Edith Stein

Summary of Edith Stein’s Potency and Act (Part 1)


Edith Stein

Edith Stein’s path thus far through the first thirty percent of Potency and Act can be modeled as follows. This is a summary of and outline for the development of her thesis to this point. We must keep in mind that Edith was a Phenomenologist, mentored under the great Edmund Husserl, the father of modern Phenomenology. After her conversion to Catholicism, Edith set about the task of reconciling the philosophy of her teacher with that of the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, a mission for which we are most grateful. What a treasure we would have lost had she felt the need to abandon her former way rather than make it her mission to reconcile it! The description and steps following are my own outline and serve as an attempt to create an ongoing summary of Edith Stein’s work.

The first step is deep and challenging. Stein begins by building her foundation on an ontology of “being” itself. This can be very difficult to wade through for those of us not trained in the field. However, despite our difficulties in understanding, we sense that she is leading us to safe ground if only we follow her “step by step,” a common phrase of hers. We will not digress into her ontology here. We do, however, begin to understand why she is doing this. How can we discuss “potency and act,” which presuppose being, if we do not establish what it means “to be” in the first place? Step by step. Her conclusion establishes the conceptual framework for “finite being” and “absolute (infinite) being,” and we soon will see the significance of this categorization.

In the second step, she builds on the aforementioned ontological foundation by integrating it with the Aristotelian and Thomist concepts of potency and act. Now that we understand being, we can apply the necessary concepts related to “how we come to be.” Here she brings together beautifully the first and second steps. If there is absolute being which is all act and no potency, and there is finite “coming to be” through potency, act, new potency, new act, and so forth, then there must be something unchanging and permanent that “forms” and guides the action of act and potency through time, that is, there must be an “ideal.” Otherwise potency and act have no real meaning; they are vacuous notions.

In order to bring the finite into existence from the absolute, or infinite, as established in the first step, she introduces the necessity of “ideals” in the Platonic-Augustinian manner. How does the infinite create the finite but by ideals (Plato) which are in the mind of absolute being (Platonic Augustinian)? However, this brings about another difficulty. How does a purely simple, non-contingent, absolute being – that is, God – contain the almost infinite multiplicity of contingent ideals while still being absolute non-contingent, and simple, a problem that plagued Plato? Stein resolves this in a brilliant display of intellectual cohesiveness:

“The feature of ideal objects that allows us to connect them to the divine being, is their timelessness, the eternalness of their being. It makes no sense to say that numbers, colors, sounds, geometrical shapes, emerge in time or are created, as heaven and earth, plants and animals and people emerge in time. Certainly, before the creation of the world “there could be” no colors and sounds “in the world.” But color as such and in its varieties in the spectrum, sound as such as well as the qualities of its various species, have a being that does not coincide with their “occurrence [ Vorkommen] in the world.” It was the case -indeed not in a purely formal, but in a material sense- that red was different from green and the pitch C was different from D before any note sounded and before any color shone in the world.”

~ Edith Stein. Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) (Kindle Locations 1464-1469). Kindle Edition.

Edith Stein was a student of Edmund Husserl, the father of modern day Phenomenology. She herself made many contributions to the field.

In the third step, Stein now grapples with an absolute – God – outside of which no form or idea can exist separately without rendering absolute act – God – to that of potentiality which is a contradiction in terms, and who contains and creates finite being from ideas that of themselves seem lifeless.
“At first glance an idea appears to be something lifeless, dead, and ineffective. By itself the idea of man cannot bring forth a man.” ~Edith Stein

Well and good, we might say, then how? Stein’s step by step approach leads her to the following conclusion. How does something “dead and ineffective” bring life but by a spirit which is “living”?

In the fourth step, Stein demonstrates that matter is lifeless and spirit is living. We do not venture into that complex development here which is beyond our ability.

“The original manner in which spirit exists [Existenz] is actuality and it is life.” ~ Edith Stein

In the fifth step, she ties it all together by demonstrating through the opening of the Gospel of John, looking at it purely philosophically, that “dead and ineffective” ideas come to life only through a living spirit that is “actuality and life” (step four) and works with “intentionality.” Intentionality is introduced as an important factor, as we accept rationally and logically that not all potency must, by necessity, be actualized. Not all ideals have to be actualized in the finite world if the absolute “living” works with the “intentionality” to bring life to some ideals but not to others (a concept that no doubt disturbs the materialists who promulgate a “multi-verse” theory of creation!) The absolute, working “intentionally,” decides which ideals are to be actualized and which are not.

“It is indeed to be gathered from this Biblical passage so interpreted that the being of things in themselves -their real being, as we were saying- should be referred back to the being of their corresponding ideas in God. So this is an answer to our present question: how are we to understand the transition of things from nonbeing to being and the entry of ideas into matter’? Ideas are -on this view- archetypes of things and the things are their likenesses or copies. But the ideas owe the fact that they have the power to call their likenesses into existence and to form the matter into copies of themselves to their being in the Logos, who makes them alive [lebendig], hence effective as well.” ~ Edith Stein

Edith Stein Potency and Act
Edith Stein is my philosophical mentor.

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