Edith Stein

“There is something over there – what is it?”

By now we are familiar with Edith Stein’s “step-by-step” approach (a phrase she often uses). She is very methodical in her reconciliation of Phenomenology with Scholasticism. It is important to demonstrate how they connect and where the questions and difficulties remain. Stein now introduces a resonating question, a second beacon of light by which we might keep our bearings, that ties together her step-by-step approach and explains it with a metaphor. “There is something over there – what is it?”

“I am traveling in a mountainous region unfamiliar to me. Some time before I arrive at my destination something appears on the horizon. At first I cannot tell what it is, whether it is a cloud or a mountain peak. Soon sharply defined contours take shape; it is the mountain, and my journey’s end lies at its foot. During my stay I learn more and more about the mountain. On my walks I come to see it from all sides; its form and color reveal themselves in all their different aspects. I learn what sorts of rock it is made of, what kind of forest covers it, what flowers grow on its slopes. From the summit I look out in all directions and from other places. When the time comes to leave, the mountain has become familiar and dear to me, and later whenever I hear its name it is as if I am reminded of an old friend.

My initial contact was quite simple: I notice a change in my field of vision. There is something over there! What is it? There is an interplay of the outer and the inner. Something outside -the change or something new appearing- stirs me inwardly and sets me in motion.”

~ Edith Stein. Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) (Kindle Locations 1855-1861). Kindle Edition.

In phenomenological terms, objects that bring about in us this movement of our will as described above, Stein calls “spiritual objects.” In this case, the mountain becomes a “spiritual object” when it enters the domain of my phenomenological interior, that is, in my mind, and brings about in me a phenomenological experience. I am perceiving the object in a particular manner; yet, I do not have a complete understanding. I am seeking to understand this phenomenon before me, or, we might say I am seeking “enlightenment.” Everyone who goes through this process is “being spiritual.”

We might interpret Stein in the following manner. Our hearts are drawn to those spiritual influences (“There is something over there”) toward which we have a predisposed good will (“what is it?”). Stein’s question implies that we have a natural (even if inspired by grace) curiosity, a desire, to know more about that which draws the heart. We call this having a heart of good will, one that asks “What is it?” The heart of good will is a prerequisite for the motivation to move forward on the path of understanding with regard to the spiritual influence. We become enlightened about that toward which our heart of good will draws us. We are willing “to be bested,” as she describes further back in her step-by-step methodology, in order to acquire intellectual understanding. The heart leads the intellect. We are having a “spiritual experience.”

In her model Stein does not see “understanding” as driven only by intellect. Understanding requires an interplay of both intellect and will. The intellect first captures the initial, partial “something,” yes – “There is something over there.” However, it is the motivating act of the will that leads the intellect to pursue it – “What is it?” That we first intellectually grasp something does not imply that our ensuing enlightenment is driven first by the intellect. The intellect is simply fulfilling its purpose, to acknowledge the “something” and to recognize that it does not know fully what that “something” is. The intellect stirs the imagination, but the will sets us in motion. The intellect then is willing to accept the understanding it receives by following the motivation of the will. The intellect becomes “open” to understanding and “being formed” by what the will first desired. In this sense, we can say that the will comes before the intellect. A heart of good will renders the intellect open to be formed by what calls it. This is how we come to understand that which the heart first desires in its good will. Stein refers to this as “spirituality.” As we grow spiritually, we come to understand more and more. Spiritual progress implies a growing enlightenment founded on good will and then the “habit” of bearing that enlightenment as we journey forward.

“ ‘My idea’ thus continues to grow as my spiritual activity progresses. It remains when I no longer have the real mountain before me, for I have taken my idea along with me, and I bear it even when I am no longer thinking of the mountain at all.

Edith Stein. Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) (Kindle Locations 1876-1878). Kindle Edition.

Edith Stein Potency and Act

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