A central claim in postphenomenology is that the human being is ontologically interrelated with technology. In doing so, postphenomenology overcomes the subject-object dichotomy that permeates through classical philosophy. The subject of postphenomenology is co-constituted through technology and the subject is inconceivable apart from its relations with the world and its artifacts (Ihde, 1990; Langsdorf, 2016; Verbeek, 2005). This ontological interrelation is often schematised as:


Proponents of postphenomenology emphasise that technologies are not intermediaries in a middle position between the subject and the object; instead, entities are constituted in their mediated relations (Verbeek, 2012). While still resorting to using words like “subject,” “object” or “artifact,” these terms are understood not as separate entities but as mediations. Conceiving of technologies as mediating allowed for a new theoretical framework through which technologies could be understood. The resulting Empirical Turn (Achterhuis, 2001; Brey, 2010; Kroes & Meijers, 2000) allowed philosophers of technology to reconceptualise how material artifacts constitute our experience and perception of the world. Heeding Husserl’s (Husserl, 2001) call to return to the things themselves, postphenomenology does not remain negligent of the materiality of artifacts. The Thingly Turn (Verbeek, 2005) in the philosophy of technology thus allows for the study of how particular technologies mediate our lived experience.

A persistent line of critique levelled against postphenomenology is that it does not adequately engage with the socio-cultural and political contexts in which mediations exist. In asking what things still don’t do, David Kaplan (2009: 235) criticises Verbeek for analyzing individual embodied relations instead of asking socio-political questions. He argues that mediation does not only relate to subject and objects but the “historic development of entire environments” which stretch back to human activities, institutions and practices. In a similar vein, Andrew Feenberg remains steadfast in his critique that postphenomenology is not political enough (Feenberg, 2009, 2015, 2020) eventually arguing for constructive criticism to remedy the political deficiencies of postphenomenology.Footnote 1 This critique is reiterated by Lemmens and others (Lemmens, 2022; Roa et al., 2015) when claiming that postphenomenology is “decidedly apolitical” and practically ignorant of the politico-economic contexts in which human-technology relations exist.

As the postphenomenological movement has expanded, various different approaches have been proposed that respond to these critiques of the lack of sociality.Footnote 2 Verbeek (2005) moves beyond contemporary analyses of the social and cultural role of technology to consider how technologies mediate normativity. Catherine Hasse (2008) illustrated how learned perceptions are co-produced through material artifacts, embodiment and social agency in the context of scientific cultures. In a similar vein, Lenore Langsdorf (2020) illustrates the interrelatedness of the moral subject by employing the notion of productive skill of reasoning which includes prior experience, affect and habit (see also De Boer et al., 2021). Various instances in which postphenomenology is politicised (Verbeek, 20172020a) could indeed be pointed out: for instance, Robert Rosenberger’s Callous Objects (2018) vividly illustrated the social and political role of technology in urban spaces while Gert Goeminne (2011) made us attentive to the politics related to sustainable technologies.Footnote 3 A distinct strand of postphenomenological theorising about the social, cultural and political structures in which technological mediation is embedded is that of theorists who seek to integrate insights from critical constructivism into postphenomenology.Footnote 4 Prominent representatives of this strand of inquiry are Feenberg (2020), Botin et al. (2020) and Esther Keymolen (2020). Attempts to reconcile Actor-Network Theory (by Ihde, Selinger andVerbeek) and Postphenomenology can also be considered part of this strand.Footnote 5

It becomes clear when considering these approaches that postphenomenology is developing in ways that encompass the social embeddedness of the mediated subject. However, for postphenomenological analysis to more accurately describe how experience can be collectively conditioned, a more nuanced view of the subject is required. In this paper, I reconsider the postphenomenological subject (I) as primarily socially situated. In other words, I propose a postphenomenological account that considers mediation in terms of the socially mediated subject, schematised as:


This framework differs from the above approaches in a number of ways: firstly, it does not purport to extend or expand postphenomenology but rather attempts to utilise underexamined theoretical tools for analysis found in the phenomenological tradition as such. Furthermore, Don Ihde’s Two ProgramFootnote 6 approach of Macroperception and Microperception is identified as the location of postphenomenology’s difficulty in accounting for the social, cultural and political contexts of mediation. As will be discussed, this idiosyncratic two-tiered approach and Ihde’s premature departure from phenomenology reverberate throughout the postphenomenological tradition. It is for this reason that postphenomenology has not fully utilised the phenomenological methods available to it which could allow for the postphenomenological subject to be understood in terms of their collectively embedded contexts. In this paper, I suggest that the Social Phenomenologist Alfred SchutzFootnote 7 provides a theoretical framework through which the subject could be understood as an intersubjective we.

