Alfred Schütz was one of the most influential philosophers at the New School in the 1940s and 1950s. Here we review his biography, his systematic project of using Husserlian phenomenology as a foundation for Weberian sociology, and his theory of practical reasoning. Though originally stated in the technical vocabulary of classical phenomenology, we present Schütz’s view in accessible style and contrast it to some popular theories of practical reasoning.
Born in 1899 in Vienna, Alfred Schütz fought for Austria in the First World War. Though he studied economics, law and business at the University of Vienna, he soon developed an interest in Henri Bergson’s philosophy of consciousness and inner time. Due to Felix Kaufmann’s influence, in the interwar period Schütz turned to Edmund Husserl’s work in phenomenology. It was this research program that would exert the main influence on his work until his death in 1959. In the 1920s, Schütz joined the Viennese banking firm Reitler and Company any but continued his studies in the social sciences and philosophy, leading Husserl to describe him as “a banker by day and a philosopher by night.”
In the 1930s, Schütz joined Ludwig von Mises’ Private Seminar, which included such important social scientists as Friedrich Hayek, the leading figure of the Austrian school of economics after Mises, Eric Voegelin, the anti-utopian historian and political philosopher, and Oskar Morgenstern, the founder (with Von Neumann) of mathematical Game Theory. It also included the economist Fritz Machlup and the philosopher Felix Kaufmann, both of whom would go on to teach at the New School. Schütz’s magisterial book, The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932), was composed during this time. The goal of the work was to put scientific sociology on a firm philosophical basis. In sociological theory, he followed the lead of Max Weber, whose methodological writings deeply influenced him (ironically, Schütz may never have read Weber’s most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). The philosophical basis he envisaged for sociology was that of classical, Husserelian phenomenology. Together these approaches provided a non-naturalistic but nevertheless rigorous foundation for the social sciences, a philosophical basis on which social knowledge could be built upon the primary datum of consciousness.
Emigrating to the United States on July 14, 1939, Schütz continued to work in business. But he began teaching sociology and philosophy courses on The Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research in 1943, ultimately serving as chair of the Philosophy Department from 1952 to 1956. During this period he became deeply engaged with American philosophy, particularly with the thought of William James, whose theory of consciousness he saw as a valuable complement to Husserleian phenomenology. At the New School, he worked most closely with Aron Gurwitsch. Among the graduate students he taught were Maurice Natanson, Thomas Luckmann, Peter Berger. The latter two acknowledged Schütz as a driving influence behind their book, The Social Construction of Reality, which was among the most influential works of sociology in the twentieth century. Indeed this book argues that socially coordinated actions depend on a fabric of intersubjectively constituted meaning, a thesis that follows from Schütz’s phenomenological analysis of social action. The concept of social construction, so hotly contested in the 1990s and today, was formulated at the New School in the mid-1950s.
Why did Schütz think that phenomenology could serve as the basis for sociological theory? It seemed evident that by beginning with consciousness as a given rather than taking it as a mystery to be explained, phenomenology was in a position to reject the trends of positivism and behaviorism that dominated mid-twentieth century social science. This attitude about the social sciences is broadly in line with Husserl’s relentless critique of a kind of knee-jerk naturalism that he saw as the root of the modern malaise. But by attacking the “natural attitude” Husserl did not commit himself to any belief in the supernatural. Rather, he pointed to the way in which the designation of certain objects as natural and of certain ways of knowing as scientific depends on the work of consciousness in making these categorizations. The goal of Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy of science was thus not to deny naturalism outright but rather to recognize it as a method, the meaning of which was constituted by conscious brings, and hence to place the sciences on a solid philosophical footing.
In Schütz’s hands, this framework of questions and analyses is turned towards to the social world. From this phenomenological perspective, there is no need to reduce social theory to a basis in the natural sciences, for example, by trying to attribute economic behaviors and attitudes to biological instincts. Indeed, a naturalized foundation could have a potentially deleterious effect in the social sciences, if it was taken to downplay the role of agents’ understandings of their own actions. Thus for Schütz, the project of the philosophy of social science becomes that of offering an account of how agents can see events and actions as having meanings, how these meanings can be shared by multiple agents, and how the social scientist can come to know these meanings.
