Alfred Schutz: Philosopher of Social Science in the 20th Century
Alfred Schutz was a social scientist as well as a philosopher whose ideas are increasingly appreciated all around the planet and in nineteen different disciplines through fourteen different languages. My purpose today is to try to help you begin to understand his thoughts and then maybe you will try to read his writings. His writings are among the easiest to understand by any philosopher in the twentieth century. But I would not only be talking about his ideas. Alfred Schutz also shows how one can live a full life as a human being. He cared intensely for his family, his friends, his students, and he was loved by them in return.
Schutz’s life falls into two parts. He was born and grew up in Vienna, Austria and worked there until 1938 when the Nazis invaded. Then, he and his family fled through Paris to the United States where he was able to study, work, teach for the rest of his life. Before we get into the intertwined stories of Schutz’s life and his thinking, let me explain that Schutz’s thought was, well, the best word is transdisciplinary. When he started teaching, he taught sociology as well as philosophy, but he could have just as easily taught economics or linguistics or political science. He was concerned, you see, with the general approach and the basic ideas shared by all the social sciences, not just this or that particular discipline.
Concerning Schutz’s childhood, we are fortunate that Alfred’s wife, Ilse, was interviewed for an oral history project in1981.
My husband was born in Vienna, Austria on April 13, 1899. His mother’s name was Johanna Schutz, born Fillia, born on November 19, 1873 in Czechoslovakia and died here in America, February 28, 1955.
Ilse goes on to tell how Alfred’s father, also called Alfred Schutz, died almost two and a half months before his son was born and how, after a few years, his mother married her husband’s brother, Otto – a common practice in that time. His mother was always very ambitious for him, and he was always the best at school. He studied eight years of Latin and eight years of Greek. He did not participate much at sports because his mother always tried to make him do things that he was good at. As a youth he began his lifelong interest in literature and painting. He really admired Bellini’s Pieta and Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, but his most beloved art was music. Alfred Schutz’s son, George, will tell us about how his father said he became interested in music when he was young.
To grow up in Vienna was to be surrounded by music, and it just seemed to be part of everyday life. So, my father went to concerts when he was very young. Of course, standing room in the opera was tradition. That was where you met people, and street cleaners outside would sing arias from operas they heard the night before. And, of course, my father was very studious about everything that he experienced, and so I’m sure he went to libraries and did a lot of research. He ultimately found out more about music than many professionals who came to him for coaching because his knowledge was so extensive.
Once he finished secondary school at seventeen, Alfred Schutz enlisted in the Austrian Army. This was in the time of the Great War, World War I. He could have avoided service because of a chronic ear infection, but chose not to mention it to the doctors, and he more or less expected to die. He joined the artillery and after training was assigned the task of establishing and restoring communications between the front lines and headquarters. He spent ten months at the front, and then got a furlough, taking what proved to be the last train from the front to Vienna.. When he arrived, he found the war had ended and the revolution that ended the monarchy had begun.
Schutz began his formal studies at the University of Vienna immediately. His only benefit as a veteran was that he could graduate in two and a half years rather than four, but still doing the same amount of work. He studied law with a concentration in international law, his main professor being Hans Kelsen. He also tended the Viennese Academy of International Trade. And, later he told Talcott Parsons that “I came from the most concrete problems of economics and of the theory of law.”
What happened next, educationally, is told by one of Schutz’s closest friends, Fritz Machlup, the famous economist. He was interviewed by George Schutz in 1980 .
I think I met your father in 1924 in the private seminar of Professor Mises, Ludwig von Mises, of which your father and I were members. That was really attended only by very young people. And all members had interest in transdisciplinary work. So there were plenty of lawyers but not a single lawyer would ever talk about law. Your father had a law degree. Economics was taught in the faculty of law. So, your father was exposed to courses in economics from the very beginning, but at the same time his great interest in philosophy of science and methodology made him always very interested in how we economists try to think, and how we argue, how we reason, and what are the methods by which we decide whether something is valid or invalid. I soon became a great listener to Schutz’s ideas. And, there were many, many times that after a meeting we would spend hours talking. I remember there were days when we stopped talking at three or four o’clock in the morning, often walking in the street, just talking and talking without end. And very often I had great resistance, inner resistance, to the way your father was seeing things. But then very often I began to learn to see the way he reasoned. And, so I consider myself a faithful disciple of your father.
