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Alfred Schutz

Alfred Schutz philosophized about social science in a broad signification of the word. He was deeply respectful of actual scientific practice, and produced a classification of the sciences; explicated methodological postulates for empirical science in general and the social sciences specifically; and clarified basic concepts for interpretative sociology in particular. His work shows how philosophy of the cultural sciences can be done phenomenologically.

Phenomenological Philosophy of the Social Sciences


If phenomenology is comprehended in the strict signification now sometimes qualified as Husserlian, there can be no doubt that Alfred Schutz is the preeminent phenomenological philosopher of the social sciences. But such a characterization needs to be comprehended carefully. "Philosophy" in this connection as well as "social science" have somewhat distinctive significations for him.

In his 1932 book Schutz lists not only economics, jurisprudence, sociology, and political science, but also biography and the histories of art, economics, music, philosophy, and politics (and implicitly archaeology) as "Sozialwissenschaften." This may reflect Austrian views early in the last century, but in his American period he similarly lists cultural anthropology, economics, history, law, linguistics, sociology, and the sciences of mythology and religion. This list can seem odd today because the historical sciences and jurisprudence are not usually considered social sciences, at least in the United States. A broader title seems necessary.


In the Austrian writings, "Geisteswissenschaften" is used as an alternative for what can be called "the social sciences in the broad signification," and this has been rendered as "human sciences" in recent translations. Another expression, "Kulturwissenschaften," is, however, rather prominent in the original German of "Phenomenology and the Social Sciences" of 1940, the manifesto written at the time of his transition to his new country; it even occurs in the original title. "Cultural science" might be preferred as an alternative to "social science" in the broad signification. Moreover, "Wissenschaft," usually translated as "science," is not confined in German thought to explanatory disciplines based on experimentation and sensuous perception. One gets the most from studying Schutz if one bears in mind that his philosophy of the cultural sciences is concerned with all of the above listed disciplines.


In Austria Schutz used forms of "Wissenschaftstheorie," including "Theorie der Sozialwissenschaften," to characterize his work; in the United States he initially used "methodology and epistemology" to render "Wissenschaftslehre," but later preferred "theory of the social sciences." The expression "philosophy of the social sciences" does not occur in his oeuvre, perhaps because it had not yet been coined in his time. In Schutz's theory of science or "science theory," as it might also be called (although this is not his expression), the concern is emphatically with the basic concepts and postulates of scientific thinking per se.


What is particularly interesting about Schutz's position, is, however, his recognition that the cultural or social scientists regularly reflect on those same themes, i.e., that they too engage in science theory. This makes discussions of basic concepts and methodology between scientists and philosophers possible. Schutz was especially impressed by Max Weber's science theory, he found some science-theoretical reflections in Hans Kelsen's pure theory of law, and he unsuccessfully sought a discussion of science-theoretical issues with the sociologist Talcott Parsons. He did succeed in having such discussions with some "Austrian school" economists, including Fritz Machlup, Friedrich A. Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. He recognized, however, that science-theoretical reflections by scientists tend to be limited by the needs of the particular disciplines and hence seldom reach a fully philosophical level. Schutz's project as a philosopher was then to reflect on the practices of the cultural sciences, asking intelligent questions and learning from the scientists themselves, and then interpreting for them what they do, thereby possibly eliminating some difficulties in the foundations of the edifice of science that they seldom inspect.


Schutz's approach can be called a "gentle prescriptivism," which may be why his thought has been very well received in a score of non-philosophical disciplines concerned with aspects of the sociocultural world. "Theory of science" can be an inclusionary title, while "philosophy" in this age of hyperspecialization is often exclusionary, with the consequence that efforts by cultural scientists to reflect on their own disciplines are not taken seriously by philosophers. Schutz's Aufbau is a masterpiece in Wissenschaftslehre regarding interpretative sociology and begins with an examination of the sociologist Max Weber's science-theoretical reflections on that science.


Probably because he taught only sociology in the early years, had prominent students in that discipline (e.g., Thomas Luckmann), and had a will to communicate with scientists, Schutz is sometimes characterized as a "phenomenological sociologist." But he also taught philosophy, including students such as Maurice Natanson, and nearly all of his publications are clearly philosophical scholarship or investigations. When his New School colleague Leo Strauss once praised him as "a philosophically sophisticated sociologist," Schutz responded that he preferred to be considered "a sociologically sophisticated philosopher."


Finally, it is crucial to recognize that Schutz's philosophy of the social sciences is phenomenological. This signifies that he reflectively analyzes how sociocultural objects are constructed with meaning in everyday life, largely with concepts found in ordinary language and thereby open to interpretation. More will be said about this presently, but it deserves mention at this point that he characterized his approach in terms of what Husserl called "constitutive phenomenology of the natural attitude." Schutz appears to have considered this sufficient for his science-theoretical purposes, even though he also understood transcendental phenomenology clearly.


His objections to positivism aside, there are three main themes to Schutz's philosophy of the social sciences: defining their region, clarifying their categories, and articulating their postulates. In the first place, there is the problem of the delimitations of the realm of the social sciences in both the broad and the narrow significations. Schutz held that all science is theoretical and requires entry into the preconstituted subuniverse of a discipline. "On Multiple Realities" (1945)