In what follows, I present a social postphenomenological account of technology. I do so by firstly considering how Ihde envisions the subject (I) of postphenomenology. Concurring with his critics, I contend that Ihde’s two-program approach does not adequately account for the way in which Macroperception and Microperception are interrelated. I argue that the reason for this is Ihde’s original but idiosyncratic reading of Husserl. Ihde points out that the phenomenological tradition has become forgetful of the instruments or technologies that mediate perception, such as Galileo’s telescope (Ihde, 1990, 2011, 2016). While Ihde argues convincingly that we have become forgetful of the things that mediate our experience and perception of the world, it appears that we have also become forgetful of other subjects that inform this mediation. In the following section, I consider how Alfred Schutz interprets Husserl’s phenomenological subject. While Ihde draws our attention to how artifacts mediate our experience of the world, Schutz focuses on how we experience the world intersubjectively. I then consider three central arguments in Schutz’s social phenomenology that could help us re-envision the subject as primarily social. Firstly, Schutz’s theory of action illustrates human (time) consciousness is inextricably tied up with others. Secondly, the related notion of the stock of knowledge at hand shows that our experience and perception are socially determined. Thirdly, Schutz’s notion of consociates further illustrates how we encounter the world together. After considering how Schutzian phenomenology can inform our understanding of the postphenomenological subject, I briefly return to Ihde’s notion of forgetfulness of the material artifacts that shape the fabric of our lifeworlds. Here I claim that Ihde’s critique of forgetfulness is also relevant in terms of Schutzian phenomenology. While I do not provide a detailed account of how Ihde’s postphenomenology could inform Schutzian phenomenology, I do attempt to show that advancing the dialogue between the Schutzian and Ihdean traditions presents many fruitful avenues for further exploration. This analysis aims to provide a more refined approach to Ihde’s postphenomenology within the limits of his existing theory rather than to break with postphenomenology altogether. Finally, I consider how we can reconceive of human-technology relationships from a social postphenomenological approach. I suggest that the postphenomenological schema of I—Technology—World can be framed more accurately as We—Technology—World.

Don Ihde’s “I”

Somewhat paradoxical to the aims of this paper, it would be mistaken to accuse Don Ihde of not being sufficiently sensitive to the socio-cultural dimensions of technology. Examples of how different cultures conceive of technology permeate throughout his oeuvre. Neither can he be accused of not being political enough as he agrees that technologies are historically-culturally embedded, non-neutral and that some modern technologies may be acidic to traditional cultures (Ihde, 1994). Rather, what a social postphenomenology of technology aims for is a conceptual tool to evaluate how particular technologies mediate the experience of individuals who are part of specific cultural or social groups.

To illustrate this, consider Ihde’s now commonplace example within postphenomenologyFootnote 8 in Technology and the Lifeworld (1990). He describes how a group of New Guineans’ use of artifacts differs from that of Australian prospectors. The prospectors were baffled by the Papua New Guineans' initial ambiguous response to rifles, while steel knives and axes were enthusiastically accepted. More confusingly, sardine cans considered trash by the prospectors were immediately snatched up and made into elaborate headwear. For the New Guineans, the sardine cans could be used as an artifact that denotes hierarchy and social positioning. Ihde illustrates how objects can be culturally embedded into an existent practice or discarded when the object cannot be seamlessly integrated into an extant praxis. Ihde clearly illustrates how artifacts become embedded in different contexts and how those artifacts come to play different roles in various contexts.

Why did the New Guineans, as a group, perceive the artifact as they did? Each member of the group experienced and perceived the artifact individually. However, they had some common understanding of what the object was, how to understand it and how to appropriate it into their own praxis. Schutz, as will be discussed in the next section, provides an interpretive framework through which we can analyse this common understanding and the intersubjective experience of artifacts. To understand how Ihde’s postphenomenology can be informed by Schutz’s social phenomenology, we need to turn to their reading of Husserl and the aspects of the LifeworldFootnote 9 both these thinkers isolate and emphasise.

