Liberman's "THe Development of Research in Intersubjectivity and the Lebenswelt in Contemporary Sociology"

The Development of Research in Intersubjectivity and theLebenswelt in Contemporary Sociology

Kenneth Liberman

  In undertaking their studies of the social world, sociologists who carry out research at the “micro” level have looked for guidance to Husserl’s investigations of intersubjectivity and thelebenswelt; especially, they have taken their direction from Husserl’s “principle of all principles” (1) — that no theorizing should intervene between reflection and what directly presents itself. Husserl has re-taught sociologists how to take the world seriously. Unfortunately, in arguing for his program, Husserl sought formulaic grounding, generally in idealistic terms (by which sociologists mean the reduction of complicated social behavior to the concepts that people use). Husserl’s insights can be applied effectively beyond a strictly conceptual analysis, and so these sociologists seek ways to implement what is vital in Husserl’s program and to retain what is essential to his rigor, as well as the rigor of his students Gurwitsch, Schutz, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty. Contemporary social researchers have successfully respecified Husserl’s program and in doing so have sometimes been forced to choose between Husserl’s phenomenological theories and a fidelity to his deepest insights. The best among them have chosen to work with-and-beyond Husserl’s achievements, and they have kept asking themselves, what is the role of phenomenology? What does it study? What is its rigor?

   Husserl provided an answer for sociologists, which was spread across several of his works but was never developed in specific details. Today, contemporary sociologists undertaking ethnomethodological or other social phenomenological research are providing the specification for sociology that Husserl’s investigations lacked. Husserl argued that the criticism of the reason that operates in any scientific province should include a “criticism of the effective performances that remain hidden during the inquiry and theorizing directed straightforwardly to the province.” (2) These hidden “effective performances” are the in situ acts that Harold Garfinkel and his ethnomethodology have made the focus of their inquiries. Disclosing and describing these “hidden” practices requires taking up the actual site of practitioners of reasoning and their effective performances just-where and just-how the scientists, mathematicians, jazz musicians, airplane factory workers, freeway drivers, conversing parties, Tibetan philosopher-monks, etc.,perform their tasks. These effective performances, which are the proper objects of phenomenological inquiry, are not concepts — Husserl understood this — but he had a proclivity for turning phenomenology into a body of formal ideas that occasionally lose their grip of the real world affairs from which they derive their pertinence.

   In her posting on this website, Elizabeth Behnke recommends that we focus primarily not upon those passages where Husserl discusses his method explicitly, but on passages where his methods are actually in play. This recommendation is parallel to a policy that ethnomethodology adheres to scrupulously — it does not engage in discussions aboutphenomenology, but restricts its work to the description ofactual local activities, just as Gurwitsch explains in his Preface to The Field of Consciousness, “In writing this book, I wanted to make it a phenomenological study, not a book about phenomenology.” (3) The reason for all of these prescriptions is the same, and that is that the most fecund insights are to be gained not from concepts alone but from careful scrutiny of events. This, too, is “the principle of principles.”

   Another contemporary Husserlian commentator, Dan Zahavi, similarly cautions that in rejecting the idealism that the theory of transcendental consciousness can bear, postmodern thinkers have overemphasized the problem of Husserl’s essentialism. This concern, which may have been necessary for us to gain clarity regarding how the phenomenological project had to be respecified, has prevented us from coming to the fullest appreciation of Husserl’s phenomenology. Derrida seems to solicit the promise of this fuller objective when he comments, “Like most of Husserl’s texts, The Origin of Geometry has both a programmatic and an exemplary value," (4) and it is in the latter that phenomenology is to find its “infinite task.” That Husserl may be wrong about some of his theorizing does not mean that he is incorrect about what is most vital in his thinking.

   Garfinkel, who was a student of both Gurwitsch and Schutz of the New School, has described ethnomethodology’s debt to Husserl, but also how it has been compelled to think beyond Husserl’s program: “Ethnomethodology’s initiatives originated with Husserl’s program; however, it has developed its own rival program for investigating thelebenswelt origin of the sciences, and this program is one of ethnomethodology’s central research areas. Unfortunately, while these “origins” are mentioned and described by Husserl, they witnessably escape Husserl’s formal descriptions of his program.” (5) That is the crux of the problem — Husserl’s inquiry into the effective performances of the life-world is only a “mention” of the problem and not a comprehensive inquiry into lived praxis.

   Sociological practitioners of Husserl’s method are determined to move the inquiries further, but their more local interests differ from the concerns of Husserl’s postmodern critics. They do not wish to build further upon phenomenology’s conceptual structures by adding more concepts and distinctions. Instead, they wish to subvert the conceptualizing by attending to the actual practices of persons who are engaged in social activities, i.e., how they organize their practices and the understanding that emerges as their indigenous work. As Merleau-Ponty has suggested, “Our effective involvement in the world is precisely what has to be understood.” (6) Instead of engaging in any theoretical revisions of Husserl’s project, these social researchers wish to do Husserl’s project.

   There are moments when Husserl recognizes the social aspect of his inquiry: “In the unity of the community of communication among several persons the repeatedly produced structure becomes an object, not as a likeness, but as the one structure common to all.” (7) This implies that there is an intersubjectivity that is greater than the sum of its parts, a recognition that Husserl does not seem to fully appreciate since he falls back into the egological and logocentric language with which he conceived the phenomenological project. Levinas is critical of Husserl about this: “The intersubjective reduction, based on the other, wrests the ego from its coincidence with self and with the center of the world — even if Husserl continues to conceive the relationship between the ego and the other in terms of knowledge.” (8) What more is there to social interaction than word-meanings, and that would exceed constitutional phenomenology?

