Empathy in the school of St Edith Stein (1/2)

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The German Carmelite saint of Jewish origin, Edith Stein, nun Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, philosopher, mystic, martyr and co-patroness of Europe, died on 9 August 1942 in the Auschwitz concentration camp at the age of 51. Her contribution is remarkable in the philosophical, psychological and spiritual understanding of empathy. Therefore, we will devote our next two reflections to exploring how her empathic vision can illuminate our moral judgement at the relational and spiritual levels.

Empathy as a phenomenon of the experience of others

The term ’empathy’ was created in 1872 from the German word Einfühlung, which means ‘to feel within oneself’. Under the direction of Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, in her doctoral thesis entitled The Problem of Empathy (1915)[1] , explored this topic from the perspective of “the phenomenology of perception”[2] . According to Stein, the relevance of this approach lies in the possibility of “penetrating into their essence”[3] the phenomena of reality, starting from their perception (sensory and intellectual), and then from their manifestation to human consciousness[4] . In other words, ‘it is a question of understanding and knowing the reality that surrounds us in all its “phenomena”‘[5] .

In the light of her studies, Stein defines empathy as ‘those fundamental inner acts that enable one person to perceive the experience of another’[6] . Or it is the “capacity to experience what the other person is experiencing”[7] . From a phenomenological point of view, empathy thus allows one to penetrate, describe, understand what is happening within oneself in the face of another’s experience[8] , in relation to the motivations, feelings and values of the other .[9]

In order to better understand empathy on a phenomenological level, Stein establishes the difference between ‘the empathic act’ and ‘the cognitive act of judgement’ in reference to an experience of the other:

Unlike judgement, which is aimed at understanding arguments, ideas and mental concepts of the other, empathy indicates an act aimed at the subjective perception of the other, at the inner experience of the other and therefore, also at his or her own personality. […] On a phenomenological level, to have empathy is to penetrate into the world that the person represents as such. […] Therefore, to access this is not only possible with judgement, but we also need empathy[10].

In summary, for Stein, the empathic act refers to the subjective, inner perception that a person experiences of the other. However, she stresses that, in phenomenological terms, this experience of the person always remains indirect and non-original in reference to the original experience of the other. Therefore, knowledge of the other is only possible in a non-original way through empathy[11] . This implies that there should be no confusion between the observer of the other’s experience (the subject of empathy) and the observed person who is having this same experience (the object of empathy)[12] .

This Steinian vision of empathy, with reference to the experience of others, can illuminate our moral judgements and help us to grow in our interpersonal relationships. In the sense that it allows us to perceive, feel and understand more objectively the experiential experience (suffering, serene or joy) of our brothers and sisters, taking into account their motivations, feelings and values. However, this invites us to adopt a certain detachment so as not to be confused with the experience of the other. For the latter is never our own.

Fr. Mario Boies, C.Ss.R., M.Ps.

(The original is in Italian)


[1]    E. Stein, «Il problema dell’empatia», in E. Costantini – P. Valori et al. (ed.), Il problema dell’empatia: Edith Stein. Introduzione e note a cura di Elio Costantini. Presentazione di Paolo Valori, Studium Edizioni, Roma 1985; E. Stein, Le problème de l’empathie, Éditions Cerf/Carmel, Toulouse 2012.

[2]    E. Stein, «Il problema dell’empatia», 69.

[3]    Ibid.

[4]    Cf. C. Lippinois, «Une vie pour l’empathie: Edith Stein», Temporel (2012), e3, in http://temporel.fr/Une-vie-pour-l-empathie-Edith, [Accesso: 01.06.2021]. (Traduzione nostra.) The term “consciousness” here must be understood in a phenomenological and psychological sense, i.e. with reference to the concepts of reflective consciousness and “conciousness” that allows a person “to be aware of things” or “to become aware of the reality around him”.

[5]    R. Körner, «L’empatia nel senso di Edith Stein: una atto fondamentale della persona nel processo cristiano della fede», Simposio Internazionale. Edith Stein: testimone per oggi, profeta per domani. Teresianum, Roma, Ottobre (1998), e2, in http://www.ocd.pcn.net/edsi_kor.htm, [Accesso: accesso: 01.06.2021].

[6]    C. Lippinois, «Une vie pour l’empathie», e4. (Traduzione nostra.)

[7]    M. Challita, Il cervello empatico come base neurale del comportamento morale : impostazione interdisciplinare, Humanitas edizioni, Rende (CS) 2016, 9.

[8]    Cf. M.-M. Barrié, L’empathie à l’école du Christ : phénoménologie, neurosciences, accompagnement spirituel, (Recherches carmélitaines, no. 20), Editions du Carmel, Toulouse 2020, 19.

[9]    Cf. Ibid., 38-41.

[10]  R. Körner, «L’empatia nel senso di Edith Stein», e2.

[11]  Cf. E. Stein, «Il problema dell’empatia», 73-74 ; A. Bertolini, Empatía y trinidad en Edith Stein : fenomenología, teología y ontología en clave relacional, Secretariado Trinitario, Salamanca 2013, 53-59 ; M.-M. Barrié, L’empathie à l’école du Christ, 19-21.

[12]  Cf. M.-M. Barrié, L’empathie à l’école du Christ, 21.

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