I think its fair to say that by participating in such intellectual circles as the privät seminar of Ludwig von Mises, as well as the intense dialogues with people like his friend Machlup, Alfred Schutz underwent an advanced course of multidisciplinary studies in Vienna.
Edmund Husserl, the philosopher who had the greatest influence on Alfred Schutz, used to say that he was a business executive by day and a phenomenological philosopher by night. Schutz himself said that he was a better business man because he was a philosopher and a better philosopher because he was a business man.
Two months before he received his law degree, his teacher, von Mises, got him a job working with a group of twenty-seven Viennese banks. He supervised ten people, and he worked on projects involving the reform of the currency for Austria and a loan for the League of Nations. In 1927 Schutz became a executive officer for the private bank of Reitler and Co. where he had 60 people to supervise, and Robert Lambert was his boss. Just before the war he was involved in reorganizing the international interest of R. Dreyfus and Co. whose interest included Heineken Beer. Schutz had similar positions with the same companies in Vienna, Paris, and then New York for the rest of his life.
After a six year courtship, Alfred Schutz and Ilse Heime were married in 1926.
It almost sounded like a fairy tale when my mother told me the story of how they met, how my father and her met. She always dreamed as a little girl that she would meet her husband on top of a mountain and that is exactly how they did meet. She was with a group of girls climbing up one side of the mountain, he was with a group of boys going up the other side, and they met on top. My mother made very clear that in those days one socialized in groups and not as a couple. So, many of these friendships that later became so important were made when my parents were very, very young.
During the early years of this marriage and before they had children, Ilse accompanied Alfred on business trips, as well as vacations.
Alfred Schutz was also working towards a book during the 1920s. This recording dictated years later addresses the most crucial development in that effort.
During my early student days my formal interest was in the philosophical foundations of the social sciences, especially sociology. At that time, I was under the spell of Max Weber’s work, especially of his methodological writings. I recognized, however, very soon that Max Weber had forged the tools he needed for his concrete research, but that his main problem – understanding the subjective meaning a social action has for the actor – needed further philosophical foundation. My teacher in philosophy of law, Hans Kelsen, had guaranteed to find such a philosophical foundation in the teaching of the Neo-Kantian school, but neither of the works of Cohen, Natorp, nor of the earlier writings of Ernst Cassirer opened to me an avenue of approach to the problem I was concerned with. Bergson’s philosophy impressed me, however, deeply. I was convinced that his analysis of the structure of consciousness and especially of inner time could be used as a starting point for an interpretations of the unclarified basic notions of the social sciences such as meaning, action, expectation, and first of all intersubjectivity. At that time I was closely connected with the late Felix Kaufmann who worked on his first book, Logik und Rechtswissenschaft, in which he successfully attempted to found Kelsen’s pure theory of law upon Husserl’s logical and epistemological discoveries. He encouraged me to study the Logische Untersuchungen, the first volume of the Ideas, the only one then published. This I did with the greatest care, but in spite of my admiration, I could not find in these books the bridge to the problems with which I was concerned. Then, in 1928 the Vorlesungen zur innere Zeitbewusstsein were published. Prepared by my study of Bergson’s philosophy, I found immediately Husserl’s thought and language understandable, and when in 1929 the Formal and Transcendental Logic appeared and placed the problem of intersubjectivity in the focus, I recognized the importance of Husserl’s thought for all the questions which preoccupied me. From the outset I was more interest in what Husserl called later on in the Nachwort of the Ideas, “phenomenology of the natural attitude” than the problems of transcendental phenomenology. I felt that the main importance of phenomenology for any attempt of exploring the social reality consisted in the fact, also established by Husserl, that all knowledge achieved by analysis of the reduced transcendental sphere remained valid within the natural attitude. In a book published in 1932, I tried to use Husserl’s phenomenology as I understood it and Weber’s methodology to take as a starting point for an analysis of the meaning-structure of the social world.
