment in a continuum (the ‘act’ or ‘living experience’ of temporal duration and, beyond it, in the living stream of consciousness” (p. 68).

The rest of the paragraph is somewhat opaque, though it can be understood in terms of Stein’s way of thinking about how human beings interact with the world, both the external and the internal world. Again, our thinking is not a series of discrete episodic events or impressions; otherwise, we would not be able to make sense of the whole event: it would remain forever a set of events that happen here and now. The human mind does not operate in this way, rather, current impressions, now actualised, hearken back to what was actualised previously and themselves are retained in the memory, and along with this, the mind also anticipates what is to follow the current impression and so what is to be actualised is in potential and blends with the actual as it is actualised – either in confirmation of what was anticipated or by refutation of what was anticipated. These two events (though Stein does not use this term) form a synthetic unity.

In terms of self-awareness, the consciousness of one’s acts follows the same pattern as external acts. If one is observing oneself in the process of thinking about something, the thought is observed to occur at a discrete moment, and it is identified by reference to what has been thought before, and the next thought is anticipated on the basis of our understanding of the kind of thinking process that one is engaged in. Thus, if I am thinking about roses, for example, I might begin by thinking about the kind of colour the rose has and then anticipate that my next thought will be that the colour is red, for instance. Of course, it may be that I will begin thinking about something entirely different and so be aware that I am thinking episodically. Nonetheless, even if I am thinking episodically, I can still make sense of the shifts in my thought patterns.

Sawicki in her Introduction to Stein’s Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities describes Stein’s – and Husserl’s – view of consciousness as being able to remember or recall, perhaps bring to mind, past experiences and also to anticipate new ones. Stein does not think of these events in consciousness as occurring causally, one after another, with each successive event being the cause of its successor, but rather as occurring in a stream of consciousness. Though there is no causal connection between one experiential object and another of this kind, nevertheless, Stein thinks that there is some element in the stream of consciousness that can be identified with cause, eine Ursache. Stein says that, when we are aware of ourselves as thinking a particular thought, this is stored in the memory and can be re-actualised through recall. It remains in the memory, however, independent of any temporal point, but in concretising the particular thought, it fits into a particular time frame. That is, we are conscious of thinking the thought at a particular time. Thus, if the mind is to know its acts, they have to be understood as enduring in time in a particularised way (p. 68).

Stein says that the natural world serves as the starting point for reaching phenomenology’s field of research, but does not exhaust the totality of the correlates of consciousness. There are other objects such as the actual phenomena that we experience (Stein, Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities). Hence, the currents of consciousness are many and varied. Stein considers whether it is possible for a temporal being to know something that has be-ing that does not belong to the living stream of experiences. Such a thing could be something that endures timelessly, or it may be something bound by time (p. 69). If it is the latter, what Stein seems to have in mind is something like a number though she does not say so. Such a thing may either remain unchanged throughout its existence, or it may be something that changes during its existence, either continually or in part of its existence. If it does not exist in the stream of consciousness, it is difficult to see how we could become aware of it. For a mind that is able to know only in a time constrained way to know something that is timeless, Stein says this is only possible if what is timeless can have a relationship with what is time-bound. In such a case, what is timeless is related in some way – for example, analogously to something – a species in the individual or it affects something temporal (p. 69). For example, we know a number through a temporal experience of counting objects. The effect of what is timeless on the temporal may be a direct effect on the knowing subject, such as the possibility of knowing God on the basis of His immanence (p. 69). If we are to know the timeless through its effect on a temporal subject, this will only be possible if the temporal subject itself is known.

If we are to know something that exists in time, there has to be some kind of contact between the knower and what is known. In order for this to occur, the knower must transcend itself in and with the act of knowing, which is to say, able to concentrate on something other than her preoccupations. On the other hand, in the interaction between object and knower, the object cannot be so altered as a result of the contact that it is not the same thing after the contact as that before (p. 70). Knowing another person involves the realisation that the other person is the kind of thing as the knower herself and so by analogy, has a similar kind of personal life to the knower. The possibility of being contacted by another person, that is to say, experience the other person breaking into one’s stream of consciousness (that is, one becoming aware of that person) adds to the possibility of knowing one’s acts. What Stein means is that we can come to know ourselves through observing others like us (p. 70).

