Life-World, Intersubjectivity and Culture

Contemporary Dilemmas

by Elżbieta Hałas (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 275 Pages


This volume commemorates Richard H. Grathoff’s (1934–2013) contribution to interpretative sociology. Reconsidering the legacy of social phenomenology, it demonstrates the usefulness of concepts such as life-world, milieu and symbolic transcendence in the studies of sociocultural transformations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction (Elżbieta Hałas)
  • Interpretative Perspectives on Life-World
  • Zdzisław Krasnodębski: Grathoff’s Life-World
  • Thomas S. Eberle: Phenomenological Life-World Analysis and Interpretive Sociology: Finding a Pathway Through Divergent Strands
  • Tadeusz Szawiel: Life-World as an Object of Theory and as a Life-Horizon
  • Ingeborg K. Helling: “Mirror Neurons”: A Material Base for Phenomenological Reflection on Intersubjectivity? A Review Essay
  • Gallina Tasheva: Social Inconsistencies as a Problem of Social Knowledge
  • Symbolic Transcendence, State Power and Person
  • Steven Vaitkus: The Depth Juncture of Symbolic Transcendence Arising from Alfred Schutz and Karl Jaspers, and the Path Towards a Humanistic Self-Education
  • Fritz Schütze: Artificial Classifications in State Socialism vs. Typification Processes in the Existential World of Everyday Life as Envisioned by Richard Grathoff
  • Elżbieta Hałas: Symbolic Transformations: State Symbolism and the Fall of Communism in Poland
  • Dennis Smith: Coping with Captivity: The Social Phenomenon of Humiliation Explored Through Prisoners’ Dilemmas
  • Lorenza Gattamorta: Hans Joas and Peter L. Berger: Self-Transcendence in the Age of Contingency
  • Communication and Various Cultures of Knowledge
  • Hubert Knoblauch: Communicative Constructivism and the Communication Society
  • Marek Czyżewski: “Under What Circumstances Do We Think Things Real?” Don Quixote, Social Theory and the Case of Knowledge-Based Society
  • Ulf Matthiesen: A Phenomenologist Goes to Town! “Spatial Turn,” “Urban Terroir” and the Life-World/Milieu-Paradigm: Strengthening Recent Phenomenological Approaches in City Research
  • Ewa Nowicka: Opportunities and Limitations of Intercultural Communication: Doing Social Anthropology in the Field
  • Rafał P. Wierzchosławski: Florian Znaniecki, Alfred Schutz, Milieu Analysis and Experts Studies
  • Contributors
  • Index

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To this day, phenomenology stimulates critical reflection upon the condition of cultural and social reality, as well as the role of the subject’s direct experience. The “life-world” (Lebenswelt), a concept introduced by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) in place of the previously used term “natural world,” proves of key importance in this regard. In the modern, diverse world, the existing structures of cultural knowledge are becoming increasingly problematic; more and more normative challenges appear, whereas (often century-old) institutions and accepted forms of sociation are proving weaker, and individuals find it increasingly difficult to understand themselves. In the face of all this, it becomes all the more important to recall and critically examine the theory of intersubjectivity and social consensus. Thus, the life-world as a concept requires rethinking. Incidentally, its presence is extremely conspicuous in modern social theory, even though the phenomenological movement initiated by Husserl, with whose work this concept is most often associated, no longer influences the social sciences as strongly as it once did. However, Anthony Giddens was mistaken when, in the mid-1970s, in his famous work New Rules of Sociological Method: A Positive Critique of Interpretative Sociologies (Giddens 1976) he stated that phenomenological philosophy was at death’s door. Giddens remains a critic of phenomenology, especially of the limitations of its version developed by Alfred Schutz (1899–1959), who based his work on the program formulated by Husserl. However, at the same time Giddens expresses appreciation for Schutz’s contribution to the problem of Verstehen: in his studies, Schutz demonstrated the importance of cultural resources in the common-sense thinking of social agents who give meaning to their actions (Giddens 1976: 57).

Many other social theorists simultaneously draw inspiration from phenomenology, especially regarding the reflexivity of acting subjects, and aim criticism towards it – two good examples are Pierre Bourdieu’s constructivist structuralism and Margaret S. Archer’s critical realism. Jürgen Habermas took over the conception of the life-world and gave it a new meaning by setting it in opposition to the “system”. Criticism focuses, in particular, on one correlate of the “life-world” – the concept of “natural attitude.” Despite Husserl’s signature skepticism, phenomenology is accused of being responsible for reinforcing common-sense knowledge and the typifications it carries, inasmuch as phenomenological analyses treat everyday life as the paramount reality.