Schutz sent a copy of his book to Edmund Husserl. Husserl praised it highly and welcomed three or four visits a year from Schutz, until the great philosopher died in 1938. Alfred Schutz disagreed with some aspects of Husserl’s philosophy, but he considered himself a phenomenologist for the rest of his life.
Schutz’s masterpiece has five parts. Let me just talk about two of them. One of them is devoted to subjective meaning, which is a notion Schutz has from the writings of Max Weber. And it is interesting that Professor Mises assigned Schutz to study those writings for the private seminar. Subjective meanings are the meanings that objects, actions, relationships have for actors in the social world; they relate to those actors. I sometimes like to call them “insider interpretations,” and they then contrast with what you’d call outsider interpretations which other people have of those objects and actions and so forth. An example might be useful at this point. Suppose you’re walking in the country, and you see a man chopping wood. You see what he’s doing, but you don’t really understand it. It may be he’s a city person out just practicing with an ax. Maybe he’s chopping wood to store it up for the winter. Maybe he was just in an argument and is working off his anger. You don’t understand the subjective meaning just because you are watching him swing the ax against pieces of wood. To understand the action one has to get at the subjective meaning or insider interpretation that the actor himself has for that action. This is different often from the interpretations that others have, the outsider interpretations you may say. How do you get that? Well, the best way is simply to interview the person, to ask them. But for routine acts you can just be around them and see the action as it builds up and the action is part of it. So the bottom line in social science for Alfred Schutz is that the scientist has to grasp the subjective meanings that actions and objects and so forth have for the social actors. Indeed, when a theory is developed in social science its terms have to make sense to the actors.
Now before I tell you something more about Schutz’s masterpiece, I have to mention that he was only able to produce it because his wife, Ilse, had become what she later called his “scientific secretary.” Ilse took dictation and typed no less than six drafts before the book was finished, and helped him in this way many times during the rest of his life. I must also mention Schutz’s Japanese friend, Tomoo Otaka. He was a philosopher of law who later helped to write Japan’s post-war constitution and is seen here on a visit with his family to Husserl. He was in Vienna to buy books and provided the subvention for publishing Schutz’s book, saying the money came from his government budget, when it was actually his own personal money that he used.
Literally, Schutz’s title in English would be translated as The meaningful structure of the social world, but this creative translation is not really that misleading. But what is the most general structure of the social world? In the first place we have to realize that the social world is made up of others, other people. The Latin word here is socii, and therefore we have the word social. Second, we might be tempted to divide up the social world into the living, the dead and the unborn. But Schutz prefers to use words that relate to a self. Therefore, we have contemporaries who are living, and then we have predecessors who are dead, and of course we have successors that are not yet born. Next we can recognize that there are two ways in which we can relate to others. One is, as we already know, by understanding them. The other is by acting on them, or having an influence on them. It is interesting that we can influence our successors, for example, by writing a will, but we can’t understand them; they’re not born yet. In contrast with that, we can understand our predecessors, if they’ve left us writings or pictures or something, but we cannot act on them. Their lives are over with; they’re dead.
The interesting thing about people alive at the same time is that there can be reciprocity. Thus, when we share a place, your are in the same space as well as time, you can understand other people directly, but they can understand you directly back. Similarly you can influence them directly, and they can directly influence you back. Others you can indirectly influence and understand, perhaps over the telephone or by writing a letter, but there can then be this reciprocity for the people who are alive at the same time that you don’t have with predecessors and successors. And so for Schutz the structure of the social world has four regions: predecessors and successors, “consociates” he calls the one’s that share a place, and contemporaries are the ones who are alive at the same time, but not sharing same place. This is a funny thing to ask about, perhaps even scientists don’t ask much about it, but for a philosopher it’s a very good question, and what Schutz has described holds for any social world whatsoever, not just this one or that one, but for all social worlds.
In 1932 after his book was out and was attracting more and more attention, Schutz was traveling back and forth between Vienna and Paris and paid visits to Edmund Husserl along the way. His daughter Evelyn was born in 1934 and was very much enjoyed. Intellectually, he was working on his second book. Then, the world in Vienna came apart, as George Schutz remembers.
