Alfred Schutz was born in Vienna on April 13, 1899. He studied law and social sciences at the University of Vienna from 1918 until 1921, where he completed a doctorate in law and then continued his studies in the social sciences until 1923. Equally as important for his intellectual development as his studies at the university was his participation in the informal academic life of Vienna, in which he also cultivated his philosophical interests.
After completing his academic studies and in addition to his ongoing scholarly activities, Schutz held the full-time job of a bank lawyer—a dual life that lasted until he retired from the bank in 1956. Following the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich, Schutz and his family escaped via Paris to New York.
There he became affiliated with the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research in New York, where he taught from 1943 until 1952 as a lecturer, then afterwards as a full professor of sociology and from 1956 as professor of both sociology and philosophy. He died on May 20, 1959, in New York.
Alfred Schutz is regarded as the founder of the phenomenological approach in sociology. Influenced by Max Weber, Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, the Austrian School of Economics, and pragmatism, he sought to give a philosophical foundation to interpretative social sciences.
As a critical follower of Husserl, he developed his own mundane phenomenology of the life-world and its structures, showing how actors produce and understand social reality in everyday interactions and communication.
Schutz begins with Max Weber’s view of social reality as a meaningful sociocultural world and shares his concept of meaning-oriented social action, but he criticizes Weber for neglecting to inquire into the constitution of meaning in general.
In order to analyze how the meaning attached to action is revealed, Schutz refers to the philosophical concepts developed by Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl. He adopts the Bergsonian idea of the stream of consciousness, but he later comes to recognize difficulties in Henri Bergson’s intuitivism and turns to Husserl’s phenomenology.
In 1932 Alfred Schutz writes his masterpiece “Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt” where he develops his basic concept of the constitution of the social world and formulated his own phenomenological position. Influenced by pragmatism—which was mediated to him by Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, and William James—in this work he proceeds beyond the realm of consciousness and perception as analyzed by Husserl and considers both human action and interactions as well as acts of consciousness as factors in the constitution of meaning.
Leaving behind the transcendental philosophical approach, he develops his own “mundane” phenomenology that analyzes the constitution of a meaningful world within “mundane” social relationships in the everyday world.
He adopts the results of the Husserlian analyses of the temporality of consciousness, of the intentional structure of lived experience, as well as of the meaning constitution based on embodiment as preconditions on which the social shaping of experience patterns is based, but he rejects Husserl’s assumption that intersubjectivity in the sense of understanding of the others could be a result of the acts of consciousness alone (Alfred Schutz 1966). Rather, he shows how the schemes of experience are shaped by influencing (Wirken) and by relationships of influence (Wirkensbeziehung) which consist of interaction and communication.
Schutz understands communication as a process where two subjective streams of consciousness are coordinated within a relationship of mutual influence and where the meaning of one ego’s action consists in the intention to evoke a reaction on the part of the other. Actions have here the function of signs that are mutually indicated and interpreted.
Because the final meaning of one person’s action is revealed in the reaction of the other and vice versa, communication provides a common stock of shared patterns of interpretation that allows for mutual understanding, even if each of the agents always refers to his or her own schemes of experience. In this concept of understanding based on interaction, Schutz offers his own solution to the problem of intersubjectivity posed by Husserl.
In his later work Alfred Schutz (1962, 1964, 1966) determines this communicatively created social reality as the world of everyday life whose typical patterns are taken for granted and represent the intersubjective common core of the reality in which people live. He also discloses further structural characteristics of this everyday core of the life-world: Its typical structure depends considerably on the pragmatic orientation of action selecting the areas where typification processes take place (1962, 1966, 1970).
Both typicality and this selection based on systems of relevance represent two generative principles of order in the everyday world. This everyday reality is nevertheless not identical to the life-world as a whole. By suspending his pragmatic interest, the agent is able to modify his or her everyday experiences and perceive them as objects of a game, fantasy, art, science, or as a dream.
All those modifications represent different provinces of meaning that transcend the everyday world and constitute the multiple realities (Schutz 1962) of which the lifeworld is composed. The different strata of meaning in the life-world are integrated by semiotic systems whose structure allows the contents of one province of meaning to be symbolized by another through appresentation.
By considering communication as a substantial constitutive mechanism of social reality, Alfred Schutz (1962) stresses the role of language in this process. On his view, language maintains relevances and typifications unique to specific cultures and to social groups and is thus crucial for the constitution of the life-world as a cultural one.
The methodological rule that Alfred Schutz derives from his approach is expressed in his postulate of adequacy (Schutz 1962, 1964) between everyday and scientific typifications. This postulate holds that higher-order interpretative types employed by social sciences have to be constructed in correspondence to the structure of the everyday typifications (first-order types). Thus the structure of the lifeworld that guides everyday actions also represents the methodological framework within which the social and cultural sciences have to proceed.
The Schutzian phenomenological approach represents one of the main paradigms in the area of interpretative social and cultural sciences. In philosophy his theory led to a critical assessment of the Husserlian view of intersubjectivity, to conceptions of a worldly phenomenology and theory of the cultural sciences (Embree 1988), and to a philosophy of modern anonymity (Natanson [1962–1995] 1986), as well as to new insights into intercultural hermeneutics (B. Waldenfels 1997, 1998, 1999). It also influenced the philosophy of gender (E. List 1993). In a modified form, Schutz’s concept of the life-world was also integrated into the social philosophy of Jürgen Habermas.