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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2322

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.

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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 School for Social Research in New York, a situation that afforded him regular contact with Aron Gurwitsch, Dorion Cairns, and his lifelong colleague Felix Kaufmann, each of whom had studied with Husserl.

After settling in the United States, Schutz began to develop and amplify the themes introduced in The Phenomenology of the Social World. The resulting writings—some thirty-two published titles, including his Collected Papers, published posthumously in four volumes—can be seen as an interrelated whole, across which Schutz sought to explicate a systematic (and accessible) treatment of the philosophy of the social sciences on the basis of phenomenology.

The major themes of Schutz’s life work are concisely presented in his 1954 paper “Concept and Theory Formation in the Social Sciences.” Schutz wrote this paper in response to the neopositivist approach to social science championed by Rudolf Carnap, Carl Hempel, and Ernest Nagel, among others. Proponents of the neopositivist perspective argued that first, the methodological procedures of science are unitary regardless of the domain of application; second, the goal of science is the explanation of individual phenomena by reference to general laws; and third, scientific statements must be testable by reference to publicly observable events. Taken together, these three claims amounted to a simple refusal to acknowledge the paramount significance of sense making as a subjective aspect of human action and social reality, as Schutz had argued in The Phenomenology of the Social World.

In his 1954 essay, Schutz presented a point-by-point response to the neopositivist account of social science. First, Schutz argued that the social sciences differ from the natural sciences in that the events and relationships that the social sciences analyze are “pre-interpreted”—or meaningful, in the first place, to the actors who are the subjects of social scientific inquiry. In contrast, in the world of nature, events and relationships do not “mean” anything to the molecules, atoms, or electrons that are, for example, the subject matter of physics. “The social world,” Schutz argued, “is experienced from the onset as a meaningful one.” As such, the social world requires interpretive understanding (Verstehen) of exactly the sort dismissed by the neopositivist as a nonscientific mode of understanding.

Second, Schutz addressed the idea that science should aim to explain individual phenomena by reference to general laws. Such a claim is based, Schutz argued, on an assumption that rational action is, or should be, the yardstick by which actual conduct is measured. However, humans act and make sense of action using concepts, categories, and constructs that they presume to be valid and socially shared “for all practical purposes” and “until demonstrated otherwise.”

Actors in the social world interpret one another’s behavior as meaningful action by imputing goals, motives, and intents to other actors on the basis of their public, observable behaviors. This is not the same, Schutz makes clear, as claiming that actors have immediate access to what other actors “really” experience; other actors’ actual experiences are essentially inaccessible. Nevertheless, by employing socially shared, commonsense categories and constructs to interpret one another’s behaviors, humans make reasonable sense of that behavior as meaningful action, in terms of usual motives, identities, or actions in typical situations.

These categories and constructs constitute a “stock of knowledge” that actors treat as contingently valid, or useful “for all practical purposes” and “until proven otherwise.” Elsewhere, Schutz referred to this orientation as a “natural attitude” toward the social world, in which the actors treat their understanding of the world as practically adequate. From such a perspective, the actor simply believes that “as s/he sees things, so they are.” The natural perspective does not, therefore, encompass a scientific or Descartian skepticism about the objectivity of perception, the adequacy of knowledge, or the utility of past experience. Thus, Schutz concludes, the employment of scientific rationality as the primary means of interpreting human action (as advocated by the neopositivists) is inadequate to explain the conduct of actors who employ commonsense reasons to act and to interpret others’ actions. Based as it is on unproven but shared assumptions about what is typical, commonsense reason cannot be “rational” in strictly scientific terms—nor is it taken to be so by the actors themselves.

Third, Schutz addresses the neopositivist idea that scientific statements must be testable. Schutz’s response is simple but profound: Social science, like commonsense reason, unavoidably relies on constructs as a means of interpretive sense-making. That is, social scientists themselves employ typified models of human action. It follows that social scientists whose models ignore the role and influence of subjective constructs and interpretation in human action replace the real world of human conduct with a fictional, nonexisting representation of it, one that exists only as a (social scientific) construction.

