Reviewed by Charlene Elsby, Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne.
Calcagno outlines the purposes of his book as twofold: (1) to draw attention to an underrepresented figure in phenomenology, Edith Stein; and (2) to present an interpretation of Stein’s works as, when taken together, presenting a unified theory of the individual, its psychology, and its existence as a social-political being. While the second task is of primary interest to the reader looking to gain insight into the content of Stein’s thought, the first task should not necessarily be viewed as subsumed to it. Calcagno’s summary of the history of the Stein’s unique contributions to phenomenology serves to dispel the idea that Stein’s underrepresentation can in any way be attributed to the quality of her work. Rather, he attributes Stein’s relative obscurity in part to the particular perceptions of Husserl and Heidegger, the latter of whom was happy to claim Stein’s editorial work as his own, even though neither of these two figures could come to think of Stein as a collaborator or philosopher in her own right. With his faithful report of the history of how Stein’s work was received, both as an editor and as an author, Calcagno provides a plausible account of how it is still possible to read a phenomenological account of empathy without mention of Stein; his insights, based on historical facts concerning particular individuals active at the time, explain (but do not legitimate) Stein’s reception, which is a much more complicated story than “plain, old-fashioned sexism and racism” (6).
Calcagno frames his interpretation of the purpose of Stein’s work on empathy in contrast to two dominant interpretations, which he labels as analytic and continental, respectively: (1) that Stein’s work is meant to overcome the mind-body problem of Cartesian dualism; and (2) that Stein’s work is meant to overcome the solipsism of which Husserl is accused. Rather, the purpose of dedicating a treatise to the subject of empathy is to return to the self, in order that we might abstract from our intersubjective experience what it means for both others and ourselves to be human, i.e., to locate the essence of “human”. According to Calcagno, “This knowledge of what it is to be human will be the real ground of the sciences, especially the human or cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften).” (51) In addition, the account of empathy is a thin account of intersubjectivity (between individuals), while a thicker account is provided in the context of the subject in relation to social and political structures.
Calcagno claims that “empathy alone cannot account for how we experience superindividual bonds between persons. In order to understand such bonds, we need to invoke other structures and ontic realities, including states and communities.” (107) In order to explain such phenomena, Calcagno turns to Stein’s Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities, and her concept of a “superindividual consciousness.” It is here, he claims, that Stein is really aiming at ascertaining “the essence of the lived experience of intersubjective life” (his title for the second section of Chapter 3). (112) There are three forms of intersubjective life: the mass, the society, and the community. In this section of the book, Calcagno explains and critiques Stein’s account of the experiences of such things as the death of a troop leader or the mass hysteria at the thought of an impending viral outbreak. Such things are experienced by a collection of individuals in a way that is not identical with and not exclusive of individual experience; the subject experiences these phenomena simultaneously as an individual and as a member of a collective—as an “I” and as a “we.” The experience of certain things from the perspective of a collective indicates a higher form of intersubjectivity than that achieved by empathy.
Then things seem to get weird—but actually do not. Calcagno draws on Stein’s Individual and Community to describe the ontic basis of a community—itself a life-force or energy in nature. The life-force of a community draws strength from the life-forces of individuals, but it is not a simple sum of individual life-forces. (146) The existence of the community is dependent on their existing reciprocal relationships of solidarity between individuals; a community may also be unified according to some common objectivity (as in, taking a common attitude towards a particular object). Calcagno describes the essential differences between individuals considered as individuals and individuals as they exist within vast networks of social relations of various sorts. The community exists as something beyond a mere collection of persons, but as itself a dependent entity capable of both subjectivity (having some common purpose) and objectivity (being considered as an object, for instance, as an object of persecution), “ultimately analogous to the individual person.” (155)
The third major topic of the book, Stein’s concept of the state, diverges from the concepts of the human and community that serve as its basis in terms of how it is treated. Calcagno interprets Stein to be moving beyond a strict phenomenological inquiry into essence to fit more squarely within the realm of political philosophy. This makes sense, as for Stein, “politics is an extension of the life of a community.” (171) That would mean that it has no distinct essence, and that, “there is no lived experience or consciousness that is peculiar to the political.” (171) The state is “a form of social relation among persons”, but “not reducible to the three forms of sociality mentioned earlier,” the mass, the society, the community. (180) In the end, Stein’s concept of the state seems to be again analogous to the individual, distinguishable from the community by its capacity to make laws. The state differs from the community more in treatment than in kind.
I can hardly pretend to have represented all of the subtle moves Calcagno makes in this text. His exegesis of Stein’s thought is remarkably clear, while his comments provide continuous contextualization, interpretation, and critique of Stein’s work. In the end, Calcagno claims to have accomplished only a modest goal of beginning a discussion, but it is clear to the reader that the discussion is already well under way. Calcagno accomplishes the goal of calling attention to Edith Stein as an underrepresented figure in the history of phenomenology in the best way possible—by subjecting her texts to due consideration and presenting a serious and thorough analysis of her ideas.