Perhaps the leading methodological question of social inquiry concerns how the researcher accesses his object of interest. Suppose, for example, a social scientist is interested in why capitalist economic organization came to replace feudal organization in Western Europe and North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Why did it happen in these places and not elsewhere? One way to approach the question is to collect statistics concerning commercial and political arrangements for the periods and places in questions. But these statistics could only count as external evidence concerning what was peculiar to these times and places. Such statistics are surely informative to the investigator as an outsider to the social process, but they give one no grasp of how the people of that time and place – in this case the first capitalists – understood that information themselves. Even if all the information relevant to the early capitalists’ decisions could be recovered, there seems to be no way, from the perspective of social statistics, to see how those early capitalists interpreted this information.
Consideration of an individual’s private life (known through interviews or, in the historical case, through written documents) might provide insight into this internal process. But how could one distinguish between some particular individual’s idiosyncrasies and those opinions and understandings he shares with others of the time? It is here that Weber’s theory of ideal types provides a methodological point of entry. For Weber, the understanding shared by a certain class of people can be known on the basis of examining an individual’s views. Precisely because understanding and meaning are shared rather than private, an individual’s opinions shed light on how persons of his type view the world. For example, Weber takes Benjamin Franklin to stand in for the early capitalist understanding of the world. Putting aside the specifics of Weber’s interpretation of Franklin’s world view – which hinges on attributing to Franklin a commitment to a secularized puritanism – one can say that for Weber, Franklin typifies the early capitalist attitude. Examination of Franklin’s maxims (such as “time is money”) thus sheds light on early capitalist subjectivity, that is, one how early capitalists understood their own actions to contribute to a social project.
But whereas for Weber, it was convenient to admit this theory of ideal types to advance interpretative sociology, Schütz aims to root this theory in a more general phenomenological philosophy. In particular, he wants to show that typification is not a mere methodological convenience for the sociologist but is fundamentally justified by the structure of human action and consciousness. His efforts are thus directed to explaining how actions can be meaningful, and how those meanings can be constituted and shared by the members of a community. The upshot of these investigations is that to be consciousness is to live as an agent in a social reality – that structure of meanings that guide one’s everyday life and activities.
Schütz’s theories of action and practical reasoning provide an interesting contrast to some mainstream analytic approaches to these topics. In this last section, we compare Schütz’s theory of practical reasoning to the views of two other influential philosophers.
As Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics VI.9) observed, practical reasoning is a kind of reasoning that results in action. For example, taking as premises:
1. Heavy water is bad to drink.
2. This is heavy water.
The conclusion would be one’s not drinking the water. Though sometimes one reasons practically by just thinking the conclusion (for example, as an imperative: “don’t drink this water!”), and saving up the action for an appropriate occasion, practical reasoning is action-oriented. A fundamental question for philosophers has been how to distinguish practical reasoning from theoretical reasoning. Here we consider the views of two philosophers, Gilbert Harman and Bernard Williams, before arguing that Schütz’s theory of practical reasoning offers a more promising alternative.
Gilbert Harman distinguishes practical and theoretical reasoning by their products. He holds that a line of reasoning is theoretical if it results in a belief, and practical if it results in an intention. Suppose for example, that Jones is planning a trip from New York to Chicago, and calls on his assistant Smith to purchase the tickets. According to Harman, Jones’ reasoning is practical while Smith’s reasoning is theoretical. This is so because once the tickets have been purchased Jones has an intention to travel to Chicago, while Smith has the belief that Jones will travel to Chicago. But now suppose that Jones comes down with a disease, and sends his trusty assistant Smith to Chicago in his stead. According to Harman’s account, one must say that Smith’s antecedent theoretical reasoning has been instantaneously transformed into practical reasoning, since he now intends to travel to Chicago. Likewise, Jones’ practical reasoning has now been rendered theoretical, since he no longer intends to travel to Chicago but believes Jones will go in his stead. Harman is therefore committed to practical-theoretical transubstantiation occurring without any change in the form or content of the reasoning itself. But if this is so, why should one distinguish practical and theoretical reasoning in the first place? Another weakness of Harman’s view is that it seems to base the practical-theoretical demarcation on a psychological distinction between beliefs and intentions. But there is disagreement about the meaning of psychological terms. Thus depending on how one defines these terms, Harman’s theory could have a wide variety of inconsistent interpretations. For example, given a view which intentions are just complex, de se beliefs, practical reasoning would reduce to theoretical reasoning. Finally, using psychological criteria suggests that the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning is ultimately rooted in agents’ psychological states rather than in their reasons or actions.
