The Phenomenology of the Social World

by Alfred Schutz

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Schutz's book uses the philosophy of Edmund Husserl to illuminate the sociology of Max Weber.

Husserl is the father of a school of philosophy called phenomenology, which is the study of consciousness, or things as they appear. Husserl rejected the notion that all knowledge could be obtained through the methods of hard science, and insisted that it is only by understanding particular events in life without recourse to theoretical frameworks that their true significance can be discerned. Max Weber favored a sociology that eschewed system building in favor of understanding individuals and their emotional motivations. As such, he saw the role of the sociologist to "interpret" the motivations of individuals, which collectively make up social actions.

Schutz's contribution was to introduce the notion of intersubjectivity. That is, he sought to understand the relationship between individual experience, and its meaning, and the experience of other individuals, and how this interconnection could explain social actions. He developed this into his concept of the "life world," which is an attempt to describe how social reality is both the result of personal experience and preexisting social structures that limit or shape that experience. To that end, he divides the life world into four parts: the Umwelt, which is includes personal experience and all those who share space and time with the individual, the Mitwelt, which is the larger world contemporary with the Umwelt, and the worlds of the past (Vorwelt) and the future (Folgewelt). Shultz sought to understand the transition from direct experience (Umwelt) to indirect experience (Mitwelt), or the gradual transformation of persons or entities from the specific to the anonymous.

More specifically, Schutz's book is organized into five major sections as follows: Part One discusses Weber's sociology, and in particular the problem of his concept of subjective and objective meaning; Part Two considers the problem of "meaningful lived experience" within the larger context of an individual's life; Part Three introduces Schutz's concept of intersubjecivity; Part Four contains his account of the four life worlds; and Part Five considers additional problems going forward.

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