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A Further Investigation of the Life-World

Author(s): Thomas Meisenhelder

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Human Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1979), pp. 21-30
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20008707 .
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HUMAN STUDIES 2, 21-30 (1979)

A Further Investigation
of the Life-World*

California State College, San Bernardino


This paper, a personal phenomenological investigation of the life-world, is

a contribution to the sociological study of everyday reality. Although the
phenomenology of the life-world is a rapidly growing concern of many
sociologists, much of the published writing in this area is, inGarfinkePs (1974)
words, merely an exercise in "taking in each other's intellectual wash." It is
writing about phenomenology or ethnomethodology and adds little that is
new to the classic analyses of Husserl (1965, 1973), Schutz (1962,1970), and
Schutz and Luckmann (1973).
As Zaner (1970) has noted, there are many "ways to phenomenology." One
of these is an encounter with events that produces at least a temporary
disengagement from the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life (Zaner,
1970). In such situations, the individual can become aware that "things may
be otherwise than they seem." From the base provided by "shocking"
experiences, one can methodically and theoretically consider the assumptive
world of ordinary life.1 To do so it is required that the individual,

... sustain that kind of shock and disengagement and then methodically to
explore in depth what then is disclosed to us. (Zaner, 1970, p. 50; emphasis in original)

This paper is an attempt to follow this particular "way to phenomenology" in

order to investigate the everyday life-world.

*The author wishes to express his gratitude to Susan Meisenhelder, Psathas, and
Richard Zaner for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
1 this paper, the notion
Throughout of "shock" is used in the Schutzian sense.


The set of events that provide me with a "way to phenomenology" was the
experience of being the victim of a violent crime. I have reflectively studied
this particular experience in order to discover what it can reveal to me
concerning everyday social reality and the essential meanings that underlie
the taken-for-granted life-world.


Edmund Husserl conceived of the life-world as the world of lived

experience (Spiegelberg, 1969); that is, the taken-for-granted world of
everyday social life. He also suggested that it is this assumed, inter subjective
reality that provides the grounding or foundation for the individual's
practical activities in ordinary life. This aspect of Husserl's philosophical
phenomenology became the major element of the phenomenological
sociology of Alfred Schutz (1962,1967, 1970,1973). In The Structures of the
Life- World (1973) Schutz and Thomas Luckmann provide us with a detailed
phenomenological analysis of the life-world and the natural attitude of
consciousness toward the everyday world. The results of Schutz phe?
nomenological sociology of the life-world will be briefly reviewed before I
discuss my own findings.

Schutz on the Life-World

Schutz argues that our consciousness of everyday life is characterized by a

naive acceptance of the inter subjective nature of the ordinary social world.
Doubt is suspended concerning the reality of social life and the other egos that
share it with us. That is, the life-world is intended and experienced as an
intersubjective reality. Within this natural attitude toward everyday life, we
accept our own identifiable corporeality; we assume that others are like
ourselves; and we assume a standardized system of space and passage of time.
In everyday life, the individual assumes that the ordinary social world exists
now and that it will continue to exist after she or he dies.
It seems that here are two interrelated cognitive groundings for the natural
acceptance of the inter subjective life-world. Husserl (1965) has described
these as "idealizations." Put simply, idealizations are naive beliefs that enable
us to construct and perceive a world that is predictable and orderly. We accept
the idea that "one can always to do it again" and that people share a
reciprocity of perspectives. On the basis of idealizations such as these, we are
able to construct a set of typifications through which we can grasp the
everyday world as repeatable, continuous, and shared. The second factor, in
part derived from these idealizations, is the life-world's grounding in trust.
We trust in our senses and the seeming familiarity of our experiences within
the ordinary world. Garfinkel (1972) describes trust as that situation inwhich

the person assumes, assumes the other person assumes as well and assumes that as he
assumes it of the other person the other person assumes it of him that a relationship of
undoubted correspondence is the sanctioned relationship between the actual appearances
of an object and the intended object that appears in a particular way. (1972, pp. 11-12)