Ihde’s (1990) Husserl has become forgetfulFootnote 10 of the taken-for-granted objects of the lifeworld. Husserl claims that Galileo discovered the indirect mathematization of the universe, but Ihde reminds us of the material artifact or thing itselfFootnote 11 that allowed Galileo to perceive in ways that would not have been available to him without the telescope. Don Ihde’s I sees and experiences the world through the telescope and, in turn, becomes a technologically mediated subject. Husserl does not adequately explain how instruments like the telescope can become experientially transparent and we come to experience the world in a mediation relation with technologies. Ihde thus fills this explanational lacuna with his theory of relations of mediation. Yet, in this well-known example of Ihde, the question of the social is already underplayed or neglected. Shapin (1996) recounts how Galileo’s use of the telescope was itself determined socially. For Galileo, the reliability of the telescope and the “structures of authority within which we could learn what to see” were different than the culture that we belong to today. Thus, Galileo’s technologically mediated experience of the heavens was constituted not only by the technology of the telescope itself, but also by the culture to which he belonged that shaped how this technology was used, understood and experienced.Footnote 12

However, in remembering Galileo’s telescope Ihde elucidates how material artifacts can alter the way we perceive the world and does not elucidate how these perceptions and experiences are also socially constituted. The kind of perception Ihde describes here is immediate and bodily focussed and includes senses such as sight, hearing and feeling. He continues by writing (1990: 29) that “there is also what might be called a cultural, or hermeneutic, perception, which I shall call macroperception” (my italics). Ihde calls for a double-sided analysis of human-technology relations, in which both the microperceptual and macroperceptual remain part of the way in which we analyse technologies. Although Ihde claims that this dual-perception is intertwined, he addresses them separately in Technology and the Lifeworld in two distinct programs. However, the inseparability of the social structures in which our experience of a particular technology is embedded (what Ihde would describe as macroperception) and the experience of that technology (microperception) is emphasised by scholars such as Shapin (1996).

Ihde’s first program is called Phenomenology of Technics in which he thoroughly develops his four human-technology relations, namely embodiment, hermeneutic, alterity and background relations. This program builds upon his description of the Lifeworld as informed by Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Building upon Heidegger’s accountFootnote 13 of human-world relations, Ihde retains a relativisticFootnote 14 ontology (1990: 23) of human existence. In his well-known example of a hammer, Heidegger asks how a tool presents itself to a human being and arrives at the conclusion that a tool has a certain “readiness-to-hand” (Zuhandenheit). The tool itself is not the direct object of experience; rather what the tool is used for becomes part of the human experience of the world.Footnote 15 The final phenomenologist that Ihde takes into account is Merleau-Ponty. He firstly points towards Merleau-Ponty’s examples of the “woman with the feather in her hat” or the “blind man with a cane” to emphasise our bodily experience. Ihde then considers Merleau-Ponty’s claim that the lived body is informed by culture but, disappointingly, does not develop this claim further in Technology and the Lifeworld. Despite Merleau-Ponty’s intersubjective and interactive social body becoming more pronounced in Ihde’s later works, such as Bodies in Technology (2001), criticisms about the way in which Ihde conceives of this social body have not dissipated.

Robert Scharff, perhaps the most vocal critic of Ihde’s two-level relation (2020: 76), argues for a more nuanced reading of the terms “embodiment” and “perception”. Scharff questions the ordering of the macroperceptual as something that takes place after the microperceptual. He notes that it is only after microperceptual mediations that Ihde makes a perceptual shift towards the macroperceptual levels of the socio-cultural, historical and hermeneutic. Considering Ihde’s initial accounts in Technology and the Lifeworld as well as later developments, Scharff points towards ambiguity in Ihde’s accounts of embodiment when he notes that it is not clear whether the social and cultural should be understood as an additional layer “capable of being descriptively added to or ignored by analyses of the perceptual” or whether the “perceptual, social and cultural are merely dimensions of being-in-the-world” (Scharff, 2020: 135). Scharff stresses how Ihde’s interpretation of Husserl starts with the embodied individual and not “methodologically prepared minds” in which the socio-historical dimension becomes a contextual field in which mediation takes place.Footnote 16 Scharff (2006) phrases his critique more sharply when asking in what philosophical mood one can write about embodiment, hermeneutic and alterity relations “and never once mention issues of gender, race, political and economic power, or spiritual understanding”. The critiques uttered by Scharff here are seen as emblematic of a set of critiques that question the way in which Ihde’s subject is situated socially, culturally and politically.Footnote 17

