Alfred Schutz

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Schutz, Alfred



Alfred Schutz (1899–1959) was born in Austria, studied at the University of Vienna, and from 1939 until his death lived in New York City, where he was professor of philosophy and sociology at the New School for Social Research. His principal philosophical work consisted of the application of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology to the problems of social reality, while his major methodological contribution was an attempt to relate phenomenological concepts to the sociology of Max Weber. He believed that the cardinal problem for the social sciences is the study of the world of daily life, of the common-sense reality that each individual shares with his fellow men in a taken-for-granted manner, and both his major intellectual efforts focused on this problem. As Schutz saw it, the task of the phenomenological philosopher concerned with social reality is to uncover, describe, and analyze the essential features of this mundane world; and consequently all of his writings, beginning with The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932), take the reality of everyday life as a point of departure and as a subject for detailed examination.

For Schutz, the world of common-sense reality rests on certain basic epistemological presuppositions: that the mundane world exists, that man and his fellows exist in that world, and that man can communicate with Others. In daily life, men take for granted the reality of their experience: they assume, naively, that they share the same world with all other “normal” perceivers; and they assume that were they to change places with Others, they would see the world in essentially the same way the Others do.

Upon analysis, it is found that these fundamental presuppositions imply a number of structural characteristics. (1) The “biographical situation” of the individual depends on his particular location in the social world as he himself defines it and as he interprets that location in terms of his previous experiences. The biographical situation is unique to the individual, although it includes typical features he does share with Others. (2) Commonsense man possesses a “stock of knowledge at hand.” It includes elements handed down to him by Others, parents and teachers among them, and it is in a typically organized form. This knowledge is accepted without question as generally valid, though it is always potentially questionable. (3) The spatial coordinates of “here and there” are essential features of the social matrix by which the individual locates himself. The individual’s own body is the reference point in terms of which he locates himself as “here” and the Other as “there.” (4) The “alter ego” is given to the individual as a being like himself in a mundane world. Moreover, the Other exists simultaneously with the self, his thought is grasped in a vivid present, and alter ego’s speech and the individual’s listening coexist in a relationship that is the essence of intersubjectivity. (5) Ego’s world, as an intersubjective social reality, includes alter egos with different temporal and spatial characteristics: predecessors, or those who lived before him and are known to him through report; contemporaries, who share the same temporal world; consociates, or those who are alive at the same time and who also share ego’s spatial segment of the world through face-to-face relationships; successors, who will live after he dies, including those who will be born only after he is dead. The social world is as much constituted by consciousness of predecessors and successors as it is by contemporaries and consociates. To explain the structural relationships that hold among all of these aspects of social order, a theory of social action is necessary.

Schutz distinguished between “action” and “act.” Action is understood as purposive conduct projected by the actor; an act is defined as accomplished action. Action has a subjective form as well as an objective form: purposively refraining from doing something is no less action than overtly behaving in one way or another. What is of decisive importance to Schutz’s conception of action is his view that action is grounded in the interpretative consciousness of the actor. It is at this point that Schutz turned to Weber, in particular to his conception of interpretative understanding (Verstehen) and to his postulate of the subjective interpretation of meaning. To understand social action is to grasp the meaning which the actor gives to or bestows upon his action, to comprehend what that action means to him. The “subjective” interpretation of meaning signified for Weber what the actor means by his action, not, as Schutz stressed, some private idiosyncratic and unverifiable domain.

In Schutz’s adaptation of Weber, subjective interpretation of meaning appears primarily as a fundamental typification of the common-sense world. All men in mundane life, then, practice Verstehen, but there is a distinction between Verstehen (1) as an experiential form of common-sense knowledge, (2) as an epistemological problem, and (3) as a distinctive method of the social sciences. Schutz believed that it was the great merit of such men as Durkheim, Pareto, Marshall, and Veblen, and above all of Weber, to have developed the technique that “consists in replacing the human beings which the social scientist observes as an actor on the social stage by puppets created by himself, in other words, in constructing ideal types of actors” (Collected Papers, vol. 2, p. 17). The social scientist, according to Schutz, proceeds as follows:

