Essay on Alfred Schutz

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Alfred Schutz pioneered social phenomenology’. He provided a critique of Max Weber’s interpretive sociology of meaningful action, published in 1932 (1967). Three volumes of his Collected Papers on philosophical, epistemological, and sociological topics were published posthumously (1962; 1964; 1966), as was Structures of the Lifeworld (1973), completed by Thomas Luckmann on the basis of Schutz’s schema. Born in Vienna in 1899, the only child of well-to-do Austrian Jewish parents, and educated at the University of Vienna, Schutz emigrated with his family to New York in 1938, where he continued a banking career and subsequently became a professor at the New School for Social Research.

Schutz critiqued Weber for treating meaning from an observer’s point of view without considering how it is constituted subjectively. Drawing on Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology of the temporal flow of events experienced in the mind, Schutz connected subjective meaning to: (1) the flow of mental experience in the vivid present, (2) its sedimentation in memory (and recollection), and (3) anticipation of the future. Building from his critique, Schutz developed a lifeworldly phenomenology that describes transhistorical and transcultural structures of the social world. Critics wonder whether Schutz’s ego-based phenomenology has any basis for moving from consciousness to society. However, intersubjectivity is central to his analysis, and he wrote descriptive phenomenological essays on actors and forms of interaction (e.g., the man on the street, the stranger, making music).

Schutz has been underutilized relative to the power of his ideas. Nevertheless, his phenomenology has percolated into wider currents, notably through the work of Harold Garfinkel, John O’Neill, Kurt Wolff, Peter Berger, and Thomas Luckman, Dorothy Smith, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jurgen Habermas. Overall, sociology as a whole has become more ”phenomenological.” However, we have yet to see a fully developed phenomenological analysis of society. Thus, the full potential of Schutz’s work remains unrealized.


  1. Barber, M. (2002) Alfred Schutz. In: Zalta, E. N. (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia  of Philosophy:
  2. Kurrild-Klitgaard, P. (2003) The Viennese connection: Alfred Schutz and the Austrian School. Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 6: 35-67.
  3. Wagner,    (1983) Alfred Schutz: An Intellectual Biography. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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