Monday, March 25, 2013

Husserl's account of intentional experience

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Husserl's account of intentional experience
Date: 9th September 2009 10:17

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 30 August, with your essay towards the Associate Award, in response to the question, ''Each intentional experience is either a presentation or based on a presentation.' How does Husserl deal with this statement in his Logical Investigations?'

It is obvious that a lot of work has gone into writing this essay, and that you have made a determined effort to grapple with Husserl's arguments in his 'Logical Investigations'.

My main problem with the essay in its present form is that in the attempt to condense Husserl's extended discussion into a 2000 word essay, you have produced something more like a precis rather than an exposition and critique, with the result that the text is dry to the point of being inpenetrable.

One of the criteria for essays submitted for the Associate Award is that they should be accessible to the non-expert reader (provided, of course, that the reader prepared to make sufficient effort). As you know, successful essay portfolios are archived on the Pathways web site. Students or people interested in philosophy should be able to browse through the web pages and not feel that they are totally out of their depth.

That is not the only reason: from my experience, the challenge to explain the problems and issues in an accessible way results in better work. You will be asking yourself harder questions, because you will need to stand back from the debate and ask yourself what it all amounts to, why is it important, what are the wider consequences of taking a particular view.

If you look at the essay portfolios archived at you will see that it is possible to do this without sacrificing academic rigour.

You may be interested to know that I also have a number of external students studying towards the University of London BA. This year three of my students gained results in the 70's (a 'First') for their end of year exams (BA modules). The essays my BA students write for me are responses to questions from past examination papers, as with the Associate around 2000-2500 words in length. None of my BA students has ever sent me an essay as dense as the one you have written. So I am not just talking about an idiosyncratic feature of the Associate Award.

So far, I have talked about exposition. In your essay, I do not detect even the slightest hint of critical evaluation of Husserl's arguments. Are you fully in agreement with what Husserl says? If not, where do you part company? How fair is Husserl's assessment of Brentano's position? Are they, in fact, seeking to answer exactly the same question(s) or is Husserl proposing a shift in the terms of the debate?

In order to take a critical stance, you have to do more than simply write a paragraph precising Husserl (in the style which you have used here) and then giving your response. Explaining the point of a particular philosopher's approach to a problem is an essential part of developing a critical evaluation of that philosopher's views.

In BA examination questions, even when the question takes the form, 'Explain what so-and-so thinks of such-and-such', candidates are expected to offer critical analysis as well as simply expounding on what so-and-so thinks of such-and-such.

To give an example: As a reader, the first thing I want to know is WHY does Brentano claim that each intentional experience is either a presentation or based on a presentation? Why is that claim intuitively appealing, or why does it seem to follow from Brentano's starting point of regarding psychical phenomena as possessing a unique quality ('intentional inexistence') which sets them apart from other phenomena?

Having hooked the reader on this initially plausible idea, you can then go on to explain why Husserl finds Brentano's claim problematic: what exactly has Husserl seen that Brentano missed? How does Husserl's treatment of intentional acts improve on that of Brentano?

You said that you only 'managed to write' 2000 words. You could easily spend another 500-1000 words explaining what is going on, identifying the key questions in play, giving some sense of why Husserl thinks that his conceptual distinctions hang together in the form of a much more powerful and comprehensive theory than the one which Brentano offers.

The upper limit, by the way, stretches to 3500 words, although 2500 is still the preferred target length.

All the best,