Praxis Seminar: Research Colloquium in Practical Philosophy 2023/24, Session 5

Jan Straßheim

University of Hildesheim

Misunderstanding as the Basis of Social Action: Alfred Schutz’s Pragmatic Phenomenology

21 November 2023, 16h00 (Lisbon Time — GMT+0)

Sala Mattos Romão (Room C201.J – Department of Philosophy)

School of Arts and Humanities – University of Lisbon



According to social phenomenologist Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), individual perspectives and social structures shape one another through the medium of action. His view implies a central place of social action, i.e., action inherently oriented towards other people. Common sense, as well as influential social philosophers (e.g., Habermas, Searle), stress “understanding” as the basis of social action. However, Schutz’s analysis can help us see that misunderstanding plays an even more fundamental role that is often overlooked. What is ordinarily called “understanding” builds on several interrelated levels of misunderstanding. Most fundamentally, the tension between the selectivity of action and the fullness of “lived experience” (Bergson) is a fruitful “self-misunderstanding.” Selectivity enables individuals to mutually coordinate their actions by ignoring most of what they are or could be. Socially shared “types” channel such coordination by abstracting away from contextual and individual differences. However, unlike “rules,” types are flexible and allow us to tap back into the fullness of lived experience to recover these differences. Action is an essentially open process which, in social action, involves a plurality of perspectives. This openness and plurality make social action a critical medium in which fundamental misunderstandings constantly motivate, test, and fine-tune understanding.