Stein makes some distinctions between the kinds of things that can be thought of as sense objects. She says that where the object is not a human person, it will be experienced as a sense impression. In this case, it comes into the stream of consciousness from outside. In order for us to have such an experience of a breaking into our stream of consciousness, we need to possess the ability to access the foreign object, that is, we need the requisite sense. The readiness of the sense to experience the sense-impression is called by Stein its sensibility [Sensibilitāt] (Sinnlichkeit) and the requisite features in the object that is sensed (and so known) its sensibleness [Sinnenfālligheit]. Stein remarks that this is just the same as in our knowledge of mental acts we have to be able to hold onto what is experienced after we have experienced it (i.e. its actuality phase) and also to be able to abstract or classify in general terms the individual sensation (p. 70). In doing this, we are doing more than just having a sense impression: there is a transcending grasping, one extending to a general form of the thing and this grasping is confirmed through new sensations. Consequently, Stein says to know an object that is not analogous to the self we need: (1) a flow of sensations; (2) mental activity; (3) that the sensible at the same time is intelligible; (4) that the object has a form to which the norm of the sequence of sensations and acts corresponds (p. 71).

Stein reflects on the nature of truth, which is, as we have already suggested, is linked to our claims to have knowledge. We cannot claim to know unless what we say we know is true. There is no such thing as false knowledge. It can also be seen that Stein takes knowledge to be about what has being, so that in a certain stronger sense of being, what is true, what is known will have being, whereas something false does not have being in the same way. Stein notes that in the case of an Absolute and Infinite Mind, being, knowing and knowledge are one, and so being and truth are one. She remarks that this is why the Logos [Word] can say, “ I am the truth.” The divine Mind, she says, knows in an eternal fashion; thus, a temporal and finite being that is known is known as an eternal truth, preceding the existence of the being (p. 71).

In the case of a being that is a finite mind, the truth, which Stein says is the possession of a be-ing in knowledge, may be called the goal and result of the knowing. The whole truth, she says, cannot be known by a finite mind, though we gain truth step by step in an unending, for us, process. She also notes that these step by step increments can be thought of as truths, or as Aquinas calls them, veritas creata, where truth, as being-known, is transferred to knowing be-ing (p. 71). Stein summarises by saying that knowing must come to a conclusion; this is what we mean by saying something is known. Knowing taken as sense perception, does not have a conclusion to the process. That is, when we experience, say, a rose as red, our knowing it is red, if we depend only on the sense impression, has to continue for us to say we know it is red. In order for us to reach a conclusion, we need to make a judgement. “The rose is red,” says Stein is called a “truth,” and also this is said to be true (p. 72).

This is no simple process, however, and involves a series of analytic and synthetic acts, which are part of the understanding. Firstly, we grasp that what we see is a rose, which is a universal, that is, a general classification of objects of that kind – this obviously involves making abstractions from experiences of similar kinds of objects, etc.). Secondly, we grasp the object in its particularity and also predicate something of it, being red, which also involves another universal, redness. Metaphysically, all this presupposes a certain kind of structure [Struktur] in the object, that its whatness [quidditas] can be separated from its thisness [haecceitas] and substance can be separated from accidents. The roses being red, she says, is a state of affairs included in the rose’s stock of being and can be analysed out by means of a relevant assemblage of acts. That the state of affairs obtains [bestehen] is asserted by the concluding act of judgement and expressed linguistically by the use of the copula “is.” A proposition [Statz] is said to be true or false depending on whether the stated state of affairs obtains. The proposition itself, says Stein, is a construct formed by the knowing mind (p. 72).

Stein says that, insofar as there is a formal structure of states of affairs and connections among them, there are also forms of propositions and connections among them, and thus there are formal truth conditions. This means that it is possible through formal logic, to derive true propositions from other true propositions. The derived propositions can be verified by knowledge analogous to the underlying material knowledge. This suggests to Stein that propositions have an ideal or possible existence preceding their formation by particular finite minds (p. 73). This seems to imply a kind of realm of eternal propositions – though Stein would not agree, preferring, rather, to speak of a realm of possibility or potentiality.

In this short account, Stein demonstrates how our phenomenological experiences give us knowledge.

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Full Citation Information:
Ozoliņš, J. (2020). Edith Stein and the nature of knowledge. PESA Agora. Retrieved from https://pesaagora.com/columns/edith-stein-and-the-nature-of-knowledge/

Jānis (John) T. Ozoliņš

Jānis (John) Tālivaldis Ozoliņš, FHERDSA, FPESA, FACE, LZA HZN is Professor in the College of Philosophy and Theology at University of Notre Dame Australia, Visiting Professor, Faculty of History and Philosophy, University of Latvia, Honorary Fellow, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Australian Catholic University, and Adjunct Lecturer, Catholic Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne. His most recent book is Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom (Routledge, 2019)