   By way of illustration, organizing the intelligibility of a matter (Sinnbildung) is a practical concern not only for individuals or for analysts but also for parties who are working to gain an understanding about something and to communicate that understanding. Parties actively work toward accomplishing an understanding-in-common. It is not as though each one has their understanding in advance of the others; rather, the understanding proceeds as acommon project, sustained by the objective articulation of what they have assembled so far. The intelligibility orders the attention and work tasks that a collection of people faces. The coherency of a social group is dependent upon their maintaining the common intelligibility of an affair, and this maintenance of order is the practical concern of all. Sociological phenomenologists treat understanding as the public event it usually is. They offer inquiries that search beyond how an individual understands something to how a collective does so.
Intersubjectivity was one of Husserl’s greatest theoretical contributions, and one that naturally led philosophers into the region of the social, but Husserl did not get intersubjectivity perfectly right. Ethnomethodology offers an additional perspective in which persons are not treated as monads, as self-contained receptacles for concepts, and the intelligibility it studies is not egocentric or logocentric. The ideal objective meanings to which philosophers are mostly addressed must be related not only to the synthetic operations of consciousness, as Husserl taught us, but to the interconnections of sense synthesized in and by the social congregations in which people usually find themselves. That is, the temporality of the synthetic interconnections of sense must be identified, witnessed, and described at what some may wish to still call the intersubjective level.

   While it may be said that throughout his life Husserl acknowledged the importance for his sense-investigations of events at the intersubjective level, and also that intersubjectivity is given ever increasing value as Husserl’s thinking matured, he never recognized how originary to sense-production intersubjectivity was. Instead, at the end of his career in “The Origin of Geometry,” Husserl still speaks of the “primary intrapersonal origin” of ideas. He asks, “How does geometrical ideality (just like that of all sciences) proceed from its primary intrapersonal origin, where it is a structure within the conscious space of the first inventor’s soul, to its ideal objectivity?” (9) Who is this imaginary inventor who works all alone late at night in his basement? Husserl has not posed his question correctly. When he asks, “How does the intrapsychically constituted structure arrive at an intersubjective being of its own as an ideal object?” (10) it is not that the intersubjective emerges from the intrapersonal; rather, the intrapersonal can emerge from the intersubjective life of a concrete community. The ego is not the only thing that is “concrete.” (11)

   In this passage from “The Origin of Geometry,” Husserl writes:
In the contact of reciprocal linguistic understanding, the original production and the product of one subject can beactively understood by the others. In this full understanding of what is produced by the other, as in the case of recollection, a present coaccomplishment on one’s part of the presentified activity necessarily takes place; but at the same time there is also the self-evident consciousness of the identity of the mental structure in the production of both the receiver of the communication and the communicator; and this occurs reciprocally. (12)

   Husserl mischaracterizes the situation when he offers such an inter-monadic model of linguistic communication. Instead, meaningful signs produced by a local cohort concerned to concert their interaction in an orderly manner provide the mechanisms with which the intelligibility is developed and displayed. It is not like recollection (although some reinterpretation of signs may be involved) because the activity is social, not individual. This work does not take place inside the heads of each monad; rather, the effective work takes place in the public space between persons, and each party has oriented his or her gaze to the public sphere in order to learn what the signs mean, including the meaning of their own utterances.

   Such social inquiry is faithful to the instability of concepts as they move from experience to articulation and to reinterpretation; however, these phenomenological sociologists do not just offer a “mention” of this phenomenon but study it where it occurs, as it occurs, as part of the local social tasks of communicating parties. As Garfinkel has phrased it, this is an inquiry into “embodied, situated, congregationally concerted practical action and practical reason.” (13) “Meaning-fulfillment,” an eminent topic of Husserlian studies, is captured as an embodied social activity undertaken in situ, i.e., in and as some local affairs. People are not left as monads, and intersubjectivity is not John Locke on steroids. The phenomenon that was Husserl’s very own discovery is thereby being investigated in a way more radical than Husserl had imagined, but in keeping with the vital directions of his own thinking. As Levinas has suggested, “Phenomenologists are not bound to the theses formulated by Husserl;  they do not devote themselves exclusively to the exegesis or the history of his writings. It is a way of proceeding that they have in common.” (14)


(1) Husserl, E., Ideas I (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982) p. 44.
(2) Husserl, E., Formal and Transcendental Logic (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), p. 171; Husserl’s emphasis.
(3) Gurwitsch, A., The Field of Consciousness (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 1964), p. vii.
(4) Derrida, J., Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 27.
(5) Garfinkel, H., “The Lebenswelt Origins of the Sciences,” Human Studies30 (2006).
(6) Merleau-Ponty, M., Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge and Kegan-Paul, 1962) p. xiv.
(7) Husserl, E., The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970), p. 360.
(8) Levinas, E., Discovering Existence With Husserl (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998) p. 163.
(9) Husserl (1970), op. cit., pp. 357-8.
(10) Ibid. p. 369.
(11) Cf. Husserl, E., Cartesian Meditations (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), p. 78.
(12) Husserl (1970), op. cit., p. 360.
(13) Garfinkel, H., Ethnomethodology's Program: Working Out Durkheim's Aphorism (Baltimore: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), p. 264.
(14) Levinas (1998), op. cit., p. 91.