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Dec 19, 2018

Knowledge, Truth, Being

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Edith Stein

Edith Stein (1891-1942), a philosopher and spiritual writer, was canonized by Pope John Paull II in 1998.

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Knowledge, Truth, Being

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Edith Stein, a German Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, became a nun of the Carmelite order and was executed by the Nazi government.

1. What Is Knowledge?

[Knowledge in general]

Knowledge is the mental [geistig] grasping [Erfassen] of an object. In the strictly literal sense it means grasping something that has not been grasped before. In an extended sense it includes an original [ursprünglich] possessing without beginning and a having-in-possession that goes back to a grasping. All knowledge is the act of a person.

Knowledge as newly grasping can in turn be taken in a broader and narrower sense. It has the broader sense when the perception [Wahrnehmung] stands for sense knowledge and the narrower sense when the object of the knowledge is said to be states of affairs or knowledge is said to appear first in judgment. In the latter case it denotes the insight [Einsicht] that something is, or that something is thus, or that something is this. States of affairs can be known on the basis of an intuitive [anschaulich] grasp of objects or on the basis of other known states of affairs. But in the end any knowledge of affairs harks back to an intuitive grasping of objects. Intuitive grasping can be sense perception or intellectual viewing [schauen].

[Objects of knowledge]

In all knowledge the object is given as a be-ing [Seiendes]. To the various kinds of knowledge acts there correspond different objects, different ways in which the objects are given and different ways in which the objects are. Things, their properties, processes, are objects of sense perception. Their way of being given is their appearing to the sense, and their way of being is their existing in space and time.

Intellectual viewing may be the grasping of persons having minds, of their acts and properties, or of objective [objektiv] individual structures of mind, or it may be the grasping of ideal objects. The way that individuals possessing a mind and their accidents are given {50} is the understandable expression. A person’s way of being is being-there-for-itself [Für-sich-selbst-dasein] and being-open-for-what-is-other [Für-anderes-geöffnet-sein]. The way of being of objective individual structures of mind is being-there-through-persons and being-there-for-persons. The way of being of the ideal is being in (a concrete individual), really [wirklich] or possibly.

2. What Is Being?

Being cannot be defined for it is presupposed by any definition since it is contained in every word and in every meaning of a word. It is grasped along with anything that is grasped and it is contained in the grasping itself. We can but state the differences of being and of be-ings.

3. Knowledge And Being

[Divine and finite knowledge]

The knowing person is a be-ing. The act of knowledge is a be-ing, what is known is a be-ing. When the knowing person knows himself, the knower and what is known are the same be-ing. Only in the case of Pure Act can we say this of a knowledge act and of what is known. In any finite temporal act the knowledge act and what is known are distinct, even when the knowledge act is what is known and when it is known in a reflection, which is the awareness accompanying the act and coinciding with it in time. Hence we must say that every finite act of knowledge transcends itself.

Pure Act, which is Absolute Being and which is everything that is an outside of which there is neither being nor be-ings, cannot transcend itself. Everything that is, is in it and is known in it. Hence no be-ing can be unknowable (or more precisely, unknown). If we call {51} a be-ing “intelligible” insofar as it is known … and render “intelligible” as “thought [Gedanke],” we may then call all be-ings “thoughts.” But it still does not follow from this that every be-ing must be knowable for finite minds, nor that we may speak of “thought” in the same sense in the case of God and finite minds.

A be-ing’s knowability and its being known have meaning only in reference to a knowing mind that does not possess knowledge originally but must gain it step by step. It is not obvious to our insight [einsehen] that every be-ing must be knowable to such a mind. It is immediately obvious only that no one can make statements [Aussage] about a be-ing of which he knows nothing. So if I say “there may be a be-ing that I cannot know,” the words are meaningful only if I know something about it, to be precise, enough so that it is obvious to my insight that there is a gap in this knowledge and that it cannot be filled in with my own means of knowing. For a mind able to conceive a formal notion [Idee] of being—the need for the notion to be materially filled in the various modes of being and the mind’s inability to take stock of the possible fillings in—“being” signifies more than can enter into its knowledge. So for such a mind the equation being = being-knowable does not hold (as long as the knowledge is supposed to cover the be-ing completely). But it is not obvious to our insight that there must be some finite mind for which every be-ing would be fully knowable. Therefore only the equation being = being-known-by-God holds, but not being = being-knowable (fully).

[Accessibility to a mind]

This poses two questions: (1) Must some be-ing be accessible to every finite mind? (2) Under what conditions is a be-ing accessible to a finite mind?