In short, we trust in the world of everyday life, its objects, and the others that
populate it.
The assumptively constituted world of everyday life is centered around
one's self and one's interests. My own "here and now"is the center coordinate
of my life-world, and the experience of one's self is a unique experience
described by Husserl (1973) and Schutz (1967) as a primordial sphere
to the individual alone. Thus, the self is a truly fundamental
phenomenon. Around it stretch spatial and temporal zones of personal
relevancy ordered according to my inter?st-at-hand. These zones of social
knowledge are composed of received, constructed, and largely monothetic
typifications, acquired through previous experience and language acquisi?
tion. Thus at any given moment of my waking life, my consciousness of the
life-world is centered around myself within a particular biographically
determined situation and an accompanying set of pragmatic interests. This
central core is in turn surrounded by a field of decreasingly relevant
typifications (Gurwitsch, 1964). Functionally, the life-world provides us with
a frame with which to understand the situations and events of everyday social
existence (Heeren, 1970).
However, what if a situation is atypical or problematic? Schutz (1970) and
Schutz and Luckmann (1973) offer some brief suggestions concerning an
individual's confrontation with problematic situations, but do so only in
passing. They seem to believe that the naive life-world is always accepted as
real and is never truly doubted. Within the life-world, it is argued, one can
even typify the atypical. One of the goals of this paper is to analyze a
problematic situation in order to investigate this aspect of Schutz's
description of the life-world's structure.

The Problematic Within the Life- World

In Frame Analysis, Goffman (1974) notes that

The significance of certain deviant acts is that they undermine the of

everything else we had thought was going on around us_(1974, p. 5)

In the terms of the phenomenologist, he is proposing that certain truly

deviant, and thus problematic, events radically challenge the taken-for
grantedness of the life-world. For instance, the sharedness of everyday life
may become basically problematic in strange or atypical situations. If the
event is radical enough, such a situation may lead one to begin questioning the
ordered typicality and intersubjectivity of the life-world.

Schutz argues that strange or problematic situations are unanticipated and

are experienced as atypical because there are no easy recipes for their
categorization. He further (1970) suggests that these problematic situations
often impose a set of topical relevances that direct the individual to the
investigation of the atypical in order to "put things in order again."2 Yet, if
they are radical enough, atypical events can "explode" the taken-for
grantedness of the life-world. They may "shock" the individual into a
realization of the assumptiveness of everyday social life and its essential
idealizations. At the least they impose a new interest and a shift of structure in
the consciousness of the actor. The individual becomes involved in a struggle
to explicate the experience, to typify it, and to return to the natural attitude of
everyday life. However, Schutz is quite brief in his discussions of problematic
situations. Here I intend to investigate my own experience within such a
situation in order to discover what these events might reveal about the
everyday life-world.


Being the victim of a crime against one's person can be a radically

problematic situation. In my own case the situation was officially categorized
as armed robbery and aggravated assault. The events, which took place inmy
home involved myself, my wife, and two young men. The men knocked on my
back door, forced their way into my house with two handguns, and robbed,
assaulted, and threatened my wife and myself with death.
At the start of these events, Iwas well within the shared reality of everyday
life?talking with my wife, trusting in the ordinariness of my existence.
However, during the events that followed Iwas forcibly disengaged from the
everyday life-world. I found that by and large my stock of knowledge and
typifications could not order what was happening to and around me and that
I could not reasonably anticipate the actions and intentions of these men.
Since I felt no shared perspective with them, the intersubjectivity and trust
that were the cornerstones of my life-world were rendered open to doubt. In
short, the experience of being victimized was strange, alien, and cardinally
problematic. I was
"shocked" by it all.
Structurally, my life-world and my attention to it underwent a fundamental
alteration. The thematic kernel of my consciousness became intense interest
in finding a way to define and order this situation. I tried to discover how to
"handle" or "manage" what was happening to and around me. The guns in the
hands of the robbers imposed an extreme urgency to this theme. As I attended
to this situation one element of it became clearly predominant: the weapons

2Schutz (1970) also seems to be saying that this process is conducted primarily through
interactions between self and others.

