Edith Stein on Social Ontology and the Constitution of Individual Moral Identity

  • William TulliusEmail author
Part of the Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences book series (WHPS, volume 1)


In the 1930s essays, Stein develops a theory of vocation closely resembling Husserl’s ethics of the “true self” as he was developing it in the 1920s (Husserl’s most well-known expression and development of his ethics of vocation may be found especially in his third submission to the Japanese journal The Kaizo, (cf. Husserl 1989, 20–43), but may also be found in the conclusion to the 1920/24 lecture course, Einleitung in die Ethik (cf. Husserl 2004, 244–255), and in numerous manuscript studies from the 1920s and 1930s recently published in Husserliana Vol. XLII (cf. Husserl 2014, 265–526).) as well as Scheler’s thought on personal destiny in the essay “Ordo Amoris” (Scheler 1973b, 106–109). For all three thinkers, vocation is specific both to individuals and to one’s humanity in general in setting before us a particular moral calling to become who one truly is. While Stein’s idea of vocation, here, seems to refer to an individual’s “personal nature” and how this nature sets forth a particular course of life, nonetheless Stein indicates that this “personal nature” and the particular vocational call of the individual is itself conditioned by essentially social processes. I will argue that Stein had already worked out the description of the constitution of the moral self and its vocation through belonging to a community sufficient to support this later position in her early work in phenomenology, and in particular On the Problem of Empathy as well as her Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities. Stein’s argument is that the moral self is not and cannot be radically individual, nor constituted wholly individually, but is brought to givenness only in the context of a social reality, disclosing a constitutive connection between individual and community in moral contexts. Finding the phenomenological resources for developing an account of the self in this way heads off a certain danger, potentially implicit in a phenomenological account of the moral task as a “personal” vocation, to think of the moral task as radically individual, i.e. as constituted independently of one’s belonging to a community (James G. Hart, for example, in the second volume of his monumental work, Who One Is, offers an explication of the Husserlian notion of the true self, adumbrating this thought through an exploration of the Plotin ian notion of the self as corresponding to an ideal form. The implication here is that the true self might be thought of as eternal, transcendent and thus constituted independently of factual belongingness to a mundane community or social context (cf. Hart 2009, 371–377). Likewise, Timothy Martell sees a similar problem at work in Heidegger’s conception of the authentic self, which seems to see the authentic self as somehow independent of and in tension with social reality (cf. Martell 2013, 122 f.). While I take no position here, on the adequateness of these as authentic readings of either Husserl or Heidegger, it seems nonetheless that Stein’s approach to the problem of social ontology and her later work on the theory of vocation offers an escape from the temptation present in phenomenological readings of moral selfhood to take the moral self and the moral vocation in purely individualistic terms.). Thus, if Stein can show, phenomenologically, that and how one’s moral self is constituted within a social context, then her thought can make an important contribution to the growing field of literature on phenomenological ethical theory. I will attempt to lay bare here the general outlines of Stein’s social ontology as developed in her early works and its applicability to the discussion of the sources of personal moral identity.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Gonzaga UniversitySpokaneUSA

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