Common-Sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action


Alfred Schütz philosophized about social science the broad sense 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, including clarified basic concepts for interpretative sociology in particular. His works show how philosophy of the cultural sciences can be done phenomenologically, beginning from reflective observation on scientific practices as relating to the objects of their subject, and alternatively, on such objects as theorized about and observed in those practices. In one of his principle papers Common-Sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action, in which he claims that research in social science needs to take account of common-sense constructs in order to interpret human action, he asserts applying methods from natural science will not suffice. For instance, in constructing a fully defined “natural science” like model, the researcher would be far away from the daily life of the people he is trying to observe. To overcome this difficulty, he proposes that particular methodological devices are required in social sciences. To understand the depth of Schütz’s work, the context and influences into his work will be examined in this review. Following this, the main concepts around common sense objects, the inter-subjective character of knowledge and their implications for interpretations for actions will be examined.


Context of Schütz’s work

Alfred Schütz (1899-1959) was a philosopher and sociologist. He was born in Austria, studied law in Vienna, and moved to the United States in 1939 where he became a member of the faculty of the New School for Social Research. He worked on phenomenology, social science methodology and the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, William James and others. Schütz’s principal task was to develop the phenomenological philosophy of Edmund Husserl (see verion translated by Nijoff, 1982 ) as a basis for a philosophy of the social sciences, particularly using the theories of Max Weber. After his emigration to the USA before the Second World War, he combined this approach with theories from leading American sociologists, such as George Herbert Mead. Although Schütz was never a student of Husserl, he together with a colleague Felix Kaufmann, studied Husserl's work intensively in seeking a basis for "sociology of understanding" derived from the work of Max Weber. This work and its continuation resulted in his first book Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt (The meaningful construction of the social world published in English as The phenomenology of the social world). This work brought him to the attention of Husserl, with whom he corresponded and whom he visited until Husserl's death in 1938. In fact, he was offered the position of assistant to Husserl at Freiburg University in the early 1930s, but declined. Schütz is probably unique as a scholar of the social sciences in that he pursued a career as a banker for almost his entire life, teaching part-time at the New School for Social Research in New York and producing key papers in phenomenological sociology that fill three volumes (published by Nijhoff, The Hague). However before we examine Schütz’s paper in particular we must examine Max Webber’s results. In the initial chapter, Schütz praised Max Weber's views on value-freedom in social science and the autonomy of science vis-à-vis other activities (e.g. politics), and he commended Weber's methodological individualism and ideal-type methodology. In addition, he applauded Weber's refusal to reduce the social sciences to the natural sciences, while allowing their ideal-typical results to be testable for adequacy.

Max Webber’s result

Maximilian Carl Emil Weber (1864 – 1920) was a German political economist and sociologist who is considered one of the founders of the modern study of sociology and public administration. He was influential in contemporary German politics, being an advisor to Germany's negotiators at the Treaty of Versailles and to the commission charged with drafting the Weimar Constitution. His major works deal with rationalization in sociology of religion and government. His most famous work is his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which began his work in the sociology of religion. In this work, Weber argued that religion was one of the non-exclusive reasons for the different ways the cultures of the Occident and the Orient have developed, and stressed importance of particular characteristics of ascetic Protestantism which led to the development of capitalism, bureaucracy and the rational-legal state in the West. In another major work, Politics as a Vocation, Weber defined the state as an entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, a definition that became pivotal to the study of modern Western political science. His most known contributions are often referred to as the 'Weber Thesis'.

The impact of Weber’s work was the extension of sociology that was initially conceived by August Comte (1798-1857) in the first half of the nineteenth century as a social physics. Comte was unable to formulate the methods and universals laws, and Weber consolidated of sociology of a science. Weber proposed a method for understanding called verstehen based on a kind of empathy between the researcher and the subject of research in two parts. Aktualles verstehen or direct observational understanding which allows us to understand when we observe action, and erklarendes verstehen or explanatory understanding that allows us to recognize the subjective motivations and meanings of actions. This difference highlights the limitations of the first, and that Hermeneutics is not just about observation.

Principal ideas from Schütz

In the initial chapter Schütz praised Max Weber's views, however Schütz also supplemented Weber, pointing out how interpretation was involved even in selecting an experience out of one's stream of experience and highlighting how the meaning of an action to an actor depended upon the project guiding the extended temporal process of the sub-acts leading to its realization. His arguments can be broken into common-sense thinking and constructs of the socials science.