When Schutz died in 1959, he was preparing a manuscript that he intended to be the final, comprehensive statement of his life’s work. Thomas Luckmann, a former student of Schutz, completed this manuscript and saw it published as The Structures of the Life-World. Continuing to draw on Husserl’s phenomenology, Schutz articulated his own conception of the “life-world” (Lebenswelt), the total sphere of experiences consisting of the objects, persons, and events encountered in practical action. The life-world, Schutz argued, is the “paramount reality” of life; and as such, the life-world is organized in terms of the “natural attitude” and its constituent features, as Schutz described in his previous writings.


Schutz’s body of writings retain their significance as one route of development from Husserl’s phenomenology. Existentialism, as developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and especially Jean-Paul Sartre, also drew primarily on Husserl. An alternative to existentialism, Schutz’s sociological phenomenology offers novel analyses of human action, the problem of freedom, and what distinguishes human beings. Schutz’s articulation of the social bases of intersubjectivity also has striking, potentially rich parallels in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which argues against the privacy of language and “other minds.”

Schutz was not the first thinker to attempt a synthesis of phenomenology and sociology, but his systematic, comprehensive effort to do so is original, nonetheless. Schutz’s account of human action as meaningful, based on his analyses of the social foundations of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, remain among the most important and influential contributions in phenomenology and the philosophy of the social sciences.

Additional Reading

Embree, Lester, ed. Worldly Phenomenology: The Continuing Influence of Alfred Schutz on North American Social Science. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1988. A collection of essays that evaluate Alfred Schutz’s continued influence on the practice of phenomenology and the social sciences.

Gorman, Robert A. The Dual Vision: Alfred Schutz and the Myth of Phenomenological Social Science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977. A critical account of Schutz’s work and especially the claim that phenomenology can provide an objective basis for the social sciences.

Grathoff, Richard, ed. The Theory of Social Action: The Correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Talcott Parsons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. Reproduces the 1940-1941 correspondence between Schutz and sociologist Talcott Parsons, arguably the most influential American social theorist of the twentieth century. The letters document Schutz’s attempt to convince Parsons of the need to base any sociological theory of action on phenomenological foundations, and Parsons’s resistance to this approach; the exchanges offer fascinating insights into the minds of two of the century’s most important social thinkers. Grathoff’s introductory and concluding essays help to orient readers who are new to the writings of Schutz or Parsons.

Heritage, John. “The Phenomenological Input,” In Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Oxford: Polity Press, 1984. Provides a clear, succinct overview of Schutz’s phenomenology, as well as a more detailed account of Schutz’s influence on Harold Garfinkel and the development of ethnomethodology, a phenomenologically informed field of sociology.

Schutz, Alfred. Alfred Schutz: On Phenomenology and Social Relations. Edited by Helmut R. Wagner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. A systematic representation of the full scope of Schutz’s writings, arranged and combined topically; includes a concise, accessible introduction to Schutz and his work by the editor, Helmut Wagner. Highly recommended.

Vaitkus, Steven. How Is Society Possible? Intersubjectivity and the Fiduciary Attitude as Problems of the Social Group in Mead, Gurwitsch, and Schutz. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991. Compares Schutz’s account of knowledge and how it is socially shared with the explanations advanced by pragmatist George Herbert Mead and another phenomenologist, Aron Gurwitsch.

Wagner, Helmut R. Alfred Schutz: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Perhaps the definitive source for information on Schutz and his writings. Wagner’s treatment is clear and comprehensive.

Webb, Rodman B. The Presence of the Past: John Dewey and Alfred Schutz on the Genesis and Organization of Experience. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1976. Compares the philosophic attitudes of John Dewey and Schutz, as well as their accounts of the fundamental concepts of “experience,” “relevance,” and “reality.” Better suited for readers who already have some familiarity with Schutz and phenomenology.

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