Within the scientific community in general, interest in phenomenology is currently low (apart from specialist centers where phenomenology is still being ← 9 | 10 → cultivated or the heritage of its creators – especially Husserl – is under study). Paradoxically, at the same time various trends of interpretationism are flourishing in the social sciences and cultural sciences. This is accompanied by the growing popularity of qualitative research methods, from field observation and various documents of life to the source knowledge of participants in social life. Incidentally, the development of phenomenology favored this trend. Postulates such as, for example, Clifford Geertz’s concept of a “dense description” in anthropology or Jeffrey C. Alexander’s postulate of hermeneutic adequacy in cultural sociology can be combined with the phenomenological principle of principles – going back to the things themselves. It must be emphasized that the phenomenological concept of the “life-world” was intended to help strengthen rational and objective knowledge, rather than lead to the rejection of the scientific method. This concept has made it possible to strengthen the ontology of the human subject and the world where this subject lives. This is particularly significant in the face of the visible, irrational and dehumanizing trends of postmodernism. In the cultural sciences, the principle of the humanistic coefficient formulated by Florian Znaniecki (1882–1956) was intended to play a similar role.

The concept of the “life-world” appeared in Husserl’s late publications in the 1930s; however, his posthumously published manuscripts show that he had previously alluded to the notion of life, so important in the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911). At the turn of the century, Dilthey sought to give a hermeneutic interpretation to his previously formulated program of the Geisteswissenschaften. It should be added here that the philosophy of life represented by Dilthey emerged in the 19th century, but became particularly visible at the beginning of the 20th century. One of its prominent representatives was Georg Simmel (1858–1918), who titled his last work, published in 1918, Lebensanschauung. Vier Metaphysische Kapitel [Outlook on Life: Four Metaphysical Chapters]. The notion of the life-world as a reality which can be constructed, or which imposes itself upon us, appears in Simmel’s essay Religion, published in 1912. He wrote:

The concept of intentional experience is fundamental in phenomenology. According to Husserl, consciousness is a stream of intentional acts, which means they are correlated with a reality they are able to grasp (Srubar 2005: 557). The concept of the “life-world” was to become a basis for studies on intersubjectivity and building structures of meanings fundamental for the understanding of culture. Husserl used the conception of the life-world when he sought an answer to the question about the possibilities of sharing knowledge with others, understanding and coming to an agreement. He described the life-world as a realm of evidence generated intersubjectively in the natural attitude (Srubar 2005: 559). In Husserl’s bold and far-reaching program of phenomenology, the life-world, as the concrete world which surrounds us and in which we live together with other people, loses the obvious claims of natural experience (Husserl 1982: 26–28). The phenomenological conception of the life-world inspired Husserl’s follower Schutz to practice social phenomenology in his works. Schutz’s emigration to the United States, along with the activity of another emigrant to that country – Aron Gurwitsch (1901–1973), helped introduce phenomenology onto that continent, affecting the development of sociology, which had hitherto shaped itself there on the basis of pragmatism – another new philosophical current which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. It was precisely in the phenomenological method that Schutz sought a way to ground the “understanding sociology” proposed by Max Weber (1864–1920). Thus, Schutz associated establishing the meanings of reality through acts of consciousness with analysis of social actions and interactions. For this reason, his analyses of common-sense knowledge could be linked with pragmatism, represented by William James (1842–1910), John Dewey (1859–1952) and George H. Mead (1863–1931). Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann proceeded in the same direction, creating the famous work The Social Construction of Reality (1966). Of course, significant differences remained present; Herbert Blumer (1900–1987), among others, pointed them out, emphasizing the fact that symbolic interactionism and phenomenology represent two distinct perspectives.

Phenomenology, which was to influence the social sciences and cultural sciences, appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. One of Husserl’s students, the Polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden (1893–1970) gives the date of its birth as 1900–1901. During that period, the works of three thinkers came out in print: Edmund Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen, Alexandr Pfänder’s Phänomenologie des Wollens and Max Scheler’s Die transzendentale und die psychologische Methode (Ingarden 1974: 7). Soon afterwards, in 1912, Husserl, Pfänder, Scheler and others founded the journal Jahrbuch für Philosophie und Phänomenologische Forschung. Phenomenology is not an empirical science and consists in a particular – phenomenological – method of philosophizing. It leads to the discovery of the world of evidence, as distinguished from perception through abstract notions (Ingarden 1974: 29). It is hard to say how such a radical program could affect the social sciences, where empirical studies deal with a reality that is historically changeable, culturally diverse and can be shaped by scientific knowledge, among other things. Schutz’s comment may be helpful; he states that intersubjectivity (and thus the possibility of a common world and common intentionalities) is a different problem for the social sciences as opposed to philosophy (Schutz 1962: 144). In Schutz’s opinion, the structures of the life-world should be studied just as they are experienced by people in their sociocultural world. The content of that experience can be different for various groups and undergoes changes in the course of the historical process.