Schütz´ first concept is that researchers take the objects in our minds to be very simple, however the constructs in our mind are in fact very complex. He demonstrates this with visual perception or sight and space relations. He asserts to construct this simple object of single sense, we in fact use particular parts of our past experience, a combination of senses and our imagination in order to complete it. This he defines as commonsense knowledge and believes that we take these widely held beliefs for granted. This is not the case for many scientist and philosophers for which Descartes was the most famous. He doubted anything that could not be proved, and his conclusion “I think therefore I am” was a conclusion based on the fact that he could not doubt that he could think. However Schütz states that all facts are from the outset selected from a universal context in our mind, and so there is no such thing as a fact pure and simple. This does not mean we do not grasp the reality of the world, only that we grasp certain aspects of it. The second main idea Schütz proposes is the particular structure of constructs for the social sciences or the need to complete research in social science in a different manner to natural sciences. In natural sciences people are able to take the facts, data and events as they observed. Within his observations there is no meaning to the molecules, atoms or electrons that form part of the observations.

Common sense knowledge

Schütz asserts that all interpretation of this world is handed down through a previous stock of knowledge, either through our own experience or that of our parents or culture. He calls this knowledge at hand. These objects have familiarity and pre-acquaintanceship which is taken for granted until further questioned, and is part of a person’s system of relevancies. We have different lives and different life stories, so the meanings and the degree of relevance we give to different thing is individual from person to person. In addition, because our life is dynamic our particular point of view may vary during time. An example of these kinds of constructs is meeting a new object for the first time. Imagine that a person has knowledge of dogs, but has come across a type of dog such as an Irish setter for the first time. He is able to recognize easily that it is a dog, and will be able to attribute it many characteristics such as the ability to bark and to eat. This is because he has pre-acquaintance with dogs, is able to categorize it and through common-sense thinking constructs or meanings for an object, and how to interact with it. In this sense people common-sense constructs organize the world and how they are acting in it.

Reciprocity of Knowledge

Despite this, most of the knowledge that we poses have a social character. This means that parts of this knowledge is shared with other people in society. Take the example of two people having a discussion in a room, one wall with a window the pother with a blackboard. The two people are not having the same experience, the features of the room behind each person are different. This said, each person in the room can imagine to be in the place of the other. We suppose therefore that we can interchange our point of view with another, and we can call this interchangeability of standpoints or reciprocity of knowledge.

Even if our life experiences are different, and our meaning and relevance are different, we can in certain circumstances assume that these differences are not important for practical purposes. For example, if we take the context of a PhD program, the system of meanings and relevancies will be very compatible such as on the subject of the value of education. In this way Schütz is trying to clarify the system of empathy. We can call this the congruency of the system of relevancies, meaning for all practical purposes, our unique biographical situations are irrelevant for the purposes at hand. So although each of our total set of constructs is unique (originating in our biographical situation), most of our common-sense constructs are socially derived and allows us to engage in joint projects with other people. Hence only a small part of an individual’s knowledge of the world originates in their personal experience, and Schütz describes this as the social origin of knowledge. This knowledge is distributed, as ones potential knowledge is a function of the people an individual has had contact with. Furthermore we construct types of other people’s knowledge, such of those of a doctor, to understand when to acquired or use other people’s knowledge.

Typification by common sense standards

Often people will talk about the group and use the term “we” to denote this link with shared constructs, a group to which they belong and of which they have considerable knowledge. This is contrasted with the use of “others” which will refer to groups of people who do not have these same systems of meanings and relevancies, and of whom we know so much less about. Indeed it is only in the closest “we” relationships that we grasp the individual’s uniqueness. In common sense thinking of “others” the person or group only appears as a partial self, and can only join the “we” group with a part of themselves which we recognize. This insight helped Simmel to overcome the dilemma between a groups and an individual’s consciousness. Furthermore by constructing a role for another, the individuals is also constructing a role for themselves, thereby typifying their own behavior. This behavior is socially derived and socially approved, sometimes institutionalized and helps us make sense of the world. We use prototypes such and stereotypes or anonymous types as a typicfication by common sense standards. An anonymous type is a waiter for example, the client can interchange all waiters in a restaurant, even though one waiter servers in a particular zone or another. You expect certain behaviors from your waiter. However it shows that in a very superficial level a type can help someone understand others actions.

Interpretation of actions

When embarking on an action, and individual has created a construct where in an image in their mind this action accomplishes their desired goal. In this way we act by attempting to bring about a future state of affairs—an “in-order-to-motive.” When observing himself, an actor can also determine “because-motives,” which determined him to act as he did. People interact by taking each others’ in-order-to-motives as because-motives. The meaning of an action is different for an actor (who understands how any given in-order-to-motive fits into larger projects), the actor’s partner in action (who adopts the actor’s in-order-to-motives as because-motives) and a disinterested observer (whose motives are not interlocked with the actor’s). If we imagine such a social interaction takes place, and wanted follow research methods from natural science we would want to repeat observations with similar conditions with the same people in the same context. However in social sciences we cannot perform repeated actions as the interpretation will be different, people will not have the same interpretation of a situation when they are addressing this situation for the second time.

