Alfred Schutz Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Drawing on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology and Max Weber’s sociology, Schutz developed an account of meaning and action that addressed the actor’s knowledge, intersubjectivity, and the nature of sociological analysis.

Early Life

In 1899, Alfred Schutz was born to a middle-class family in Vienna, Austria. Before Schutz’s birth, his father died, and Schutz was raised by his mother and his stepfather, a bank executive.

Schutz graduated from high school during World War I. The Austro-Hungarian army was in short supply of officers, so the seventeen-year-old Schutz was immediately drafted into the army. After a short stint of training, the army commissioned Schutz as an officer and dispatched him to the Italian front.

On leave in late 1918, Schutz returned home, but the city to which he returned was not the one he remembered. Schutz found Vienna in a state of dramatic economic deterioration, with a large segment of its population suffering from starvation. Moreover, Schutz found that he himself had fundamentally changed during his military service. This experience probably shaped and informed Schutz’s 1945 essay “The Homecomer,” in which he employed phenomenology to explore the problems faced by soldiers returning home from World War II.

In the aftermath of World War I, Schutz studied law and social science at the University of Vienna, under the guidance of a handful of prominent teachers, including Hans Kelsen (law), Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Wieser (economics), and Othmar Spann (sociology). Through his studies, Schutz developed an interest in the work of the German sociologist Max Weber, in particular Weber’s writings on the methodology of the social sciences. Intrigued by Weber’s treatment of social action in terms of its subjective meaning for the actor, Schutz was nevertheless frustrated by what he felt to be ambiguities in Weber’s position. In particular, Schutz was skeptical of Weber’s treatment of “meaning” (Sinn) and “interpretive understanding” (Verstehen).

During the 1920’s, as Schutz made the transition from student to scholar, he initially attempted to address Weber’s conceptions of subjective understanding, experience, and action by adopting the perspective of Henri Bergson, a French philosopher popular among students and scholars in Schutz’s Vienna. By 1928, however, Schutz had concluded that Bergson’s perspective, though useful, was not wholly adequate to the task. Nonetheless, throughout his subsequent work, Schutz continued to draw on selected aspects of Bergson’s work, including especially Bergson’s distinction between “inner” time (durée), as subjectively experienced, and “outer” time, as measured by clocks.

A student and friend of Schutz, Felix Kaufmann, suggested that Schutz turn to phenomenology and, in particular, the writings of Edmund Husserl as a foundation for Schutz’s ongoing effort to address issues raised by Weber about the interpretation of human action. Finally heeding Kaufmann’s repeated suggestions, Schutz undertook the systematic study of Husserl’s thought. Schutz distilled from Husserl a phenomenologically informed and sociologically relevant approach to the explanation of how subjective meanings produce an apparently objective social world. Schutz would spend the rest of his career developing Husserl’s phenomenological conception of meaning as a method for addressing the ambiguities in Weber’s sociological conception of action.

Life’s Work

Schutz’s first major publication, The Phenomenology of the Social World, addressed central issues in the philosophy of the social sciences, including the nature of the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, the problem of interpreting social action in terms of its subjective meaning, and the fundamental question of whether—and to what extent—the social sciences can provide genuine understanding of human beings and their conduct. As such, this book formulated the themes and posed the problems that Schutz would work on his entire life.

In The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz explained action in terms of subjective experience, meaning, and the consciousness of time. Humans, Schutz argued, make sense of the social world, as well as of each other’s conduct, in terms of typifications: Actors plan their own actions—and interpret the actions of others—based on typified conceptions of motivation and intention. In analyzing the relationship between action and motivation, Schutz developed the highly original distinction between “in-order-to-motives” and “because-motives.”

The Phenomenology of the Social World was the only major study that Schutz published while living in Europe. In the mid-1930’s, the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany made intellectual life in Vienna uncertain. In 1938, while Schutz, a successful banker in addition to his career as a philosopher, was in Paris on a business trip, the Nazis invaded Austria. Though Schutz wanted to return to Vienna, where his family remained, friends discouraged him from doing so. Schutz obtained entry visas for his family, and he and his family lived in France for a year, during which time he worked tirelessly to help a number of his friends and associates escape Nazi-occupied Austria.

In 1939, Schutz and his family relocated to the United States, where a number of intellectuals from Germany and from various Nazi-occupied nations were in exile. Schutz took a position as part of the graduate faculty at the New...

(The entire section is 2322 words.)