and what they meant for me. In the context formed by the actions and verbal
threats of these two men, the guns signified for me the increasingly real and
immediate possibility of my own death. Within the field of the robbery, the
death of myself and my wife stood out as quite probable and my thoughts
centered on the question of whether we would get out of this situation alive.3
Other concerns of less relevance or urgency moved to the horizons of my
consciousness. For instance, the protection of our property was no longer of
any concern to me; now I merely wanted to live.
The gun, as an element of my everyday world and an element of the present
irreal situation, symbolized for me the very real possibiity of my own death.
Thus, the experience of being a victim fundamentally altered my attitude
toward social life and the life-world: Death had become, "here and now," a
possibility for me. I no longer could deal with my own death as a distant
typicality; rather it was imposed upon me as a singular, immediate
potentiality. My knowledge of my vulnerability to death changed from the
routine anticipation that one dies eventually to the frightening knowledge
that / may die now. This is a point which I shall return to later in this paper.
During these experiences, my consciousness of the temporal and spatial
structure of the life-world underwent a dramatic change. Time seemed to slow
during this experience: The twenty minutes of "social standard time" that
enclosed these events felt like hours. My acceptance of the taken-for-granted
reality of intersubjective clock time was shaken. This new consciousness of
time included an altered sense of the future. As I became totally engrossed in
the present situation, the distant future was in large part irrelevant. Further,
since my stock of typifications could not anicipate what would happen to or
around me in the very near future, the future had become clearly unknowable
for me. Perhaps because the future was seen as so unfamiliar, Iwas unable to
project myself into it. I moved toward it slowly, haltingly, and with some
resistance. In a very real sense, time slowed down/or me, and time was slowed
down by me.
Also, spatially my life-world narrowed during these events. Like the "now,"
"here" became all-encompassing. The space outside of my immediate
situation became irrelevant and were shifted to the margins of my
consciousness.4 With my awareness of my own vulnerability to death, I no
longer was able to take the spatial horizons of the life-world for granted. I
realized that, spatially and temporally, my world and my life might end "here

3In considering my experiences as a victim, my mind seems to function in what can be called
the "editorial I."With reference to being confronted with death and the resultant effects on my
life-world I can only speak for myself. My wife has shared her experiences with me and has
commented on this paper. She agrees with much of it. Yet the use of the first person reflects the
sense of isolation that these experiences produced in me.
4For instance, I never concerned myself with what was going on outside of the room of the
house in which these events occurred.

and now." I could not take time, space, or my fellow men for granted. All were
problematic and uncanny.
During this experience I tried to typify what was happening?to make it
predictable, to order it within my everyday life-world. Were these "normal"
men? Seemingly not, for they did not appear to share my perspective on the
world. I could only define their actions negatively, e.g., they were irregular
and unpredictable. I searched their conduct and dialogue for some clues in
order to categorize them: Were they murderers? Would they kill? How could I
know? In short, I soon discovered that, for all practical purposes, I had no
way of knowing or even estimating what they would or would not do. Being
unable to typify the projects of action intended by these men, I could not give
their actions sure meaning. In the end, I relied on simple hope. I did not
"believe" (in the Husserlian sense) that I knew what these men would do; I
simply hoped that they would not kill me or my wife.
Being a victim, then, shocked me out of my "naive "acceptance of the world
of everyday life. It also revealed to .me two heretofore unemphasized
primordial elements of my life-world: my vulnerability to death and the
quality of hopefulness that was essential to my constituted sense of social

Death, Hope and the Life- World

Schutz and Luckmann suggest that any problematic situation can be

typified and positioned within the individual's natural consciousness of the
life-world. Or, if a situation is irrelevant to the interests of the actor it may
remain atypical. They do not seem to acknowledge the effects, or even the
reality, of intensely relevant but also uncanny situations. Although they
that situations can
(Schutz & Luckmann, 1973) recognize problematic
uncover "deficiencies" in one's stock of knowledge, they go no further with
this notion than to suggest that this type of experience may force the
individual to construct or accept a set of metaphysical accounts for his sense
of social reality.
Other phenomenologists of the social world also fail to fully consider
radically uncanny or atypical experiences. As mentioned previously, Zaner
(1970) refers to uncommon happenings as a "way to phenomenology," but he
provides no analysis beyond that of Schutz. Berger and Luckmann (1966)
also refer to crises in everyday life, but they seem to feel that such events are
managed via community rituals that bestow orderly meanings upon
extraordinary events. Only Natanson (1968) and Heidegger (1962) clearly
recognize that radically uncanny experiences may reveal some key elements
of the life-world. My own experiences as a victim, and my disciplined
reflection upon it, have resulted in some insights into the essential basis of the
natural attitude of everyday life and the resultant social life-world. The
remainder of this paper will be concerned with the most important of these:

My experience of the real possibility of my own death and my education in the

hopefulness of the everyday life-world.
Being victimized forced me to become aware of my own vulnerability to
death. Heidegger (1962) has suggested that it is possible for an individual to be
meaningfully aware that he or she may die at any moment.5 He also argues
that such a realization produces a confrontation between the individual and
nothingness which results in the experience of a fundamental sense of anxiety.
And, for Heidegger, this angst forms the grounding of a truly authentic style
of personal existence. My own experiences have convinced me of the truth of
much of Heidegger's position; and, more importantly, they revealed to me
that my sense of (and faith in) the everyday life-world was a construction built
in order to shield me from the knowledge that I am always old enough to die.6
Death, then, seems to be the essential challenge to, and reason for, the taken
for-granted world of everyday life. Within the natural attitude, we can deny
the finiteness of our lives by assuming that our cosmological belief systems
provide handy recipes for how to die meaningfully. But to confront the
possibiity of your own death is to learn that death may be meaningless. A
consciousness of death as the singular experience produces an awareness of
the delicateness and loneliness of life.
The shock of a gun barrel staring out from the hand of aman threatening to
kill me, here and now, thrust the immediate possibility of my own death into
my consciousness. The disorder which engulfed me dissolved my belief in the
predictability and orderliness of everyday life. People, it seemed, could not be
trusted; places were not secure; actions were not predictable; all experiences
were not shareable. In sum, my life-world no longer "worked."The one thing
that I could reliably anticipate was death.
My sense of the existence of others, objects, and events depends on my own
existence. Death is the absence of being: Thus, for me, nothing survives my
death. My life-world and my loved ones die as I die. Nothing survives death
and my own death is always a possibility. Thus, nothing can be taken-for
granted.7 To be aware of the real possibility of one's own death is to become
cognizant of the emptiness of the life-world.
However, contrary to Heidegger, my new consciousness of the essential
emptiness of the life-world did not produce a permanent sense of anxiety. In
fact, I was soon calm. Death initially shocked me free of my natural attitude,
yet once free of it, "things calmed down." It was not that Iwas able to reorder
my life-world and easily typify these events; rather, it seems that my

5For further considerations of the philosophical question of a person's ability to conceive of

his or her own death, see Freud (1958), Sartre (1958), and Paskow (1974).
6It follows that it is possible that this paper itself may be one of a process of
constructing an orderly schema around the meaningless chaos revealed to me by my experiences
as a victim.
7In this paper I use the term nothing to refer to the existentalist notion of non-being (Sartre,

consciousness of my own death in and of itself quieted me. Even though my

life-world was meaningless, I was becalmed, still, at rest. Perhaps within the
lagging context of the natural attitude the types and routines that used to be
believable were revealed as meaningless and I experienced my vulnerability to
death as shocking and anxiety-producing. Thus I felt lost, endangered,
"scared to death." But, once death was understood in all its emptiness, anxiety
dissolved. My consciousness of the immediacy of death exploded the
everyday life-world and with the demise of the context provided by that
everyday life-world, nothing was familiar to me. Since the types and notions
of familiarity no longer had meaning for me, nothing was strange or uncanny.
If there is no assumed background of the familiar, there is no way to conceive
of its opposite?strangeness. Nothing is strange; nothing is familiar.
Thus, in a sense, one's consciousness of death negates the foundation and
contextual background against which things or events can be constituted as
unusual, atypical, or frightening. As the gestalt psychologists tell us, if there is
no background, there is no figure. Thus, without the context of familiarity
provided by the taken-for-granteds of the life-world, there was no
background within which I could conceive of things as being strange.8
Natanson (1973), it would seem, is correct when he states,

Paradoxically, perhaps, death might be considered the irrevocable loss of familiarity

through the final negation of the strange. (1973, p. 137)

For myself, after the initial anxious pulling away from my own vulnerability
to death, nothing was calmly accepted. I no longer possessed a taken-for
granted reality in which to constitute a meaningful sense of the strange or
uncanny: I had nothing to be fearful of and nothing could be assumed. I
became still, at rest, passive.