How can we reconceive Ihde’s postphenomenologicalFootnote 18 subject as embedded in their social contexts? As mentioned, attempts at expanding postphenomenology to account for these contexts include analysing its normative dimensions (Verbeek, 2005), reconciling it to theories like critical constructivism (Feenberg, 2022; Botin, 2020), or placing it within a hermeneutic horizon of interpretation (Kudina, 2021), to name but a few. Ihde’s reading of Husserl remains the faultline that persists into current extensions of postphenomenology. However, claiming that Ihde’s reading of Husserl is by any means inadequate would be uncharitable. Instead, the way in which Ihde interpretsFootnote 19 Husserl is directed towards his questions about the subject’s orientation towards technology, and not Husserl’s “other egos” or intersubjectivity. Husserl’s subjectivism has been thoroughly noted in post-Husserlian scholarship and many attempts have been made to overcome this subjectivism. As Martin Ritter (2021a) notes, Ihde has unfortunately “not shown much interest in the evolution of contemporary phenomenology (after Merleau-Ponty), and postphenomenology has gradually diverged from phenomenology”.Footnote 20 Ihde himself deems phenomenology to be his personal albatross (Scharff, 2006) that he owes a critical debt to but cannot get rid of. Scholars like Vallor (2016) sharply reject Ihde’s implied charge that “phenomenology is a moribund tradition that has largely exhausted its power”. In the following section, we return to Ihde’s “Albatross of phenomenology” by considering a reading of Husserl in which the social embeddedness of the subject becomes primary. This is not another turn in the postphenomenological tradition. Instead, we return to phenomenology to consider how Husserl’s subject could be understood as a primarily social I, or in other words, We.

Alfred Schutz’s “We”

Ihde convincingly claims that phenomenology has become forgetful of the role material artifacts play in our perception and experience of the world. Similarly, postphenomenology has become neglectful of the social and intersubjective dimensions of this experience. While the postphenomenological tradition thoroughly engages with the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, it understates social phenomenology. The 1920s and 1930s saw a proliferation of research studying the phenomenology of social relations (see Moran, 2017). Thinkers such as Gerda Walther, Jan Patočka, Edith Stein and Alfred Schutz, remain largely forgotten in the postphenomenological tradition.Footnote 21 Schutzian scholarship is vast and provides many points of engagement that could inform postphenomenology. In this article, I limit my scope to The Phenomenology of the Social WorldFootnote 22 (1932) as it is the most influential work by Schutz and contains his key theoretical contributions. Additionally, it forms the foundation of his engagement with Husserl and is illustrative of how Ihde’s interpretation diverges from social phenomenology. As such, this section commences with a discussion of Schutz’s Husserlian foundations. I then discuss the Schutzian notions of Action, the Shared Stock of Knowledge and Consociates and Contemporaries as key to understanding the postphenomenological I as socially embedded.

In terms of his engagement with Husserl, Schutz's endebtedness is clearly illustrated in his own autobiographical account, Husserl and His Influence on Me (1977). Schutz notes (1977: 126) that although he clearly grasped the importance of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological, he felt that the main importance of phenomenology for the exploration of social reality was to be found in the notion that knowledge achieved through the reduced transcendental sphere remains valid in the natural attitude.Footnote 23 It is at this point that Schutz and Ihde diverge: Schutz emphasises the social as a fundamental element of the natural attitude, while Ihde considers material artifacts as overlooked in the natural attitude. Schutz’s critique and subsequent building upon Husserl is centred on Husserl’s Fifth Meditation.Footnote 24 Husserl argues that transcendental reduction described as epoché or bracketing restricts the subject to the “stream of my own pure conscious processes” (1960: 89). Husserl (1981) thus attempts to define a method that is not limited by contingencies of human situatedness in culture or history, or what he calls anthropological-historical facticities in his correspondence with Wilhelm Dilthey (Dilthey & Husserl, 1981). Husserl anticipated that his “alleged solipsism” would be heavily critiqued and that this critique might impede the reception of his work. He attempts to insulate himself from these critiques in his Fifth Meditation, in which he develops his ideas surrounding intersubjectivity and other egosFootnote 25 (or alter egos). It is also this Fifth Meditation which Schutz engages with when juxtaposing his own understanding of the social other. Husserl describes other egos as belonging to a “peculiar kind of epoché” (1960: 93). In this peculiar epoché, other egos appear to the transcendental ego in a manner different to other ordinary objects.

