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 A Mount Allison University Archives Virtual Exhibition


Doctoral work with Prof. Edmund Husserl


Dr. Bell returned to Germany from North America in October of 1911 and began his work in earnest with Edmund Husserl. Husserl was the chief proponent of a branch of philosophy that emerged at the outset of the 20th Century. The primary objectives of this school of thought were "to take a fresh approach to concretely experienced phenomena through the direct investigation of the data of consciousness." (Encyclopaedia Brittanica. 15th ed. Chicago : Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc., 1989). Winthrop Bell's first semester did not proceed as he had initially envisioned.

A photograph of Professor Edmund Husserl.

"Actually, the first semester in Göttingen I was greatly disappointed in Husserl. The subject of his lectures that semester was something for which I was not at all prepared, and it was only after a semester or two in which I listened also to Nelson [Leonard Nelson 1882-1927] that I got into any proper way of appreciating Husserl. That I did so was due to some considerable extent to Reinach's [Adolf Reinach 1883-1917] mediation of the basic principles of phenomenological thought." (Mount Allison University Archives, Winthrop Pickard Bell fonds, 8550/1/101 - Item no. 10).

Göttingen was a centre of intellectual activity when Bell was there. He also enjoyed opportunities to study with such German luminaries as Max Scheler, Wilhelm Lexis, G.E. Muller and Otto Oldenburg. Bell counted among his friends from that time intellectuals including: Carl Runge, Edith Stein, Richard Courant, Alfred Hoernlé, and Jean Hering. He worked diligently on his course work during the fall and winter of 1910-11 and related the following:

"I used to scribble notes constantly. Husserl never understood that it was in that way that I really "got" things. He used to adjure me to lay my pencil down and participate more. But I would soon be noting down again something I wanted to be able to refer to later." (Mount Allison University Archives, Winthrop Pickard Bell fonds, 8550/1/101 - Item no. 10).

Ultimately, Professor Husserl asked him to prepare a written summary of the work that had been covered during the course of the term. Husserl was very pleased with Dr. Bell's precis of his lectures and asked if he would like to do his doctoral work under his guidance beginning with the winter semester.

Photograph of Prof. Edmund Husserl taken at St. Margen in Schwarzwald, Germany, August 1921

Mount Allison University Archives, Winthrop Pickard Bell fonds, 6501/17/7/1

May only be reproduced with the permission of Mount Allison University Archives.

When Bell discussed his ideas for his doctorate Husserl re-directed Bell's focus to the thought of American philosophers, William James (1842-1910) and more specifically Josiah Royce (1855-1916).

"I had some of Royce's books in Germany with me, and ordered the others, and was able to take Husserl, before long, the whole imposing heap of Royce's publications. Husserl then would have nothing else than that I should do my Doktorarbeit [Doctoral work] on Josiah Royce." (Mount Allison University Archives, Winthrop Pickard Bell fonds, 8550/1/101 - Item no. 8).

Bell completed his thesis which was entitled Eine kritische Untersuchung der Erkenntnistheorie Josiah Royces [A Critical Investigation of Josiah Royce's Theory of Knowledge] in 1914. He sat his exams for the Doctorate on August 7, 1914 and received his Doctor of Philosophy (magna cum laude) from Göttingen University. He was the first Anglo-American to achieve this degree under Edmund Husserl's guidance. However, the story of how he ultimately received his degree is anything but typical:

"I was caught in Germany by the outbreak of the first world war. In fact, my oral examination took place after the war had broken out, and under most unusual circumstances. I was in 'protective custody', having been hauled out of bed in the middle of the night when England declared war ... The professors with whom I was to have my examination enquired and found that there was no actual rule that a candidate must be examined in the Aula [traditional hall for examinations] and must wear "Frack" [formal dress] for it, so they together with the distinguished man who was to be chairman of the affair, came to the place of my "Haft" [detention] ... and examined me there." (Mount Allison University Archives, Winthrop Pickard Bell fonds, 8550/1/101 - Item no. 8).

With the rise of hostilities in that first year of World War I the faculty at Göttingen ultimately voted to annul Dr. Bell's doctorate and repaid his fees while he was interned. A number of years after the war a group of his former friends suggested that he submit a summary of his dissertation so that the other records of his work could be re-instated and the degree finally conferred. Consequently, his degree was formally bestowed in May of 1922, almost eight full years after he had originally completed the doctoral work.

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This virtual exhibition project was made possible through the generous support of the Marjorie Young Bell Endowment Fund Committee, Mount Allison University.