I was born at the end of February in Vienna, Austria about a week or two before the Anschloss when Germany was annexing Austria by force. She was actually still in the hospital as the troops marched under the window. My mother said that we should really leave. My father thought that there was no reason to leave because we hadn’t done anything wrong. And my mother thought that being Jewish was enough reason. So, I was smuggled out of the country in my sister’s doll carriage as the family went to Paris in 1938. The quota for Austrians to come to American actually broke off in the middle of our family so that my mother was forced to go to the United States to establish residency, and it wasn’t until a year later, 1939, that we took a ship to immigrate to the United States.
While Ilse went to New York to establish residency for the family, Alfred remained at his job in Paris. From the extensive files of letters, it seems that he was nevertheless very busy writing each night to encourage and otherwise help family and personal and professional friends through that difficult time. First of all there was his and Ilse’s parents. Others helped before, during, and after the war include his teacher and, later on, friend, Ludwig von Mises. And then there were Hans Kelsen, Siegfried Kracauer, Ludwig Landgrebe, Jean Herring, and Jacques Maritain. This telegram conveys that Schutz had succeeded in arranging a job at Johns Hopkins University for Aron Gurwitsch whom he had met at Husserl’s urging in Paris in 1935. Having that job made it possible for Gurwitsch and his wife to immigrate from Paris. In the United States, Schutz also kept closely in touch with his friends from Vienna The included not only Fritz Machlup, but also Emmanuel Winternitz, Felix Kaufmann, Eric Voegelin, and his schoolmate Freiderich von Hayek.
In the United States Schutz’s business career continued with the same private banking firms and he also continued to study and write at night after his family went to bed. But in addition he had the opportunity to have a teaching career on the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research. He taught in the evening so that he could come home, eat with the family, and go back, initially teaching one course a week and eventually becoming a full professor and chair of both sociology and philosophy. Schutz became interested in the New School when the sociologist, Albert Salomon, brought him into the General Seminar, which was something like what he had experienced with Ludwig von Mises in Vienna two decades before. He also had his old friend Felix Kaufmann from Vienna who died in 1949 and whom he replaced in teaching philosophy. Later, Dorion Cairns, whom he had met at Edmund Husserl’s house during the 1930s, joined him in philosophy.
Alfred Schutz became an American citizen in 1944. He was proud to serve as consultant to the Roosevelt administration on how the central European economies might be rebuilt after the war, and he became clearly interested in this new political system. His research was mostly focused on concrete and practical issues. “The Stranger” describes what happens when people coming to live in a new country find that their vague, background knowledge ceases to work, and they must learn a new cultural pattern. I mentioned earlier that he used his experience as a returning veteran from World War I to analyze what would happen when the veterans came back from World War II. He even reflected on whether there can be rationality in the social world.
Concerning the family life, Ilse and Alfred began exposing their young son to music.
I started with my mother at the piano learning how to read music. And my father recognized that when I was very young and taught me how to read scores. And the irony is that when I was six years old I had an accident that made it impossible for me to read music anymore so I had to learn it in an entirely different way, which was basically him explaining to me the structure of a piece and then line by line memorizing it and seeing how it fit together. And an interesting thing that resulted from that was that if I ever got lost when I was playing a piece, I could find my way back by remembering the structure that he had taught me. Whereas if you just learn by ear you would probably have to go back to the beginning and do the whole thing over again before you could memorize it.
Now let me tell you about Alfred Schutz’s most famous essay, “On Multiple Realities,” published in 1945. The title comes from the early work of William James. This is a chart of how four mental attitudes are compared and contrasted by Schutz in six ways. Let me make only three points with it. In the first place when you are in one attitude you believe in one set of objects and suspend belief in objects of the other three attitudes. Epoch is a philosophical word for the suspension of belief. And when you believe in something, it is a reality for you. And therefore the title of this essay. Thus when you believe in the world of everyday practical working, your beliefs in objects of imagination, dreaming, and theorizing are suspended. And when you believe in imagined objects, for example when you watch a stage play, the world of working is temporarily suspended, as are also the worlds of dream and theory.