Bernard Williams would not be bothered by the objections made against Harman’s view. For Williams denies that is any way of strictly defining practical reasoning. Williams writes, that “there is an essential indeterminacy in what can be counted a rational deliberative process” FN (Williams 1981, p.110). On this basis, he holds that it is desirable for a theory of practical reason not to try to specify what constitutes a sound deliberative route from an agent’s subjective motivational set to her having a reason to undertake some particular action. But surely when one characterizes some thoughts or speech acts as practical reasoning, one commits oneself to thinking that some norms of reasoning can guide the resultant action: if the reasoning is correct, one ought to act in the way determined. For example, if it is true that heavy water is bad to drink and that this is heavy water, one should avoid drinking this water. But it is unclear how, according to Williams’ permissive view, practical reasoning could establish norms that are satisfied only by certain, correct actions.
Schütz’s alternative avoids both the psychologism of Harman’s view and the permissiveness of Williams’ view. Schütz’s approach depends on distinguishing the peculiar form of practical reasoning in terms of its temporality. While the logic of theoretical reasoning may or may not be tensed, for Schütz practical reasoning must take a future perfect form. The Phenomenology of the Social World builds upon Husserl’s description of consciousness as fundamentally intentional and temporal. On this account, consciousness is both constitutively “about” or “directed towards” some object, and is either retentive (past-directed), protentive (future-directed) or present, directed to an object given immediately “before one’s mind” that nevertheless appears on a temporally structured horizon of other presentations. This temporality of consciousness is not here understood as a merely psychological characteristic but as a structural feature constitutive of consciousness. Schütz characterizes action itself as a “spontaneous activity oriented toward the future” (p.57). This orientation toward the future, which is what he understands to distinguish action from behavior – consists in an anticipation of the outcome of the act. This anticipation is not a merely protentive or “forseeing expectation” or “immediate protention” but is rather a “representation” of that which is absent as complete. On Schütz’s account, this representational activity involves an emptying of the perceptual form to the effect that the resultant anticipation lacks its proper “filling-in” and thus needs to be “fulfilled” (p.58). Schütz thus distinguishes practical reasoning by its temporality. This avoids psychologism, since this theory concerns the form of practical reasoning rather than the mental states in which it is carried out. By giving a precise characterization, it is not too permissive an account: for it is consistent with the view that standards of correctness for practical reasoning could be offered on a specific interpretation. Clearly much more work would needs to be done to show how Schütz’s theory works in detail, and to apply it to present problems in practical philosophy. Our purpose here has just been to argue that, nearly sixty years after his death, Schütz still has much to offer us philosophically.
Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. The Social Construction of Reality. Penguin Books, 1991. (online)
Harman, G. “Practical Reasoning.” The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 29, No.3 (1976) pp.413-463.
Harman, G. “Practical Aspects of Theoretical Reasoning” in The Oxford Handbook of Rationality. Edited by A. R. Mele and P. Rawling. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Schütz, A. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Northwestern University Press, 1967.
Williams, B. Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Weber, M. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950. (online)
We have also drawn on Hans Jonas’s memorial piece (“Alfred Schutz, 1899-1959” Social Research, Vol. 26, No. 4 [Winter 1959], pp. 471-474), which gives a succinct portrayal of Schütz’s philosophical project. Mie Augier’s review of Schütz’s collected works (Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 11: 145–162  online) contains valuable biographical information as well as his relation to pre-war Austrian economic thought. An article that stresses both the Weberian and economic themes in Schütz is available in “Pendergast, C. 1986. “Alfred Schutz and the Austrian School of Economics.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol.92, No.1 (Jul.1986), pp.1-26.