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What You Always Wanted to Know about Alfred Schutz

Both Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard thought highly of Alfred Schutz, an Austrian philosopher and sociologist who studied with Mises in Vienna and worked as both an academic and an investment banker in Austria and later in the United States. (He spelled his last name “Schűtz” in Austria but Anglicized it to “Schutz.”) In today’s column, I’m going to talk about a few things we can learn from his book The Phenomenology of the Social World, which was published in German in 1932 and appeared in English translation in 1967. (All of my quotations of the book are from the English translation.)

The book is written in a dense and difficult style, and it is part of a philosophical project that many readers will find alien to their interests. Schutz wants to develop the emphasis Max Weber gave to “meaning” in the social sciences, but he thinks that to do this he needs to show how our behavior in the “natural attitude” arises from the flow of experience that constitutes each person’s consciousness. By the “natural attitude,” he means the way we grasp objects and people in our ordinary life. Thus, it’s part of my natural attitude that I now take myself to be writing a column that I hope will attract readers. Schutz does not reject what we postulate in the natural attitude, but, following Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl, he thinks that the flow of experience isn’t at all like the world we perceive. In particular, it is ever changing and flowing, not spatialized and divided into discrete objects.

Schutz discusses this matter with painstaking care, and I shall confine myself to one sample of this:

One can, if one wishes, define attitude-taking Acts as Acts of primary engendering activity, provided that with Husserl, one includes here feelings and the constitution of values by feelings, whether these values be regarded as ends or means. Husserl uses the term “meaning-endowing conscious experiences” … to cover all experiences given in intentionality in the form of spontaneous activity or in one of the secondary modifications thereof. (p. 54)

I prefer to await an English translation before commenting.

Despite the book’s complexity, it’s worth persisting with it, and in what follows I’ll discuss three things we can learn from Schutz. First, he agrees with Mises that all human action is rational, in the sense that the actor has a goal or end and adopts means that he thinks are suitable to attain that end. Mises differs from Max Weber, who thought that “rational action” is a particular type of action, to be found, for example, in the behavior of profit-seeking entrepreneurs; Weber contrasted this with “traditional behavior,” governed by custom. Schutz says that Mises is right: there is a set of formal categories that applies to all human action:

The so-called “principles of catallactics” certainly have as their subject matter human acts considered as finished productions, not actions in progress. The meaning-content of these principles is exhausted in the subsumption of such acts under the interpretive schemes of economic theory. To be sure, no economic act is conceivable without some reference to an economic actor, but the latter is absolutely anonymous: it is not you, nor I, nor an entrepreneur, nor even an “economic man” as such, but a pure universal “one.” This is the reason why the propositions of theoretical economics have just that “universal validity” which gives them the ideality of the “and so forth” and the “I can do it again.” (p. 137)

If you can get through this, it will help you understand what Mises is talking about when in Human Action he writes about economics as a purely formal science and discusses the principle, often neglected by readers but vital, of “methodological singularism.” In order to understand the passage, you need to bear in mind a distinction Schutz makes, indeed insists on, between the activity of doing something, and the finished product of the activity; he thinks, in my view without adequate basis, that economics is confined to the latter. (Incidentally, the translators in note 37 refer not only to Human Action as a treatise based on this conception of economics but also to Man, Economy, and State.)

I’d now like to turn to a most valuable distinction Schutz makes between the intention and the motive of an action. The former is forward looking; it refers to the goal of the action. For example, the intention of my writing just now is the production of my weekly column. Contrary to the way many people use the word, the intention is not a mental picture of the goal that precedes or accompanies movements of your body, though Schutz doesn’t preclude that you have such a picture of the goal in your mind when you act. Your motive, in his usage, gives a causal account of why you chose a particular goal.

Some people want to eliminate reference to human intentions in the social sciences. These positivists want economics and the other social sciences to emulate physics, which makes no reference to human purposes. Schutz gives an ingenious argument for why this sort of reductionism can’t succeed. In order to reduce actions to physical causes, you would first have to identify the actions, but you can’t do so purely physically, without reference to people’s ends.

Our definition of action as projected behavior has an additional advantage: it solves the problem of the unity of an action…. When an interpretive sociologist examines an action, he assumes that it has unity and that this can be defined. Yet in practice, he defines the concrete action arbitrarily, without reference to the intended meaning of the actor…. Of what use is it … if one ignores that phase of the action which is relevant to the actor and substitutes for it … an arbitrarily chosen segment of the observed performance—“the facts”? When one is watching a woodcutter it will make a great deal of difference whether we try to analyze “objectively” the individual blows of the ax or whether we simply ask the man what he is doing and find that he is working for a lumber company. (p. 62, emphasis in original)

Finally, Schutz makes a strong case for methodological individualism. If you say a nation acts, for example, this must derived from the actions of individuals. In many cases, these individuals are “anonymous,” i.e., we don’t know the particular details of their lives and actions. “In fact, every ‘action’ of the state can be reduced to the actions of its functionaries…. From the sociological point of view, therefore, the term ‘state’ is merely an abbreviation for a highly complex network of interdependent personal ideal types. When we speak of any collectivity as ‘acting’ we take this complex structural arrangement for granted” (p. 199).

Schutz is a valuable thinker, but he is best taken in small doses.

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