Interpretative orientations, particularly ones inspired by phenomenology – as critics pointed out – had to deal with the problem of power in processes of making the meanings of social life, with the possibility of various interpretations of those meanings, and finally – with the problems posed by the transformation of institutions and by making history (Giddens 1976: 57–60). Nevertheless, Schutz’s work The Phenomenology of the Social World (originally published in German in 1936 ← 12 | 13 → and translated into English much later, in 1967) – along with his posthumously published works – significantly influenced studies on meaning, communication and the intersubjectivity of the supraindividual reality of the social world. This impact occurred at a time when the generation of the second Chicago school – Herbert Blumer, Anselm Strauss (1916–1996), Erving Goffman (1922–1982), as well as Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) and others – postulated a new way of practicing sociology as an alternative to the normative paradigm and structural-functional theory. Because symbolic interactionism – a current which had developed from American pragmatism – was open to the creative influence of the phenomenological ferment, the latter stimulated a fruitful exchange of ideas between the European and American sociological traditions, built by successive generations of scholars. Richard H. Grathoff also participated actively in this exchange. This collection of texts, prepared by an international group of scholars, commemorates his contribution to phenomenology and sociology.

Richard Helmut Grathoff was born on August 30, 1934 in Unna (Westphalia, Germany) and died on November 10, 2013 in Oerlinghausen. He studied mathematics in Heidelberg and Göttingen, and subsequently taught this subject at Northern Illinois University and at Seton Hall University from 1961 to 1965. He also studied sociology in Göttingen and at the New School for Social Research in New York, where he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in 1969. He was a student of Luckmann, Berger and Gurwitsch. He drew inspiration from the thought of Husserl, Schutz, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty and Peirce. His doctoral dissertation, entitled The Structure of Social Inconsistiencies. A Contribution to a Unified Theory of Play, Game, and Social Action won the Albert Salomon Memorial Award. In this work, Grathoff (1970) analyzes processes of typification, particularly the genesis of social types. Namely, human existence means constant participation in social interactions, in which social types shape themselves. He also introduced the concept of contextual inconsistencies in interactions.

After returning to Germany, from 1978 onwards he worked at the University of Bielefeld, where he continued to study Schutz’s idea of everyday life, entering into collaboration with other scholars (Sprondel, Grathoff 1979). He developed the ideas of social phenomenology in works dealing with the milieu and life-world (Grathoff 1989a). In the waning years of communism in Europe, he broadened his network of international collaborators to include scholars from Central and Eastern Europe, especially from Poland. He supported young philosophers and sociologists. After the introduction of martial law in Poland, together with friends he founded the Copernicus Kreis Association, an organization which provided scholarships for Polish students and organized humanitarian aid. He was an international scholar and an active member of the International Sociological Association (Zamarajewa 2015). He ← 13 | 14 → initiated studies on neighboring cultures in Europe (Grathoff, Kłoskowska 1994). He was interested in Znaniecki’s thought (Grathoff 1993) and founded the Florian Znaniecki Archive in Bielefeld. He also created the Marianne Weber Institute in Oerlinghausen. He emphasized the significance of intellectual tradition, which requires us to constantly refresh memories about sources. An important theme in Grathoff’s work was the problem of exile in the era of 20th-century totalitarian regimes. He showed that situations of exile, despite the limitations they impose, can be creatively overcome, as exemplified by the intellectual biographies of Znaniecki and Schutz, who worked on new ideas after being forced to emigrate.

Grathoff was also interested in the topic of writing and recording. Critical editions of the correspondence between Schutz and Gurwitsch (Grathoff 1989b) and between Schutz and Parsons (Grathoff 1978) enrich social history and social theory. They also highlight Grathoff’s interest in personal documents and the development of the biographical method, which took place in the circle of his co-workers. He not only contributed to the development of interpretative sociology, but also participated in the revitalization of sociological studies of culture, a trend that started in the 1980s. Grathoff’s phenomenological, social and cultural studies all focused on the search for possibilities of autonomous coexistence.