My experiences as a victim, then, revealed to me the essential fragility of the

taken-for-granted life-world. Once my trust in this was destroyed, nothing
remained. From these experiences, I came to understand a second essential
quality of the life-world?hope. As Schutz and others (Berger & Luckmann,
1966) have argued, one's sense of social reality is largely a personal
construction. However, social phenomenologists have failed to describe the
"mood" of this process of construction. They have been content to gloss over
the essential hopefulness of everyday reality.
As I attempted to reconsider, reconstitute, and reorder my world after
been victimized, I returned in part to a "naive" stance toward everyday
life. However, in doing so, I became self-consciously aware of the ungrounded
and hopefulness of such a project of action. By "hopefulness," I
mean the mood-state or quality of consciousness that results from attempting

8From a more naturalistic

framework, itmay be that since my body is the centerpoint of my
life-world (Schutz, 1970), and since an anticipation of my own death is an anticipation of the
absence of body, this experience destroyed, or exploded, my consciousness of the life-world.

to constitute in oneself a feeling that what is desired will in fact occur. Hope is
not supported by reason, for it is not known ifwhat is hoped for is in fact true
or even probable. A person hopes not because of, but in spite of reason. I, for
instance, felt that to be hopeful was the only route available for the practical
reconstruction of my sense of social reality. I dealt with the experiences I had
just lived through as if they were exceptions and not likely to happen again. At
least, I hoped that this was the case. Perhaps this is the foundation of all our
assumed knowledge of social reality; that is, one's sense of reality, one's life
world, may be at its origins an act of hoping undertaken to shield oneself from
a full awareness of one's own death. The bare, naked hoping that was revealed
to me by the threat of my own death is simply more transparent than what is
normally and naively taken to be factual knowledge. My experiences as a
victim forced me to become conscious of the fundamental hopefulness of all
the taken-for-granteds of the everyday life-world.
Heidegger (1962) has argued that a mood of "concern" is basic to "being-in
the-world." I would propose that, rather than concern, the primary mood
underlying social existence is hope. I am not simply "concerned"about social
reality; rather I actively hope that things are as I desire them to be. I have no
way of knowing that I can trust others or that actions are repeatable: I can
only hope that these idealizations are factual. For instance, I talk to another
person hoping that he or she will understand the intended meaning of my
words. If so, I hope that these results are generalizable to all "normal"
conversations. Further, hoping ismore than merely assuming things to be a
certain way. To assume is to believe something true; to hope is to wish that
something is as desired even though there is no reason to believe it is true. My
attempted reconstitution of my life-world was then a hopeful activity.
Conscious of the fallibility of the routines and types that make up my sense of
social reality, I could only hope that my life-world would not fail me again.
As implied in the preceding discussion, by the phrase, "the hopefulness of
the life-world," I also mean to say that we behave "as if" our constructions of
reality are in fact valid. By acting in such a fashion, we create within ourselves
a feeling that what we hope to be so is so. We act "as if" our life-world were
factual and thereby produce the evidence upon which one can build a
practical conviction that it is real. However, my experience as a victim and the
perception of the immediacy of my own death convinced me that noth ing at
all founded my sense of social reality, my life-world. Still, I continued to rely
on hope and slowly began to act as ifmy everyday sense of reality remained
valid; that is, I hoped so.


My personal "way to phenomenology" revealed to me qualities that seem to

be essential to one's sense of everyday social reality. Having been victimized I
became aware of some of the basic elements that lie beneath the
intersubjectivity of the taken-for granted life-world.

Death is the ultimate problematic event and the individual is shielded from
it by his or her life-world. We hope that actions are repeatable and that others
are trustworthy so that we will not confront our own isolation and our own
mortality. Although one is alone in death, we act as ifwe are, and always will
be, fundamentally with others within a shared and orderly social world. In
short, we avoid our finite individuality through the hopeful construction of a
sense of permanent and fundamental sociability. By sheltering ourselves
within the life-world, we are, in essence, hoping that we will not die. In this
sense, the life-world is a fundamentally deceptive construction. Yet, in this
same sense, the life-world is also the source of social and cultural progress.
Paradoxically, our sense of everyday reality is both deceptive and productive.


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