Dr. John Crosby Speaks on Edith Stein's Philosophy of Personal Individuality

Dr. John Crosby Speaks on Edith Stein's Philosophy of Personal Individuality

On Friday, February 12th, the Philosophy Department hosted its sixth annual Aquinas Lecture in Philosophy, featuring Dr. John F. Crosby on “Thine Own Self: Edith Stein’s Philosophy of Personal Individuality.  

Dr. Michael Pakaluk, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at AMU, introduced Crosby, saying, “He is a really important creative philosopher that every Catholic student should take note of; his work should be studied; his reputation will grow over the centuries.” Pakaluk called Crosby a great teacher and thinker in the model of St. Thomas Aquinas, after whom the lecture series is named.

Crosby, in turn, paid tribute to the unifying nature of the pursuit of truth, referring to Ave Maria University as a “sister” to his own, Franciscan University of Steubenville. “I don’t feel like I’m at another university,” he said, “but at the same larger university community to which I belong.”

Dr. Crosby’s lecture took the form of three parts. First, he answered the question: “What makes us human beings be human persons?” Second, he articulated Edith Stein’s thesis of personal individuality. Third, Crosby cited three objections to Stein’s thesis and offered three responses.

Crosby began with the distinction between human being and human person, a distinction which becomes clearer when we turn to the animal kingdom. “Individual fish are completely dominated by their species,” Crosby said. “This is what makes them interchangeable, one with another.” Human beings, on the other hand, each contain something “in excess of the human species.” There are grounds for preferring one person to another; a person can want or be wanted for his or her own sake.

In the second part of his lecture, Dr. Crosby articulated Edith Stein’s thesis of personal individuality. Stein held that the unrepeatability of the human person, because it lacks universality, is, in a way, unutterable. “It cannot be grasped in general terms,” Crosby explained. The way to express this unrepeatability, Stein thought, is through “individual essences…over and above the common human essence found in all human beings.” These individual essences form the inmost center of the soul, where we are most ourselves.

In the model of Aquinas, the third part of Dr. Crosby’s lecture included three objections to Stein’s thesis (raised by Sarah Borden Sharkey in her work, Thine Own Self: Individuality in Edith Stein’s Later Writings) and three of his own responses. The first objection is that so-called “individual essences” would prevent the universal moral law from being applied equally to all. Yet Stein’s understanding of individual essences, Crosby explained, is that they are embedded within human nature, given to each person “from the beginning, from within.” In fact, Crosby went further, not only does Stein’s thesis not violate the equal application of the moral law, but it also contributes something. The notion of individual essences, he said, avoids the reduction of one man to another and guarantees the inviolability of each person.

The second objection Sharkey raises is that, if the dignity or inviolability of the person flows from something individual to each man, then it is possible for one person to have more or less of this dignity-granting quality than another person. To which Crosby responded quite the opposite: “Ranking presupposes something in common that is instantiated more fully in the one with higher ranking… Unrepeatability defies ranking.” If human beings are incommensurable with one another, then it is impossible to consider one as realizing human nature more fully than another.    

The third and final objection to Stein’s thesis of personal individuality that Crosby considered is that individual essences render us incapable of empathy, since empathy is based on a shared nature. Edith Stein, Crosby said, gave a lot of thought to empathy without finding tension in this matter. Why? Because the only restriction on empathy that flows from a thesis of individual essences is that one cannot know what it is like to be another unrepeatable person. One can still know what it is like to love, to suffer, and so forth—which is exactly what empathy is about.

Concluding, Crosby said that individual essences “constitute an essential precondition for all…interpersonal love.” One loves in the other that which is unrepeatable. A thesis of individual essences does not, Crosby closed, have the effect of estrangement. Rather, “it sets the stage for a real personal love.”

John F. Crosby received his Ph.D. from the University of Salzburg, Austria; he studied philosophy under Dietrich von Hildebrand and Josef Seifert.  Since 1990, Crosby has served as Chair and Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Crosby’s research interests include the philosophical school of Personalism, the thought of John Henry Newman, as well as the thought of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II. He has published three books, most recently The Personalism of John Henry Newman (CUA Press, 2014).

Each year, the Philosophy Department at Ave Maria University holds the Aquinas Lecture in Philosophy. Previous years featured Dr. Richard Taylor (Marquette University), Ed Feser (Pasadena City College), John Rist (Catholic University of America), Fr. Ron Tacelli (Boston College), and Therese Scarpelli Cory (University of Notre Dame).