Before this collection of articles was prepared, a symposium in memoriam Richard Grathoff took place in September 2014 in Warsaw, under the title Life-World, Intersubjectivity and Culture: Contemporary Dilemmas (Krawczyk 2014). The authors are scholars from Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Italy and Poland. Among them are Grathoff’s students and close associates. Utilizing different points of view, the authors seek answers to the following questions:

They show the importance of reconsidering the previous wave of new ideas excited by phenomenology in the social sciences. They also argue that a revitalization of the phenomenological approach is necessary to deal adequately with contemporary social and cultural dilemmas. The relevance of Grathoff’s contribution to phenomenological sociology and the landscape of his ideas are evoked.

The first section, “Interpretative Perspectives on Life-World”, tackles the problems of intersubjectivity and life-world. In the opening essay, Grathoff’s Life-World, ← 14 | 15 → Zdzisław Krasnodębski presents the scholar’s profile and his participation in the phenomenological movement from an autobiographical perspective, on a backdrop of the historic changes and tensions associated with the processes of postmodernity and great systemic transformations.

Thomas Eberle shows the complexity of relationships between a phenomenological analysis of the life-world and interpretative sociology. On the one hand, these are two different cognitive programs, which can be realized in parallel, as presented by Thomas Luckmann, who interpreted phenomenology as a proto-sociology. On the other hand, the Anglosphere saw the development of ethnomethodologically inspired phenomenological sociology represented most prominently by George Psathas. Eberle considers Richard Grathoff’s standpoint a version of phenomenological sociology, which he terms “social phenomenological research”. The next author, Tadeusz Szawiel, whose text also discusses methodological issues, distinguishes two approaches to the life-world: the life-world as an object of theory and as a life-horizon. As a horizontal conception, the life-world resists objectivization, whereas its status as an object of study remains problematic.

Ingeborg Helling takes a look at the basic phenomenological ideas from yet another perspective; following the example of Vittorio Gallese, she interprets them in the light of modern neurophysiology. The discovery of “mirror neurons” responsible for embodied simulation enables a new take on intersubjectivity and its empirical study. In a person’s development, the “we” perspective precedes the “I.” Gallese, a representative of neuroscience, draws upon the phenomenological tradition. He expresses a preference for the phenomenologization of cognitive neuroscience, rather than naturalization of phenomenology. Gallina Tasheva, in turn, discusses the limitations of the conception of intersubjectivity in social phenomenology and draws attention to its critical appraisal by Grathoff, who showed the inconsistent character of social interaction.

The first text in the book’s second section, “Symbolic Transcendence, State Power and Person,” is a study by Steven Vaitkus, who rereads Schutz’s important essay Symbols, Reality and Society, drawing attention to its links with Karl Jaspers’s symbol theory. Specifically, he explains the notion of symbolic transcendence and its significance for the analysis of intersubjectivity and culture, utilizing contemporary phenomena as examples. Using the biographic method, Fritz Schütze concentrates on a case study of communist East Germany and shows the enforcement of symbolic power through imposed typifications and classifications. He answers the following questions regarding the logic of superimposed classifications: how the superimposed classification system of state socialism impaired the everyday-world classification system; how it shaped the elementary schematizations within the stock of knowledge of ordinary citizens, how it changed the use of moral ← 15 | 16 → interaction postulates and how it impaired the capacity for biographical work. He explores specific social inconsistencies in the sense of Grathoff, as conditioned by artificial typifications, categorizations and classifications. Elżbieta Hałas’s study of changes in state symbolism in the waning years of the communist system in Poland and the symbolic representation of the significance of systemic transformation is also empirical in character. Her analysis of parliamentary discourse taking place in December 1989, centered around the issue of changing the state’s name and its emblem, shows the socially constructed symbolic transcendence of the state undergoing transition and the symbolic politics of agents of change.

In his historical and comparative study, Dennis Smith shows extreme abuses of political power, analyzing the case studies of four imprisoned persons: Oscar Wilde, Jean Améry, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Studying the relations between perpetrators and victims, he uncovers the structure of these relations and the processes leading to forced social displacement. This study contributes to the phenomenology of humiliation. The problem of human dignity and human rights appears in the essay of Lorenza Gattamorta, who considers the problem of self-transdendence. She compares the views of Hans Joas and Peter L. Berger, showing the convergence of their conceptions of self-transcendence. However, she focuses on their different interpretations of modern pluralism and the condition of religion. She shares Joas’s opinion that religious pluralism can have positive effects.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Social phenomenology Interpretative sociology Self-transcendence Symbolic transcendence
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 275 pp.

Biographical notes

Elżbieta Hałas (Volume editor)

Elżbieta Hałas, the editor of the volume, is Full Professor of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. Her research interests are cultural sociology, social symbolism, and interpretative social theory.


Title: Life-World, Intersubjectivity and Culture
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278 pages