Other egos, for Husserl, appear to us as analogously constituted: the animate body of the other is analogously identified with the phenomenal body of the self.Footnote 26 For example, when walking in a park I encounter various objects like trees, rocks or ponds in a manner that is different to my encounters with other human persons.Footnote 27 Other human beings are not experienced as inanimate objects, but instead, I project onto other egos the transcendental ego I myself experience. Not only is there an analogous constitution that shapes my experience of other egos, there is also an associative constitution in which the other is present to me as a fellow human being with similar lived experiences (Erlebnisse) to myself. It is through this pairing (Paarung) of the analogous and associative constitution that I experience the other as similar or dissimilar to me.

In the critical reception of Husserl’s social other, as it relates to the transcendental ego, particularly by figures such as Sartre and Heidegger, it becomes apparent that Husserl’s attempts to insulate himself against the anticipated critiques of solipsism might have been in vain. However, his phenomenological account could be seen as the point of departure for numerous phenomenological accounts of sociology by thinkers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Reinach, Schleher, Stein, Walther, and others. Schutz also belongs to this group of thinkers that takes Husserl’s phenomenology as a point of departure by particularly focusing on the question of other egos, or the social dimensions of phenomenological experience. He does so by elevating the social dimensions of the natural attitude.

In order to do so, he first turns towards the interpretive sociology of Max Weber.Footnote 28 Schutz accepts Weber’s positioning of the social sciences as seeking understanding (Verstehen) of social phenomena and the interpretive examinations of how individuals attribute meaning to their actions.Footnote 29 However, Schutz’s theories diverge from Weber in his critique of what he deems to be tacit presuppositions (1960:7) in Weber’s basic concepts. In particular, it is the tacit presupposition of human action as individual action that Schutz reevaluates.Footnote 30 He claims that although Weber distinguishes between the subjectively intended meaning of an action and the objectively knowable meaning of that action, he does not account for the way in which these meanings are constituted. It is this Schutzian theory of action that is the first key consideration when developing a social postphenomenology of technology.

Theory of Action

Schutz is critical of Weber’s notion of action as an external behaviour to which meaning is attached—as this seems to indicate that action is indicative of individual meaning that drives action. In his unique approach to a theory of action, Schutz argues that “the problem of meaning is a time problem” (1967: 12). In his highly unique contribution to the problem of meaning, Schutz turns to Henri Bergson’s notion of inner time as an addition to Husserl’s time-consciousness. Bergson distinguishes two kinds of time: the objective time of watches or calendars and an inner subjective experience of time (durée). This inner-time consists of internal time-consciousness, and the phenomena of retention, reproduction and anticipation. Action is thus seen as an experience that is orientated to the past, present and future.Footnote 31 For Schutz, this feature of human consciousness inextricably ties up our inner-time with our memory, directedness to the present and anticipation of the future.

Once an action has taken place, the actor has “grown older” (1967: 46), something they are not aware of when they are still immersed in the stream of consciousness directed towards action. Schutz elaborates on this phenomenon of growing older by noting that with every new lived experience, we grow older and our accumulated experience grows larger. Our experience is primarily social because we do not have access only to our own accumulated life experience, but we also have insight into the accumulated experience of others. For instance, we have access to language, habits, rituals, etc. that meaningfully link our lived experience with others. This shared accumulated experience is defined by Schutz as the “Shared Stock of Knowledge at hand” (as discussed in the following section). Schutz’s description of growing old together illustrates how our actions are situated in shared social experiences. He continues to describe a further experience of growing older together. This occurs when our inner-time consciousness is synced with other egos (to use the Husserlian vernacular). Schutz most thoroughly describes this in Making Music Together (1951). The experience of growing old together is illustrated by making music together because our experience of inner-time is synchronised, we are living through the vivid present together and we experience the embodied other face to face.

The Stock of Knowledge at Hand

The accumulation of experiences described in Schutz’s theory of action culminates in what has become his most influential concept, namely, the stock of knowledge at hand. Again following Husserl, Schutz notes (1960: 81) that in the natural attitude, we have a stock of knowledge of “physical things and fellow creatures, of social collectives and of artifacts, including cultural objects”. This stock of knowledge also includes “syntheses of inner experiences”, such as previous judgements. In other words, our previous experiences with objects are ready at hand for us to use when we have similar encounters in the future. Schutz adds to this “experience of all sorts of practical and ethical rules” (1967: 81). The stock of knowledge makes the lifeworld familiar and knowable because we have access to knowledge about the typical features of this world. Schutz later develops a systematic analysis of the stock of knowledge with Thomas Luckmann in The Structures of the Life-world (1974). The stock of knowledge does not only consist of knowledge about objects or other human beings but includes many other kinds of knowledge, such as skills or habits. Even our knowledge about corporeality, its usual functioning and temporal arrangement, is included in this account. Furthermore, language can also be seen as part of the stock of knowledge. Not only do we share the meaning of words, but we also have knowledge of linguistic rules and how common expressions can be interpreted.

