Monday 10 January 2011

Existential Pioneers. 8. Edith Stein. ‘The Problem of Empathy’. Mette Lebech conducts Inner Circle Seminar 167 (9 October 2011)

Edith Stein
Existential Pioneers

(May you live to 120!)
8. Edith Stein
(Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)

On the Problem of Empathy (1917)

Mette Lebech
Inner Circle Seminar No. 167
introduced by

Anthony Stadlen
Sunday 9 October 2011
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Edith Stein, phenomenological philosopher, was born 120 years ago this week on 12 October 1891. In today’s seminar, we discuss her thesis, On the Problem of Empathy (1917). There are few more important problems for those who dare to call themselves psychotherapists. Our work purports to be attending (therapy) to the ‘soul’ (psyche), but how can we do this? How can we help anyone reflect on his or her relationships if we have no idea how one person relates to another? The basis of a personal relationship, and in particular of a so-called ‘therapeutic’ relationship, is often said to be ‘empathy’. But what is ‘empathy’? Heidegger denounced it as a degenerate form of ‘being-with’ in which one isolated encapsulated ‘subject’ tries to ‘feel into’ and work out what is going on ‘in’ another isolated encapsulated ‘subject’: one black box decoding and making inferences about signals emitted by another. Heidegger and Stein were both brilliant assistants of Husserl. Heidegger’s critique of ‘empathy’ was surely aimed at Stein’s thesis. Was he right? Is she merely a footnote in the history of twentieth-century philosophy? Is she interesting primarily because it is unusual for a philosopher to be a woman, not to mention a Jew who became a Christian and a Discalced Carmelite nun, who was murdered in Auschwitz, and canonised by Pope John Paul II as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross? Or is she one of the great phenomenologists, whose thinking differs subtly from that of Buber, Scheler, von Hildebrand, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and whose thesis on ‘empathy’ presents a serious challenge to Heidegger’s, of which psychotherapists, and all concerned with how human beings relate to one another, should be aware?

Dr Alice von Hildebrand, widow of the great philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, sent a message for this seminar (email, 4 October 2011):
Just a line from Psalm 144 [145 in the Hebrew Bible (AS)] which I love especially:
God is close to all those who invoke him, those who invoke him in truth.
The very word ‘truth’ should make our hearts beat faster. Both DVH and Edith Stein were great lovers of truth.
Dr Mette Lebech, Lecturer in Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and President of the Edith Stein Circle (the International Association for the Study of the Philosophy of Edith Stein), is an ideal guide for our discussion of these questions.

Venue: Durrants Hotel, 26–32 George Street, Marylebone, London W1H 5BJ (
Cost: Psychotherapy trainees and philosophy students £50, others £135, some bursaries; mineral water and liquorice allsorts included; morning and afternoon coffee, tea, biscuits (optional) £9 
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857 E-mail:
For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and colleges.

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