About the Project

This project on the phenomenology of sociality aims to evaluate critically in contemporary terms the phenomenological approach to the understanding of interpersonal, collective social life in a shared life-world. With a suitably qualified postdoctoral researcher, I shall lead a small focused research team to explore the rich resources of the phenomenological tradition (chiefly Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, Schutz) on ‘sociality’ (Sozialität)—the capacity for being social—examining being-with-others (Mitsein); the encounter with the ‘thou’ or the ‘other’, and the experience of belonging to a common ‘we-world’. Husserl, Schutz and Heidegger have extremely interesting methodological insights on social relations, on anonymous collective identity as ‘one’ or ‘anyone’ or ‘they self’. These phenomenological formulations express concepts that, re-translated, have re-entered contemporary analytic philosophy, e.g. in the work of John Searle, under the name ‘social ontology’. Social ontology studies collective practices, institutions and cultural products that are in some sense dependent on social exchange, agreement and collective intentionality. Searle (2006) claims ‘social ontology is both created by human actions and attitudes but at the same time has an epistemically objective existence and is part of the natural world’. Phenomenology has long understood this as social constitution: things and persons are ‘constituted’ through human meaningful practices without the constituted products being merely subjective and not fully real. Current social ontology needs to understand and integrate these important phenomenological insights. This project will transform this understanding and reception.

Central Research Questions

How do we encounter other persons in our shared social world? How does social identity emerge? Modern philosophy (Descartes, Locke) tends to treat human beings as independent, self-enclosed individuals who only behave cooperatively out of need. Contemporary European philosophy (Husserl, Schutz, Heidegger), on the other hand, treats human beings as intrinsically social beings who are necessarily embodied and embedded in a common, historical world shared with others. This ‘consociality’ (Schutz) is given a new and radical emphasis in Heidegger’s notion of ‘being-with’ (Mitsein) as an essential characteristic of human ‘being-in-the-world’. For Heidegger, for instance, empathy has to be situated in the more fundamental phenomenon of Mitsein. Human beings are intrinsically social and open-to-others. Heidegger articulates this human situation in ways that break with the traditional Cartesian paradigm in philosophy of mind. The nature of the ‘who’ of human experience is constituted in social experience. Moreover this ‘who-ness’ can be experienced in different ways: authentically or inauthentically. The dominant ‘inauthentic’ mode of experiencing is found in the concept of everyday ‘anyone’ character of public experiencing. There are different modes of social recognition of others. Even ignoring someone or being indifferent, is a ‘deficient’ mode of interaction. There is no complete removal from the other, no truly Robinson Crusoe experience of total isolation (as Scheler and Husserl point out). These phenomenological insights recast in contemporary terms will invigorate current debates.