For the purposes of this paper, the way in which the stock of knowledge is understood in culture is of vital importance.Footnote 32 For Schutz and Luckmann, the stock of knowledge is variable from one society to the next as well as within a particular society (1974: 109). They illustrate this by using the example of walking to show that there is a highly differentiated instrasocial distribution of the stock of knowledge when claiming that a Roman did not walk like a Hun, an Eskimo does not walk like an American and a soldier not like a civilian. Thus, even in such basic elements of the functioning of the body do we encounter variance. At the same time, they remind us that there is no society so “primitive” as to possess a completely homogeneous culture (1974: 199). Furthermore, no society has an absolutely fixed stock of knowledge or is capable of building a completely new stock of knowledge. Regarding the objective of arriving at a social postphenomenology of technology, this is relevant because it does not propose that there are cultures that are homogenous or isolated enough as to possess a pure unadulterated stock of knowledge.

To briefly return to Ihde’s example mentioned in the introduction, the stock of knowledge at hand gives us insight into the way in which the New Guineans appropriated technologies. There was no reference for rifles in the stock of knowledge and therefore rifles could not be meaningfully understood. While sardine cans also had no direct correlate, it did relate to extant artifacts like headwear. Why do we interpret some objects or experiences as meaningful and others not? Schutz introduces the problem of relevanceFootnote 33 which is akin to Husserl’s understanding of an attentional ray. For Husserl, we voluntarily turn towards certain experiences in the stream of consciousness to reflect upon them. For Schutz, Husserl’s description might lead to the misconception that this act of reflection is performed at random within an “unlimited range of freedom or discretion” (Schutz, 1970: 95). Schutz thus questions how certain experiences become particularly meaningful simply by drawing our attention. He develops a theory of different types of relevances that are again, in Schutzian fashion, not a purely individual subjective experience but embedded in a social matrix.

Whereas Schutz usually turns towards modern thinkers he now considers the ancient Greek sceptic Carneades when interpreting Husserl’s idea of attention. For Carneades, there is “no pure representation existing in our mind” (1970: 103). He explains that when thinking of Socrates, for example, he does not only think of the name Socrates but also of some individual characteristics, conduct and other circumstances that cannot be separated from Socrates’ existence. The interpretive process is influenced by whether our attention is drawn to a particular object or experience as well as a degree of likelihood (πıθαvóv) that determines how an object or experience will be interpreted.Footnote 34 Through this analysis, he arrives at three types of relevances that play a determining role within the interpretive process: topical, interpretational, and motivational relevances. He uses Carneades’ example of an unknown object in a dark corner of a room that could be a pile of rope, a serpent or something else. When encountering such an object, we inadvertently consider other encounters that thematically match the experience. So, for instance, if we encounter an object in a shed and have encountered ropes in this context before, we are more likely to interpret it as a rope. A second relevance that Schutz identifies is that of interpretational relevance. He continues by using the example of the rope/snake object when he notes that if he encountered the object in a room belonging to a sailor, he would still be likely to interpret it as a rope even if he had not seen a rope of that colour or material before. Drawing from the stock of knowledge, it is more likely that the object in the sailor’s house would be interpreted as a rope since my knowledge of sailors means that the object is more likely a rope than a snake. The third type of relevance, and perhaps the most interesting in terms of human-technology relations, is that of motivational relevance or in-order-to motives. For example, if we are still not sure whether the object is a snake or a rope, we might act towards the object in a way that would give us more interpretative certainty. Schutz writes that we may decide to hit the object with a stick to see whether it responds in the way that a snake or rope would respond. Our interpretive decision, namely to clarify if it is a rope or a snake, motivates us to take an action.

Let us return, again, to Ihde’s example: Ihde describes how the New Guineans interpreted the novel objects in their own context. Ihde’s notion of multistability clarifies how technological artifacts can come to have different interpretations.Footnote 35 Following Heidegger, Ihde (1990: 144) accepts that technologies have no “essence” and presents the example of a Necker Cube to illustrate that the object can be perceived in different ways. At times one perceives the object to be a three-dimensional cube with the top and two side surfaces facing us, at other times the cube appears to be facing in the opposite direction. This ambiguity of objects illustrates Ihde’s notion of multistability. Variations in how the object appears are described as at once sensory (microperceptual) and at the same time embedded in “culture” (macroperceptual). The theory of relevances presented by Schutz can thus aid our understanding of how these interpretations are constituted socially.