The results of this argumentation are that the meaning of an action is necessarily a different for the actor, his partner, an observer and over the course of time when repeated. In an action we have motives, purposes and mental plans. However in an interaction only the act is accessible, these other elements are not available. Although not explicitly stated in Schütz’s paper, we understand this only get superficial interpretation of the purposes and motives, and these can be much deeper. This is particularly true we are observing sub-actions and not the full action. This means subjective interpretation of meaning is merely possible by revealing the motives which determine a given course of action.

Rational action within the common sense experience

Rational interaction (involving shared understandings of end, means and secondary results) seems impractical. We say that a man acted rationally if the motive and the course of his action are understandable to his partners and observers. But “rational action” supposes that the partner or observed has distinct insight into the ends, means and secondary results of the actor. Of necessity, and actors stock of knowledge wild differ to that of the partner or observer. Furthermore, an action is only part of a greater plan, and could also involve the rational action or reaction of a consociate. For the observer or the consociate, since this insight will only be partial, rational action really involves action within a shared set of constructs. Only on the level of models of interaction patterns constructed by the social scientist, in accordance with certain particular requirement defined by the methods of his science does the concept of rationality obtain its full experience.

Implications for the social sciences

Following the arguments set out by Schütz in the first half of his paper, he determines their impact on how research should be conducted in the social sciences. He accepts that there are differing opinions about whether human behavior should be studied in the same way as natural science. His argument is that because subjective interpretation is a general principle of construction course-of-action types in common sense experience, and social science attempts to understand social reality, researchers will have to take this into account. More strongly stated, in understanding the social world we must refer to the activities of subjects within by interpretation of the actor’s project, available means, motives or relevancies. An example of this is in economics, where in a market it is not just the behavior of prices that must be understood, but also the behavior of the individuals that drive the market behavior and price.

For a social scientist to adopt a scientific attitude, the social scientist must be aware that he observers human interaction processes or their results only insofar as they are accessible to his observation and open to his interpretation. These interaction patterns he must interoperate in terms of subjective meaning structure lest he abandon the hope of understanding social reality. Schütz proposes three postulates for building social constructs: Logical consistency, which is the system of typical constructs designed by the scientist which must be a framework for the highest clarity and consistent with the principles of formal logic; Subjective interpretation, where the scientist must ask what model of an individual mind can b e constructed and what typical content can be attributed to it. Adequacy, meaning that the model of human action must be constructed in a way that would be understandable for the actor and observer in terms of common sense interpretation of everyday human life. In addition to this Schütz asserts that scientist have to distinguish between rational constructs of human models on the one hand, and constructs of models of human actions on the other. In other words science may construct irrational models of human behavior.


Schütz turned the Husserlian account of temporality in the direction of an action theory, demarcating levels of passive experience (e.g. bodily reflexes), spontaneous activity without a guiding project (e.g., acts of noticing environmental stimuli), and deliberately planned and projected activity, known technically as “action” (e.g., writing a book). In planning an action to be realized in the future, one relies on reflective acts of “projection”, like those found in reflective memory, only now oriented in a future as opposed to past direction. Through such reflectivity, one imagines a project as completed in future perfect tense, that is, what will have been realized after one's acting, and this project, also of central importance for Martin Heidegger and the pragmatist tradition, establishes the “in-order-to motive” of one's action. By contrast, one's “because motives” consist in the environmental, historical factors that influenced the (now past) decision to embark upon the project and that can only be discovered by investigating in the “pluperfect tense,” that is, exploring those past factors that preceded that past decision. Schütz 's account of the temporal framework of motivation permitted criticism of Weber's view that one could orient one's action to the past behavior of others, since, while such behavior might have served as the because motive of an action, one could not aim at affecting another's already completed action. Similarly, failure to appreciate temporality often leads to misinterpretations of action, as when one assumes that the outcome of an act may have been its motive without considering the actor's in-order-to motive, which due to unforeseen events may have been adjusted or may have led to results contrary to those intended. Likewise, one can interpret an economic action after the fact as less than rational without taking sufficient account of the limited information that was available to the actor at the time of deciding to act and that might make her action seem perfectly rational. Moreover, the fact that one's own temporal stream of consciousness never completely coincides with that of another, whose sequence of events and intensity of experience inevitably differs from one's own, places limits on a person's understanding of another. As a consequence, the objective meanings of language, defined in dictionaries as invariant regardless of users, also bear subjective connotations for language users due to their unique histories of linguistic experience, even though for practical purposes of communication they are able to set aside such differences.

In terms of methodology in social sciences, Schütz put forward a strong argument for a methodology different to that of natural sciences. From this point of view, the move towards the adoption of qualitative methods in social research was prompted by the rise of phenomenological sociology, particularly through the social constructionism of Berger and Luckman, students of Schütz. Other approaches in the social sciences, such as Blumer's social interactionism , the source of Dervin's ideas on 'sense making', have links to and much in common with phenomenology. For these reasons we believe that Schütz was fundamental in moving to stronger research methods in social science, including the use of qualitative methods.

--Ben 19:41, 9 October 2007 (UTC) This is open content on this site...if you don't agree with something, change it!


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