In the second place, what you directly or indirectly believe in, in the attitudes of practical working and theorizing, is very well organized, while the worlds of imagination and especially dreaming are not. In the third place, there is what Schutz calls sociality. In this respect two or more people can act together in working, obviously. And they can also do so in imagining. For example, as children do in their make-believe games. You can dream, however, about others, but you cannot dream with others, like you can work and imagine with others. And theorizing is like dreaming. When you are actually doing it, you are necessarily alone or solitary. Schutz’s main purpose in this analysis is a contrasting of the working that goes on in everyday practical life with the theoretical thinking in science in which the world in constructed. This is a fascinating analysis with much more detail than I can give you, especially for the philosopher of science.
There were two follow-ups to Schutz’s essay. In the first place he used Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote to illustrate the analysis in it. His Mexican friend, Luis Recasens Siches, who stands just behind Ortega y Gasset here, translated it, and it was published by the great phenomenologist, Edwardo Nicol. The other follow-up to “On Multiple Realities” is this important essay in which Schutz goes on to explore how we use symbols in art, religion and science in order to believe in objects beyond the reality of every day life. Schutz’s essays were written over a period of years. Not only did he work on them at night, but he also worked on them when on vacation with his family.
Another name for the philosophy of social science is methodology. Alfred Schutz’s methodology focuses on how scientific models of the social world are built up in thinking. This theorizing, as it can also be called, is done of course in the theoretical attitude, which we’ve already heard about. Furthermore what it is ultimately concerned with are those subjective meanings that we have already heard about. Schutz’s best statement about the methodology of the social sciences was published in 1953 and reprinted as the first chapter of the first volume of his Collected Papers.
Let me ask you to imagine a familiar example. Suppose there is a store with several dozen customers milling about and maybe a dozen sales people. The roles aren’t exactly the same, that the customers and the clerks play. The clerks have to be on the lookout for shoplifters. The customers don’t do that . They might focus on how one customer is dressed, how they move about, how they stand, how old they are. In short, what they do is build up a kind of profile, what Schutz and Max Weber would call an “ideal type” of the suspicious customer, the customer who might be a shoplifter. There can be another standpoint on this situation. The social scientist can be interested in how the sales clerks form their ideal types about suspicious customers. How is that done? You can interview these sales clerks; you can watch how they behave. Its called participant observation. Afterwards the social scientists can then think about this and form his own ideal types about how sales clerks interpret some customers as potential shoplifters. Then there can be yet another standpoint, which is the standpoint of the methodologist. Because the methodologist is interested in how the social scientists interpret how the sales clerk interprets some of the customers. So there are three levels of interpretation here. And that is basically what a methodologist does according to Alfred Schutz..
In 1955 and 1956, Alfred Schutz’s thinking turned once again to practical issues. He was invited to a two week institute and also two conferences sponsered by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The concern was not with equality of outcomes, but rather with equality of opportunity. Schutz’s main contribution is, I believe, his very best essay. I say this not so much for the focus on real problems, which was already present in his essays on the stranger, the homecomer, and the well-informed citizen, but because he focused on relations between social groups. In his previous work the focus was on individual selves relating to others, not on groups. The participants initially considered groups based on colonial status, religion, race, even sex. And in the discussions Schutz found opportunity to comment about groups based on age. So that he was opposed to what is now called “ageism.”
The participants decided to concentrate on relations between African-Americans and European-Americans or, in the words of that time, Negroes and Whites. After all President Eisenhower would send troups to Little Rock, Arkansas the year after in order to enforce the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education that began the racial integration of public schools in America. Thurgood Marshall, who won that case before the Supreme Court and went on to become a member of that Court, is seated three seats to the right of Schutz in this picture from a 1955 conference. The participants all struggled to find a middle ground between abstract, philosophical and theological ideas, on the one hand, and the common sense ideas that guide people’s behavior in everyday life, on the other hand. Most of the others began from the abstract principles, but Schutz was characteristically concerned to approach equality of opportunity from the side of everyday common sense. He of course relied on the subjective meanings, or insider interpretations, that individuals belonging to groups share. Furthermore he relied on his experience in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which was a very multicultural empire.