[He] observes certain events within the social world as caused by human activity and he begins to establish a type of such events. Afterwards he coordinates with these typical acts typical because motives and in-order-to motives which he assumes as invariable in the mind of an imaginary actor. Thus he constructs a personal ideal type, which means the model of an actor whom he imagines gifted with a consciousness. . . . The social scientist places these constructed types in a setting which contains all the elements of the situation in the social world relevant for the performance of the typical act under inquiry. Moreover, he associates with him other personal ideal types with motives apt to provoke typical reactions to the first ideal type’s typical act. So he arrives at a model of the social world, or better at a reconstruction of it. (ibid., pp. 17–18)

Action is never an isolated phenomenon; it has its phenomenological “horizons” of relevance and relatedness to social reality, and it has its “motivation.” As already noted, typical acts have two kinds of motives, “in-order-to” motives and “because” motives. The first are explained in terms of the actor’s goals and ends; the second, in terms of his background and disposition. The in-order-to motive is “the future state of affairs to be realized by the projected action,” and the project itself is determined by the because motive, which in turn is dominated by the past tense. Other people’s acts can be fully understood only insofar as their because and in-order-to motives are known, but since this is impossible, it must suffice to know their typical motives, including their reference to typical situations, typical ends, typical means, etc. (ibid., pp. 11–12).

The temporal disequilibrium between the two orders of motive suggests a larger problem in the conception of the ego. According to Schutz, the ego cannot seize its own immediacy; it can capture itself only as an object of a reflexive act. Schutz here came close to George H. Mead’s distinction between the “I” and “me” aspects of the self. He pointed, however, to a larger implication of the distinction, for man is understood as a being who presents himself to Others, takes his place in the social world, and, finally, knows himself only in a partial and fragmentary way. Such fragmentation is itself a primordial typification of reality.

Schutz’s philosophical position has significance for the choice of models to be used in the social sciences, and it suggests, in particular, that the use of natural science models is not satisfactory. He believed that the natural and social sciences differ qualitatively: the natural sciences investigate objects that are constructs of the first degree, i.e., objects in the field of the scientific observer; the social sciences are properly concerned with second-degree constructs, i.e., objects that not only are themselves in a world but that also have a world. The human beings who are the central concern of the social scientist are interpreters of their own lives and actions. The task of the social scientist is to comprehend the world of daily life (Lebenswelt) from which these lives derive their significance, and the phenomenological approach —its concern with essential structure, with founding relationships, with “sedimentation” of meaning, and with the uncovering of root presuppositions—provides the means by which social science may reconstruct mundane reality. At the same time, the use of Verstehen and of the subjective interpretation of meaning may lead to valid knowledge.

Although Schutz’s work is profoundly indebted to Husserl and Max Weber, it has affinities with that of other European thinkers, Henri Bergson and Georg Simmel in particular. In the Anglo-American tradition, Schutz found the thought of Santayana, Whitehead, and James especially congenial. The sociologists who influenced him the most were Cooley, Thomas, and Mead. All these men stressed the activity of the actor and his action in relation to the experiential world. It was Schutz’s distinctive achievement to develop these intellectual orientations by centering on the paradigm of action instead of the traditional theme of perception and by approaching both actor and action by way of the typifications of common-sense life. In the last decade, Schutz’s work has aroused increasing interest among both philosophers and social scientists in the implications of phenomenology for a humanistic sociology and a theory of man.

Maurice Natanson

[See alsoKnowledge, Sociology or; Social Structure, article onSocial Structural Analysis; Verstehen; and the biographies ofCooley; Husserl; Mead; Simmel; Thomas; Weber, Max.]


(1932) 1967 The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press.

Collected Papers. 3 vols. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962–1965. → Volume 1: The Problem of Social Reality. Volume 2: Studies in Social Theory. Volume 3: Studies in Phenomenological Philosophy.


Bekger, Peter; and Luckmann, Thomas 1966 The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Gurwitsch, Aron (1957) 1965 The Field of Consciousness. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press. → First published in French.

Natanson, Maurice (editor) 1963 Philosophy of the Social Sciences: A Reader. New York: Random House.

Natanson, Maurice 1966 The Phenomenology of Alfred Schutz. Inquiry 9:147–155.

Spiegelberg, Herbert (1960) 1965 The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction. 2d ed. 2 vols. Phaenomenologica, Vols. 5–6. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Stonier, Alfred; and Bode, Karl 1937 A New Approach to the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Economica New Series 4:406–424.

Zaner, Richard M. 1961 Theory of Intersubjectivity: Alfred Schutz. Social Research 28:71–93.

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Schutz, Alfred (1899–1959) See INTERPRETATION; PHENOMENOLOGY.