Consociates and Contemporaries

A third concept, interrelated with Schutz’s theory of action and stock of knowledge, that could guide our view of the postphenomenological subject as social is the notion of consociates and contemporaries. Schutz and Luckman here also utilise the term mediation (1973) to denote how the lifeworld is constituted by others. For Schutz, the Lifeworld can be divided into different social realms. The first of these is described as the world of my contemporaries (Mitwelt).Footnote 36 This realm of the social world consists of those with whom we share a community of space and a community of time. Another realm of the social world is that of predecessors (Vorwelt) and successors (Folgewelt), or those with whom we do not share the same time and to whose lived bodies we do not have access to. The notion that we share our Lifeworlds with predecessors means that our social worlds are also historically situated. We cannot experience them directly or exert any influence on them, but we can experience the world of our predecessors through signs like texts, records and monuments (Schutz, 1967: 209). These signs are, of course, anonymous and detached from my stream of consciousness. Knowledge and experience of contemporaries, predecessors and successors are indirect.

However, Schutz also identifies a type of social experience with others that is direct. He describes the realm of consociates as those whom we encounter face-to-face and whom we experience in time. This is the type of relation that Schutz notes in his examples of making music and growing older together. We experience consociates in place and time through face-to-face encounters that give us access to the embodied other. Furthermore, Schutz (1982: 32) writes that our I-experience is “tied to consociates through language and emotions”. Building on Bergson’s notions of inner-time or durée, he notes that when we experience the world with consociates, our inner-time becomes interwoven with one another. Thus, we experience the world with consociates simultaneously when we are intentionally directed to one another, experiencing time simultaneously. Of course, we cannot observe the subjective experience of the other exactly as they do, as it would presuppose that we have lived through all the conscious states and intentional acts that the other has lived through. He maintains that the stream of consciousness of every individual is “essentially inaccessible to every other individual” (Schutz, 1967: 99). However, this does not disqualify the intersubjective experience. Schutz’s notion of consociates proposes that we can experience others in time and place in what he describes as the We-relationship (Schutz, 1976: 30).

Schutz’s Missing Technologies

Before considering the implications that Schutzian phenomenology has for postphenomenology, let us briefly consider how postphenomenology could inform social phenomenology. To paraphrase Ihde, where are Schutz’s missing technologies? Schutz’s description of the social dimensions of experience and perception is often directed towards an object or artifact. Schutz uses examplesFootnote 37 such as watching a “bird in flight” (1967: 165) or a “rolling football” (1960a: 317) to illustrate this point. During the flight of the bird or rolling of the ball, we have “grown older together” and experienced the event simultaneously. These are occurrences in our outer public time that coincide with our inner private time(s) (ibid). The two fluxes of time become, momentarily, synchronised through our directedness to the object, and with one another. While we cannot make any “pretense to any knowledge of the content” (1967: 165) of each others’ experience, we do know that we have seen a bird in flight or a ball rolling. We experience the event simultaneously, but we can also interrupt our encounter to cross-reference the experience of the other by glimpsing the other’s embodied or emotional reaction towards the experience. For Schutz, growing older together is the temporal mode of the “we-relationship”. Bregman (1973: 197) notes that in the Schutzian view, this mode of growing older together is the “appropriate starting place for phenomenological reflection, instead of the Husserlian transcendental ego.

Furthermore, Schutz notes that we have empirical information about historical predecessors (1960: 109). We are surrounded by objects that attest to the notion that we have been preceded by others. Not only is this apparent in material objects, but also in linguistic and other sign systems that Schutz continues to describe as “artifacts in the broadest sense” (1967: 109). These objects are, for Schutz, material and non-material objects that we arrange in our own contexts of experience. The stock of knowledge that we draw upon is itself mediated by artifacts in the broadest sense. Our knowledge of our predecessors comes to us through signs such as language, but also from material artifacts such as books, videos or audio. Technological mediation of the social also raises questions about whether we can have experiences with consociates when we use technologies like online video conferencing tools, virtual world technologies (such as the Metaverse) or online gaming technologies.


