Antonio Calcagno (ed.), Gerda Walther’s Phenomenology of Sociality, Psychology, and Religion. New York: Springer, 2018; 171 pages. ISBN: 978-3319975917.

Reviewed by Charlene Elsby, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

This is the second volume in the Springer series, Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences. It focuses on Gerda Walther, who studied first with Alexander Pfänder before she transferred to Freiburg in 1917 to study with Husserl. Walther took Edith Stein’s phenomenological “kindergarten” class and gave the opening lecture at the Freiburg phenomenological society before returning to Munich (and Pfänder) in 1919. Her dissertation, written under Pfänder, was published in the Jahrbuch in 1923. According to Calcagno, the purpose of the book is “to introduce English-speaking readers to the important legacy of this early 20th century thinker.” (xiii)

The text is divided into three sections: the first is a short section on Gerda Walther’s life and her place within the phenomenological community, the second a large section comprised of six essays about Walther’s social ontology and concept of the self (which is informed by her philosophical relationship to Edith Stein). The final section, “Religion and Mysticism,” focuses on her account of mysticism, mainly from Phänomenologie der Mystik, the work for which she is best known, but also from her autobiography, Zum anderen Ufer: Vom Marxismus und Atheismus zum Christentum, published in 1960. This final section is particularly important, as it includes original translations by Rodney K.B. Parker of the Introduction and Chapter One of Phenomenology of Mysticism, and by Kimberly Baltzer Jaray and Fritz Wenisch of selections from Zum Anderen Ufer. Prior to this volume, the only work of Walther’s to be found in translation was her article, “Hitler’s Black Magicians,” about the German navy’s attempts to locate British submarines on maps using pendulums. These translations mean that we can now assign Gerda Walther’s phenomenology to English-speaking students, and thus work to correct the impression that because their works remain untranslated, the women phenomenologists weren’t producing work as good or important as the other phenomenologists.

The volume as a whole works to introduce the English-speaking reader to Gerda Walther’s philosophy, but what it means to “introduce” varies; that is to say, some of the contributions are more introductory than others. While some essays might be read by any interested philosopher, other essays require extensive knowledge of the theory and terminology at work in phenomenology more broadly, and some include untranslated German quotations. The more difficult papers emphasize the nuance of Walther’s contributions to phenomenology and the relationships evident between Walther’s concepts and those of more well-known phenomenologists—in particular, Pfänder, Husserl, Stein, Geiger, Ingarden, and Reinach, but also Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another figure in early phenomenology whose works need to be translated.  

A highlight of the volume is Christina M. Gshwandtner’s article, “Körper, Leib, Gemüt, Seele, Geist: Conceptions of the Self in Early Phenomenology”, which outlines the concepts of body, flesh, mind, soul, spirit, and their ontological relations according to the works of all of Gerda Walther, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, and Edith Stein. The article provides a straightforward inventory of phenomenological concepts and terms at work in their thinking. It also makes it clear that the concept of a person and a social person are grounded in an ontology that unifies our concepts of the individual and the individual as a member of a social community. The same ontology of self (and social self) also provides the basis for the possibility of mystical experiences, and so ties together the themes of the book under one unifying metaphysics. 

Similarly, Maria Pia Pellegrino’s article, “Gerda Walther: Searching for the Sense of Things, Following the Traces of Lived Experiences” (included in the section on Life and Work) unifies the themes of the book relative to Walther’s concept of an Ichcentrum (I-center) and its embeddedness, which make all of telepathic, communal, and mystical unions possible. It seems that, in general, the titles of articles and the title of the book obscure to some extent the fascinating subjects to which Walther devoted her attention. For example, there’s her analogy of the human being to a lamp, an analogy meant to provide a conceptual correlate to the individual’s capacity for telepathic union. Pellegrino writes, 

The I-center is similar to a wick that burns and floats upon a combustible liquid, which in ancient times was oil and which can be said to be like an embedment or the subconscious. All is surrounded by a container (namely, the lamp), strictly understood, to which the body is compared. By drawing upon reported experiences of telepathy, Walther observers that we are each a different lamp with our own wicks that burn our own flames (our I-centers). However, the oil in the lamps seems to be able to flow from lamp to lamp, which means that each wick can be fed simultaneously by the oil of another person. The two lamps remain distinct. Often, the oils may not mix, and even in cases where the oils do mix, an individual wick may decide to withdraw from the oil of the other and burn one’s own oil. Walther affirms, based on her studies, that one is able to preserve one’s own freedom within the lived experience of telepathy insofar as that one is able to shake oneself off or even take one’s own position vis-à-vis the lived experience of the other. Telepathic union, then, is achieved in embedment and not in the I-center. (19)

Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray recounts and then translates Walther’s firsthand account of mystical experience, which according to Baltzer-Jaray had two elements: “a moment of foreseeing into the future, and then feeling the presence of something Divine.” (153) This mystical experience 

leads her to give up her political ambitions in the Social Democratic Party and pursue an academic career. It also opened her eyes to all the experiences possible for human, ultimately resulting in her interest not only in mystical experiences but also parapsychology (for example, séances, clairvoyance, telepathy, etc.). (154) 

That is to say, Gerda Walther’s phenomenology of religion extends far beyond the concepts usually considered in a philosophy of religion, and it aims not only to analyze religious claims, but to found an ontology of experiences of the paranormal and divine. According to Parker’s biographical contribution, she went on to work with Albert von Schrenck-Notzing on telekinesis and materialization and, “After Schrenk-Notzing’s death in February 1929 Walther’s work focused almost exclusively on parapsychology.” (8) 

I recommend this book as an introduction for the English-reading academic philosopher to Gerda Walther’s thought. More than that, I suggest it is our moral duty to fulfill the unfulfilled aspects of our philosophical educations in order to reinstate the women philosophers whose works have gone untranslated and ignored. Antonio Calcagno’s volume should provide the impetus to conceive of Walther in her proper place—as a contributing member of the early phenomenological community whose ideas informed the philosophical works of the rest of that community, as theirs did hers. I look forward to reading much more work on Gerda Walther. 

Additional Works Cited

Walther, Gerda (1956), “Hitler’s Black Magicians” in Tomorrow, IV.2, pp. 7–23.