There are two sorts of minority groups. One wants to keep its whole way of life, its entire culture, within the society and still be treated as equal. The members of the other want to adopt the way of life of the mainstream of the society and become assimilated. Schutz recognized both types. The first type is today called multiculturalism. In particular Schutz refers to the contrast between the common sense priorities of African-Americans and European-Americans that was discovered by Gunner Merdall. There are thus differences in values and cultural outlooks, but there are also ideas of equality that had trickled down from philosophy and religion. Finally, Schutz clearly calls attention to the factor of social class, and thus economic and political power between groups seeking equality and those in a position to grant it or not. Furthermore, he urges education to bring about change and reduce social tensions. His thinking in the 1950s is not irrelevant today.
Alfred Schutz was of service to the phenomenological movement throughout the time he lived in America. Much of that twenty years is documented in his correspondance with his friend, Aron Gurwitsch. Along with Dorion Cairns and Aron Gurwitsch and also Herbert Spiegleberg, he was a founding member of the international phenomenological society under the leadership of Marvin Farber in 1940 and active in editing his journal, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, thereafter. Soon after the war he began returning to Europe regularly on business and thereby participated in the development of phenomenology in Europe. He helped Father Van Breda develop the Husserl Archives, a branch of which was established in Schutz’s memory at the New School in 1969. He accepted a commision from Maurice Merleau-Ponty to write on Max Scheler’s work, and he attended various conferences on phenomenology. But when Schutz was in his late fifties, his health began to decline. Just why he drew this self-portrait in front of his bookcase one evening at home is not known.
Let me convey two personal remembrances of Alfred Schutz, the first more formal than the second. Schutz’s student Fred Kersten will read from the obituary that Aron Gurwitsch published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
On May 20, 1959 Alfred Schutz died in New York City. Alfred Schutz was a person of an almost unique kind. He had a large variety of interests, the widest general culture, a cosmopolitan outlook. Very rarely indeed does one encounter a man of such thoroughgoing learning and perfect competence in highly diverse fields as Schutz had in philosophy, the social sciences, music, and literature. Whatever he undertook he did from the perspective of his broad and encompassing knowledge. His mind was as penetrating, sharp, and keen as his heart was warm and generous. There was something radiant in him. He shouldered responsibilities that often seemed to surpass the capacities of a single man. The universally respected scholar of international reputation was at the same time, an urbane man of the world, a gentleman with all the nobility of character that this word connotes.
Over twenty years later, Alfred Schutz’s personality remained especially vivid for his wife, his son, and his close friend, Machla.
He would tell jokes for hours and he left sometimes in tears.
He loved his own jokes much better than the jokes of other people.
And we’d laugh.
And the happiness with which he’d laugh, it was really touching that with all his pessimism and depression that he’d came to tell jokes, he was a different man.
I think people responded to his laughter almost more than to the jokes themselves.
Because of the extensive efforts of Alfred Schutz’s widow, Ilse, in the decades after his death, his work is known today in practically every nation on earth. His daughter, Evelyn Schutz Lang, continues this effort.
Posthumous publications of Alfred Schutz:
On Phenomenology and Social Relations
Reflections on the Problem of Relevance
Strukturen der Lebenswelt
Life Forms and Meaning Structure
The Theory of Social Action
The Phenomenology of the Social World
Fenomenologie del mundo social
Alfred Schutz Gesammelte Aufsatze
La fenomenologia del mondo sociale
El problema de la realidad social
Alfred Schutz Talcott Parsons Zur Theorie sozialen Handelns
A Fenomenologia a Tarsadalom-Tudomanyban
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Some Monographs and Volumes of Essays on Schutz:
Phenomenology and Social Reality
Alfred Schutz: An Intellectual Biography
Alfred Schutz: Appraisals and Developments
Neue Beitrage zur Rezeption seines Werkes
Philosophers in Exile
La Communication en la vida Cotidiana
Phenomenologie en sciences sociales
Students and Early Followers:
Kurt H. Wolff
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
The Sozialwissenschafts Archiv at University of Konstanz
The Archival Repository of the Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, Inc. at University of Memphis
The Alfred Schutz Archive at Waseda University, Tokyo
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