How can Schutz’s social phenomenology deepen our understanding of the postphenomenological I? As illustrated, Schutz conceives of the phenomenological subject as socially mediated. On the one hand, all (technological) artifacts are interpreted through a social stock of knowledge which means that our phenomenological experience of an object is socially constituted. On the other hand, some technologies can also be experienced in time and place together in ways that shape our experience. This directly addresses the two-tier critique against postphenomenology as it illustrates that microperception and macroperception are inseparable. In other words, the macroperceptual does not take place after the microperceptual as Scharff seems to suggest, but the two are inextricably linked in phenomenological experience. Neither are the social or cultural merely dimensions of our being-in-the-world as we are phenomenologically embedded in the social through the stock of knowledge. This fundamentally social situatedness of the postphenomenological subject can be further analysed through Schutz’s interrelated concepts of the theory of action, the stock of knowledge and contemporaries and consociates.

Firstly, Schutz’s theory of action roots phenomenological experience in inner-time or durée. Meaning is determined by our inner-time as it relates to historical time. In other words, our subjective experience of a phenomenon is conditioned by our orientation to its past, present and future. Our experience of technological artifacts is rooted in the past and our newly accumulated experience will become part of our future encounters with the artifact. To illustrate, consider human beings encountering a novel technological artifact such as a humanoid robot. When engaging with the robot we draw upon our accumulated experience of what a robot is and how to act towards it. In this particular case, we also cross-reference our experience with those around us by glimpsing the other’s embodied or emotional reaction towards the experience. Let’s say we see that another person reacts with aversion to the robot, that experience now becomes part of our accumulated experience that will shape future encounters.

Secondly, our understanding of particular technologies, the way in which those technologies are used, and the meanings associated with those technologies are embedded in the stock of knowledge. As I have noted in regard to Ihde’s example of the New Guineans, our experience and actions towards an artifact are embedded in our social and culturally embedded stock of knowledge. It is not surprising that Schutz also considers moral beliefs and ethical stances as embedded in the stock of knowledge.Footnote 38 Concerning technology, the stock of knowledge can be understood to encompass accumulated knowledge about artifacts, how an artifact is habitually used and how it is normatively situated. This raises the question of how new and emerging technologies are experienced and perceived. In particular, when is a technology considered to be disruptive (Hopster, 2021; Swierstra & Rip, 2007)? Schutz’s understanding of the system of relevancesFootnote 39 could serve as an interpretive lens here: the emergence of certain technologies with no referent in the stock of knowledge could, for instance, be interpreted as more disruptive than those who have thematic or interpretive relevance.

The third insight from Schutz that is relevant to understanding postphenomenology’s subject as social is the notion of consociates and contemporaries. Schutz’s view that there are different realms of sociality in our experience of the world could also indicate that there are varying degrees of sociality by which we understand mediation. For instance, embodiment relations such as glasses or a walking cane, cannot be experienced in time together by consociates. While our phenomenological experience of the object as such remains social in its rootedness in the stock of knowledge, the experience itself does not lend itself to a synchronised inner-time experience such as that of consociates. Alternatively, augmentation relations (Verbeek, 2008) mediate our social relations to a greater degree than that of embodiment relations. For instance, virtual world technologies can allow us to experience the world together in time.Footnote 40 Degrees of social mediation thus remain an open question for consideration in postphenomenological research.


In this article, I suggest that insights from social phenomenology have not been fully realised in the postphenomenological tradition. Postphenomenology typically studies how technology co-constitutes the human subject as I—Technology—World. A persistent critique levelled against postphenomenological approaches is that they do not account for the embeddedness of the subject in its social, cultural and political contexts. I argue that this critique stems from Don Ihde’s two-tiered approach to phenomenology in Technology and the Lifeworld and in particular his idiosyncratic reading of Husserl. Ihde’s postphenomenological project is aimed at remembering the role that technologies play in the Lifeworld. While he convincingly shows how technologies mediate our lived experiences, he underemphasises the way in which human beings are also socially mediated. Instead of Husserl’s transcendental ego or Ihde’s I, Schutz’s “We-relationship” presents a point of departure for postphenomenological analysis that accounts for the socially embedded nature of the phenomenological experience. Reconceptualising the I—Technology—World schema as We—Technology—World allows for a more nuanced approach to technological artifacts as it calls for an analysis that considers how technologies are experienced and perceived together. Though not the main focus of this article, framing postphenomenology in terms of We—Technology—World serves as a point of departure for the postphenomenological study of technology within particular socio-cultural groups. In aligning postphenomenology more closely with social phenomenology, it also allows for investigation into the methods of social phenomenology (such as ethnomethodology or conversational analysis) for the purposes of postphenomenological study.