Alfred Schutz


Alfred Schutz (b. April 13, 1899 Vienna – d. May 20, 1959 New York City) studied law and economics with Ludwig Von Mises, Othmar Spann and Hans Kelsen, and graduated from the University of Vienna in financial law. He was an employee (1921-1925) and later a director (1926-1938) at the Bankverein and then at the Bank Reitler and Co. However, law and economics were not enough to satisfy him intellectually. Even his study of the methodology of the social sciences of Max Weber, which deeply fascinated him, was not enough. He was led by his friend Felix Kaufmann into the study of phenomenology as it was developed by Edmund Husserl, and, in 1932, Schutz published his first book: Der Aufbau der sinnhafte sozialen Welt. Eine Einleitung in die verstehende Soziologie. It was much appreciated by Husserl who, in the same year, invited him to Freiburg to join a study group, offering him the chance to become his assistant. While declining the offer and, therefore, an academic career, Alfred Schutz collaborated with Husserl until his death in April 1938. That same year, Hitler annexed Austria, and Schutz and his family left their homeland for Paris. There he distinguished himself for the help he offered to many Jewish Austrians who wanted to leave Austria. In July 1939, he finally emigrated to the United States, where he continued his work as a legal counsel for financial banks. Once in the United States, he dropped the umlaut from his surname.

In 1940, Schutz with Marvin Farber and others founded the International Phenomenological Society and the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. In 1943, Schutz accepted an offer from the New School for Social Research in New York City to work as a lecturer, and began writing for the scholarly flagship journal of the New School, Social Research. In 1943, he was a visiting professor at the New School; by 1952, he was a full professor of sociology and social psychology there. He was a member of the American Philosophical Association and the American Sociological Association.

Alfred Schutz is regarded as the founder of phenomenological sociology. To formulate this approach, he combined the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl with the interpretive sociology of Max Weber’s thesis on choosing, with Weber’s emphasis on developing appropriate models to the specific object of study, and with Henri Bergson’s concepts of temporality. After his immigration to the United States, the influence on him of American pragmatism and logical positivism, both of which were oriented to the world perceivable by the senses, helped to consolidate his interest in empiricism, which found expression, sociologically, in attention to the real world, the world lived.

Schutz was especially interested in the sphere of daily life and its routinization, to which he joined the thought of what appears (phenomenology). He emphasized the subject as an agent of action, and action as a project undertaken by the subject as an act of will involving self-understanding, the positioning of the action in place, and the manifesting of the action in an act to achieve some specific purpose. This concept of action was developed by Schutz to respond to the criticism of Weber’s theory of action as overly rational and as realized without adequate attention to the dynamic personal and interpersonal processes that create an action and its outcomes. Schutz also emphasized interpersonal relationships as the end-product of individual intentionalities belonging to deeper states of consciousness. He held that that which is observed in social life is the culmination of a long process that starts from the individual consciousness and finds its point of arrival in the act (action) performed and expressed externally through rationalization and acts of calculation which, in the product or outcome observed, is nothing more than a superficial expression of a complex internal state of consciousness. He maintained that understanding the gesture is basic to understanding social behavior, since, through it, the intention of subjects was manifested toward their interlocutors – that is, toward those others with whom they were participating in conversation, dialogue, social interaction. He posited a trialogue in social life, consisting of the acting subject – the agent who performs the action; the other party (interlocutor) toward whom the action is directed who then participates in the action of the agent through response or non-response; and the observer, who, though interested in this interaction between agent and other party, is not involved in it him (or her) self. From a Schutzian perspective, the impossibility of knowing the other’s depth of consciousness completely was the source of the acting subject’s action.

The result is a distinctive blend of philosophical and sociological ideas that are still informing theoretical developments, especially in the writings of Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, and Harold Garfinkel. Infact, Schutz's writings had had a lasting impact on sociology, both on phenomenological approaches to sociology – especially through the work of Thomas Luckmann and of Peter Berger – and in ethnomethodology through the writings of Harold Garfinkel. Thomas Luckmann was heavily influenced by Schutz’s work and ultimately finished Schutz’s work on the structures of the Lifeworld after Alfred Schutz’s death by filling out his unfinished notes. Berger and Luckmann went on to use Schutz’s work to further analyzing human culture and reality in sociology.

Schutz’s importance was highlighted after his death, with the posthumous publication of his Collected Papers. The first three volumes appeared soon after his death: volume 1, The Problem of Social Reality, edited by Maurice Natanson (1962); volume 2, Studies in Social Theory, edited by Arvid Brodersen (1964); volume 3, Studies in Phenomenological Philosophy, edited by his wife, Ilse Schutz (1966). Three decades later, three more volumes were published: volume 4, edited by H. Wagner and G. Psathas, in collaboration with Frederick Kersten (1996); volume 5, Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, edited by Lester Embree (2011); and volume 6, Literary Reality and Relationships, edited by Michael Barber (2012).