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  • Teresian Influence on the Work of Edith Stein
  • Jane Duran (bio)


Edith Stein is honored today not only because of her sainthood but because of what is now seen as important and groundbreaking work in phenomenology done under especially arduous conditions. Thus it may be said with some accuracy that Stein is, among philosophers, in the comparatively rare category of being acknowledged both for her work and her exemplary life.

Writing on Stein has standardly proceeded with an emphasis on the biographical factors that caused her to live and write as she did. One often reads that Stein was reared in a strongly Judaic tradition—her family was more observant, for example, than the family of Simone Weil—but that experiences she had as a young woman caused her to turn in the direction of Christianity and, ultimately, in the direction of the mystical thinkers.1 What has been more difficult to elucidate has been the influence on her thinking philosophically, and the merging of strands from Husserlian phenomenology and sixteenth-century Christian thought. Although it might naively be believed that these two areas have so little in common as to be completely incongruent, an argument can probably be made that the later Stein, with her emphasis on interiority and epistemic gradations, is simply articulating at least some points that were first worked on in conjunction with Husserl.2 It might prove intriguing, then, to try to be precise about the influence on Stein of Teresa of Avila, and the specific modes in which that influence was brought to bear both on her conceptualization patterns and on various incidents and decisions made in her life.3


Teresa of Avila’s Life, if read straightforwardly, is remarkable not least because it seems to designate gradations of states of grace attainable through prayer; it does not take a great deal of imagination to posit that this must have been [End Page 242] one of the features of her autobiography that instinctively attracted Edith Stein.4 Indeed, Stein has a developed epistemology in some of her later, more Christian works, despite the fact that a theory of knowledge for her might be thought to be more readily discernible in her earlier, more phenomenological works. Specifically, in one of the essays published in the collection translated by Hilda Graef, Stein remarks: “What, then, is the foundation of this presupposed knowledge of God? There are several sources from which it may be drawn: natural knowledge of God; faith as the ‘ordinary’ way of supernatural knowledge of God, and finally a supernatural experience of God as the ‘extraordinary’ way of a supernatural knowledge of God.”5

These three fairly simple paths, each demarcated by a different mode of coming to know, are clear and, at first reading, present little obstacle to comprehension. The first mode is an articulation of what might best be called something like the Argument from Design, and the second is obviously simple faith, although in a reversal Stein places this nonempirical, entirely interior mode at a level above the mode of the senses. The third seems to be a straightforward assertion of the possibility of mystical experience. But although Teresa of Avila is not often read in terms epistemological, there are definite parallels to much of what she says about experiences with worship in her own life.

Stein’s encounter with Teresa and her writings is often spoken of in terms of an encounter with “Truth”; indeed, commentators frequently remark upon the fact that Stein herself said little more about her initial experiences in reading the saint than to remark upon the intellectual transparency of the work.6 But part of Teresa’s struggle, as she herself articulates it, has to do with moving through various sorts of efforts in prayer, each stage superseding or resting upon another. Remarkably, what Teresa refers to as the first stage is somewhat similar to Stein’s basic sort of knowledge of God: it is achieved with effort, and Teresa describes it as like drawing water from a well with a [End Page 243] rope and bucket.7 Just as the believer, wishing to try to argue for God, or to demonstrate the existence...


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