Ad 1 [reply to the first question]. The being of persons having minds is essentially living aware of self and directed to objects. So there can be no mind to which no be-ing would be accessible, that is, to which nothing would be knowable. Self-awareness (in the sense of reflection) and acts directed to objects are distinct types of knowledge. But the mind itself can also be the object of an act of knowledge.

Ad 2 [reply to the second question]. First, for a be-ing to be accessible to a finite mind that knows in step by step fashion, it must have duration or at least {52} be a moment in a continuum. Second, it must remain unchanged in at least a part of its make-up [Bestand]. Third, the mind must be able to hold on to what it grasps. (N.B. We call the structure of objects in the temporal flow of mental life the “phenomenological” or “transcendental constitution.”)

Furthermore, the mind must be able to distinguish in it what stays the same from what changes without tearing it apart. When at a later moment it will grasp something in the object that it has not grasped before, it must add what is given later to what has been given earlier. This it will be able to do only if it has already grasped in a certain way what is given later along with what was given before. Hence these phases belong to knowledge over the course of time: actual [aktuell] contact with the object, retention, protention, abstraction, synthesis.


When the be-ing that is known is the mental life of knowing person, the actual contact is given at every now-moment by the actuality phase and the reflection falling together. The actuality phase is a moment in a continuum (the “act” or “living experience” [Erlebnis] of temporal duration and, beyond it, in the living stream of experience). The actuality phase harks back into the past and is kept in retention. At the same time what previously had been anticipated as potential [potentional] blends with what is now actual (by fulfilling it or countering it), and is taken up into the synthetic unity which had already been anticipated at the onset of the experience as an “ideal unit” and was continually “realizing” ( = actualizing) itself. When concluded the unit remains stored in memory mode and can be re-actualized through recall. For this the “ideal unit” must be able to be abstracted from the changing time mode, but also the concrete unity must be consciously fitted into the time flow experienced. That is to say, to the possibility of [the mind’s] knowing its own acts there belongs an ontic constitution of these acts characterizing them as something enduring in time in a changing concretion or as an individuated species.

[Timeless objects]

We ask now about the possibility of knowing a be-ing that does not belong {53} to the living stream of experiences of the knowing subject. It could be something enduring timelessly or something bound by time. If timebound it may either remain unchanged for the duration of its being or it may be something that changes and if so may in turn change continually through a part or through the whole of its duration.

We ask first: is it possible for a mind that knows in a temporal process to know something that endures timelessly? For this an actual contact between knower and known is needed that is itself something temporal. This will only be possible if the thing enduring timelessly has a relation to the temporal; that is, either it is analogous to a species in individuo [a species in the individual] as we found in the units of experience, or it has an effect on something temporal. In no case can something that knows in temporal acts know anything timelessly enduring immediately in its timeless existence [Existenz]. The effect of the timeless on the temporal may be an effect on the knowing subject itself. (An illustration would be the possibility of knowing God on the basis of his immanence; I do not wish to go into this here.) In the case of an effect on something temporal existing independently of the knowing subject, knowledge of the temporal thing is presupposed. Likewise when the timeless belongs to the structure of the temporal.

Morning on the Seine, Claude Monet, 1898

Morning on the Seine, Claude Monet, 1898

[Objects in time]

This brings us to the question of the possibility of [knowing] something existing in time. We assume that the thing remains unchanged throughout the duration of the act of knowledge (we do not ask whether or not it is subject to change beyond this duration). In order that something enduring in time can be known in a temporal knowing process, an actual contact between knower and known must be possible (a quodam modo unum fieri [to become somehow one]). For this the knowing subject must transcend itself in and with the act of knowing. On the other hand, the object must be such that it allows a mental contact without itself being so modified by it that what it had been before the modification would no longer be able to be grasped.

[Knowing persons]

When what is known is of the same kind as the knower, that is, a finite person having temporal acts, then the knowing must be an analogue of the knower’s known personal life; I mean, performing acts {54} with the awareness that it is a concurrent or reconstructed performing, the self [Ich] is “another” self, the act is “another’s” act. Here the possibility of being contacted by another self is added to the conditions of the possibility of knowing one’s own acts. This requires (1) an impression as an experienced breaking-in on the context of the living stream of one’s own experiences and (2) a species that can be abstracted from the individual impression, which species is to be blended in with those to be abstracted in one’s own living experiences.

