Stairway to the other

Edith Stein’s explorations and insights on empathy shed light on what it means to be human


5 min read

Edith and Rosa Stein both died at Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1942. The story is told how when the Nazis came to the Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland, to arrest the sisters because of their Jewish background, Edith said: “Come Rosa. We’re going for our people.” 

When you enquire into Edith’s life you can see that her attitude and approach was not a once-off reaction. In fact, her whole life and intellectual study were a preparation for these crucial moments in going beyond herself. 

Is empathy even possible?

Besides being a saint and a martyr, Edith was a philosopher of the human person who, among many other things, studied what is called in philosophy “the problem of empathy.” 

In its most basic sense, empathy is the simple way in which other “experiencing subjects,” that is, when human beings who present themselves to us, face moments of happiness, sorrow or anger. 

The question Edith primarily focused on was how and what happens when human persons empathize with one another in such situations. 

Is empathy really possible for us to do and to communicate with each other about? 

When I empathize with someone, am I just saying, “I know or imagine what your pain is like” (a theory of imitation or imagination) or that “I see how upset you are,” and I identify with this because I remember what feeling annoyed is like (a theory of association) 

Or maybe John Stuart Mill’s view is correct, that is, although there is outer and inner evidence, as when a person is obviously grieving, but we can only “get at the facts of the matter by means of inferences” (a logical theory; see Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, 26). 

As we can see, these explanations remain somewhat at a superficial level. Edith was unhappy with them, and she outlines this in her early doctoral studies. 

Indeed, our own “lived experiences” of such situations leave us equally unhappy with such explanations. They do not really explain what we are doing when we empathize with someone who is bereaved, sick or maybe in trouble. 

Edith believed that a thorough analysis of the experiences involved in “empathetic awareness” can show us who we really are as human beings. 

She outlines how we, in fact, actually possess a unique capacity for placing ourselves in the place of the other. In her investigations into this whole theme, she used a philosophical method known as phenomenology, which tries to get at the experience “in itself.” The approach is to “x-ray” human experiences like empathy, which in turn discloses the essential nature of being a person. 

Her exploration into empathy thereby becomes a way of unfurling who we are as human beings. Stein shows how empathy is essentially an “act of self-transcendence,” that is, of going beyond ourselves, and that through it we can enter the other, becoming directly aware of them through their thoughts and feelings. To empathize is, therefore, a profoundly human act. 

I can really place myself in the shoes of the other, and in so doing I also become who I am. This means that the joy, grief, or anger of someone else can be an object of my direct awareness and experience. It is, as Edith says, “immediately given, not mediated by its expression or by bodily appearances.” (89) 

Amazingly, we can experience the experience of the other in its originality. So, grief makes itself directly present in the other for me. We are not just dealing with a representation, a simulation, or an appearance of the experience when we empathize. In the neighbor who is grieving, sorrow gives itself immediately to me. 

It is a way of communion between persons, and any explanation of this cannot merely remain at the level of description. When Edith was writing on the theme, a lot of other philosophers simply remained at a descriptive level, forgetting the essential human significance of the action. It is important to keep in mind that her focus on empathy was not for its own sake, but because she saw it as a way in which human beings actually communicate with each other.

What interested her most was exploring the possibility of mutual communication, that is, “the possibility of establishing community.” It turns out that her investigation into empathy, although having its own great limitations, unlocks our overall understanding into the nature of human persons. As human beings, we can truly go beyond our outer shell and enter into the “who” of the other. 

At the same time, because we are unrepeatable as human beings, each person’s happiness, sorrow or anger is unique. But we can, nevertheless, enter into someone else’s life experience.

In her own shoes

Edith knew well what she was talking about because of her experiences as a military nurses’ aid. She volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I. We can never forget how Stein and others inhabited a dystopian landscape, in which most were but sleepwalkers moving towards the catastrophe of the Great War, the outcome of which was the deforestation of what it means to be human beings. 

Edith initially wanted to help at the battle frontline, but she ended up in Austria nursing wounded soldiers. She tells many experiences in her autobiography Life in a Jewish Family. 

She observed how many of the nurses, although they “carried out their duties capably and diligently,” were “more motivated by ambition than by a love for humanity.” (331) 

The doctors and nurses liked Edith since she lived her life empathetically. “I cheerfully accepted any kind of duty entrusted to me and was always happy to substitute for the others,” she wrote. (331) 

Edith was surely living out what empathy is. She did not just skate over these encounters. It was during this time of nursing soldiers that she first saw someone die. She relates how when she was collecting the few belongings of a soldier who died, a piece of paper fell out of the man’s notebook. His wife had given it to him. Edith explains how the note was “a prayer for the preservation of his life. Only when I saw it did I fully realize what this death meant, humanly speaking… I pulled myself together and went to call the doctor.” (338)

In another story, Edith tells how the severely ill men often asked whether she would be returning to see and care for them the next day. When Edith told them that she would, they were delighted. “This was the first sign that the men of sorrows found my care a blessing.” (360)  

She was able to write about empathy as she did because of her empathetic awareness of the pain, grief and anger of the wounded. So, in Edith’s experiences we see empathy disclosed as a lived reality, not so much as a problem or intellectual abstraction. 

Difficulties to her were not so much to be easily solved, but to be loved empathetically, unfolding in lives lived for the other. 

It turns out that placing ourselves in the shoes of others is a stairway opening out our understanding and living the truth of being human persons.

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.