The German Translation of Royce's Epistemology by Husserl's Student Winthrop Bell: A Neglected Bridge of Pragmatic-Phenomenological Interpretation?
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The German Translation of Royce's Epistemology by Husserl's Student Winthrop Bell:
A Neglected Bridge of Pragmatic-Phenomenological Interpretation?

Herr Royce ist doch ein bedeutender Denker und darf nur als solcher behandelt werden.

("Royce is an important thinker, and may only be treated as such.")

—Edmund Husserl1

Scholars of pragmatism and of phenomenology have observed striking similarities between Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl, foundational thinkers at the origins of two major philosophical movements whose effects are still strongly felt in the present day—Royce being considered a central founder of American pragmatic idealism, and Husserl of modern German phenomenology. Other scholars have noted striking similarities between Royce's thought and that of the broader circle of phenomenology.2

Can we discover in these relations definitive historical influences, rather than mere coincidences? One of the most promising leads, a dissertation on Royce's epistemology written under Husserl's direction and at Husserl's request, has not yet been sufficiently explored. The dissertation Eine kritische Untersuchung der Erkenntnistheorie Josiah Royce's was completed in 1914 by Winthrop Pickard Bell, Husserl's first North American PhD student.3 A consideration of Bell's translations of Royce into German in this dissertation, in connection with scholars' accounts of theoretical overlap between Royce and Husserl, will comprise the central effort of the present article.

In the first part of this discussion, I will give examples of some of the most important theoretical comparisons of Royce's and Husserl's thought that have been noted for decades by scholars. In the next section, I will seek to demonstrate that Bell's translations of Royce's philosophy into German, as found in his dissertation, give historical justification for the striking theoretical [End Page 46] similarities described in the first section. Finally, I will discuss possible future directions of research.

A Survey of Literature on the Relation of Royce and Husserl

Likely the first philosopher to extensively interpret between Royce's and Husserl's thought was William Ernest Hocking. Hocking was Husserl's first American student in Göttingen from 1902-1903. He then conducted graduate studies with Royce and James at Harvard. Hocking, in 1956, noted several significant parallels between Husserl's and Royce's thought. For instance, on their discovery of essentialism within empiricism, Hocking writes:

The only significant empiricism is one that admits an experience of the essence together with an experience of the existence. . . . Here Royce anticipates the major insight of Husserl. For Husserl's Wesensschau, while it proposes to abstract from the specific note of existence in what is perceived, involves the judgment that Wesen, the essence, is there as a factor of experience. And this type of extension of the concept of experience, carried forward by various lines of thought, constitutes in my judgment one of the major gains of the twentieth century in the theory of knowledge.


Second, Hocking observes that Royce and Husserl share a nonrealist ontology that seeks to describe the "gift" of experience given prior to the possibility of an individual's creativity:

Royce is anticipating a fundamental position of Existentialism; for this movement, whether branching off from Kierkegaard or from Husserl, focuses attention precisely on that note of Being-per-se from which Husserl's epoché would abstract: while agreeing with the mystic that Being is an indefinable in objective terms the Existentialist finds it freighted with a significance requiring its own ontological vocabulary. . . . There are data in experience, and the word datum refers not only to material accepted but to a need to accept, an incapacity of our knowing processes to operate without a raw material actually presented as gift.


Third, along with this description of the "given," Royce and Husserl both shine light on the constructive role of intention in creating experience:

[H]owever he extends the scope of empiricism, [Royce] is still more emphatic about the active factors of knowing . . . To experience, Royce has maintained, is not merely to sense but also to think, and thinking, [End Page 47] as an activity, has its motivation: to perceive an object is to conceive it, and to conceive it is to capture it within the noose of an...