[Sense objects]

When what is known is an object of non-personal makeup—I mean, when the thing’s being is not the life of a self analogous to that of the knower—the being-contacted will have to be an impression where no species of living experience is to be abstracted. We shall call “sensation” (sense impression) such an experienced breaking-in that brings into the stream of experience something that not only does not spring from its own stream of experience but is altogether foreign to the self. We shall call “sensibility” [Sensibilität] (Sinnlichkeit) the requisite accessibility to the thing foreign to the self, and “sensibleness” [Sinnenfälligkeit] the requisite features in the thing known. For knowledge based on sensation to be possible, it must be possible analogously to the knowledge of acts, to hold on to what is experienced after the actuality phase, and further to abstract a species from the individual sensation.

For an object subsisting [bestehen] in itself to be grasped, besides the datum foreign to the self breaking in, (1) a sense datum must be abstractable from the sensation of the being-experienced and (2) the grasping of this datum must embrace more than the datum itself. It must be a transcending grasping, one extending to some general form of the thing, a form that, when there is a definitely regulated advance, finds fulfillment in new sense impressions. Consequently, the knowledge of a thing as an object not analogous to the self requires: (1) a flow of sensations, (2) mental activity (a sequence of intellectual acts), (3) that the sensible be at the same time intelligible, (4) that the object have a formal structure to which the norm of the sequence of sensations and acts corresponds. When object and knowledge have such a structure it will be possible, on the basis of an actual contact (perception), to advance a purely {55} intellectual path in the “context of experience.”

4. What Is Truth?

[Minds, finite and infinite]

Of truth we are to speak when a knowing mind has known a being. In the case of the absolute and infinite Mind, wherein being, knowing and knowledge are one, being and truth are also one. (For this reason the Logos [Word] can say: “I am the truth.”) When a temporal and finite be-ing is taken as known by the divine Mind, the truth is eternal truth preceding in time the being of what is known.

In the case of a finite mind that knows in a temporal process, the truth, that is, the possession of a be-ing in knowledge, may be called the goal and result of the knowing. If truth is taken as the possession in knowledge of all be-ing, it is the “ideal goal” of a finite mind which approaches it step by step in an infinite process but can never reach.

But we also speak of truths in reference to a mind that knows step by step. (Thomas even speaks of veritas creata [created truth].) “Truth” in this case is transferred from the being-known to the knowing be-ing.

[The known be-ing and judgment]

We must now carefully examine the “known be-ing,” as we shall call it, in reference to a temporal process of knowledge. For something to be said to be “known,” the knowledge must have come to a conclusion. Knowing, when taken as the sense perception of a thing, is never concluded in itself. It is an ongoing process demanding an “on and on.” Interrupting sense perception does not conclude it. Through perception, however, something about the thing is continuously being known, and at any point it may be secured as a possession in knowledge by concluding acts.

This is what happens in judgment. The judgment “the rose is red” is called “a truth” but it is also said to be “true.” Now, “judgment” is understood {56} in different ways, which, though objectively belonging together, are not the same thing. First the act of judgment. To each judgment belongs not only a simple act but a whole assemblage of acts. The thing perceived is grasped under a general idea—“rose”— but at the same time it is perceived as “this” and is placed as subject. And something is selected from the perceived stock of being, again under a general idea—“being red”—and is predicated [aussagen] of the thing.

These are a series of acts, analytic and synthetic, of the understanding. They presuppose a definite structure [Struktur] in the object: that a quidditas [whatness] can be separated from the haecceitas [thisness] and substance can be separated from accident. The rose’s being-red is a state of affairs included in the rose’s stock of being and can be analyzed out by means of a relevant assemblage of acts. That the state of affairs obtains [bestehen] is asserted by the concluding act of judgment and expressed linguistically by “is.” The sentence [Satz] “the rose is red” is an expression of the obtaining state of affairs.

A proposition [Satz] is said to be true or false. Its truth means that the asserted state of affairs obtains. The proposition as assertion [Behauptung] and linguistic expression is a construct [Gebilde] formed by the knowing mind. It is true when it is in keeping with the known state of affairs in form and content. Insofar as there are a formal structure of states of affairs and connections among them, there are also forms of propositions and connections among propositions, and thus there are formal truth conditions (the object of formal logic). There is also the possibility of deriving true propositions from other true propositions in a purely formal procedure; these derived propositions are to be verified by knowledge analogous to the underlying material knowledge. Insofar as every substantial be-ing implies the entire fullness of states of affairs to be analyzed from the [content] of the fullness as well as the propositions wherein the states of affairs may be stated, we can say that propositions have an ideal or possible existence preceding [their] formation by particular finite minds.

The essay above is taken from Knowledge and Faith translated by Walter Redmond © by Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites. ICS Publications, 2131 Lincoln Road, N.E., Washington, DC 20002-1151, U.S.A.,


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