Meta-ethical and Liberatory Dimensions of Tragedy: A Schutzean Portrait

  • Lewis R. Gordon
Part of the Contributions to Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 31)


Tragedy is an ideal typification of a number of aesthetic mixed types. This ideal mixture affords a correlated mixture in the antisocial world of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Investigated from a tragic perspective, the meta-ethical question of the relevance of ethics emerges, which decenters ethical discourse in such a world. Schutz’s phenomenological sociology offers important conceptual tools with which to articulate some radical dimensions of this meta-ethical turn — e.g., the call for an egalitarian everyday world with room for nonideological understanding of mundane and extraordinary experience.


Ideal Typification Phenomenological Investigation Sociological Aspect Political Thinker Radical Spirit 
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  1. 1.
    For the most influential biographical work on Schutz, see Helmut Wagner’s Alfred Schutz: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1983).Google Scholar
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    For Gramsci’s view, see his discussion of intellectuals in Selections from the “Prison Notebooks” of Antonio Gramsci, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971). For Gramsci, the claim to value-neutral pursuit of knowledge is the organic ordering of the bourgeois intellectual.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The intellectual lineage of Weber, Bergson, and Husserl is evident throughout Schutz’s writings, but see especially how they emerge in Schutz’s first major work, Der sinnhafte Aufbau Der sozialen Welt, 2nd ed. (Vienna: Springer, 1960); Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. George Walsh and Frederick Lehnert (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967). See also The Collected Papers ofAlfred Schutz, vol. 1, ed. Maurice Natanson (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962). Du Bois attended Weber’s lectures in Berlin, and Weber later became an admirer of Du Bois’ Atlanta University studies on African Americans. Weber had even offered to write an introduction to ensure the German translation of The Souls ofBlack Folk, see David Levering Lewis, W.EB. Du Bois: Biography of a Race (1968–1919) (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), 225, 277. Bergson’s and Husserl’s influence on Sartre is well known. For a discussion of how their ideas affect Fanon, primarily through Sartre, see Lewis R. Gordon, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences (New York: Routledge, 1995). The irony, however, is that both Husserl and Bergson are known for being politically conservative, in spite of their radical spirit.Google Scholar
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    For a discussion of the radicality of these thinkers, see Calvin Schrag, Radical Reflection and the Origin of the Human Sciences (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1980) and my Fanon and the Crisis of European Man. Google Scholar
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    “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way,” William James, Principles ofPsychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 754.Google Scholar
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    See Lester Embree, ed., “A Construction of Alfred Schutz’s ‘Sociological Aspect of Literature,’ in Alfred Schutz’s “Sociological Aspect of Literature “: Construction and Complementary Essays, ed. Lester Embree(Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), 3–79.Google Scholar
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    See, among his many contributions on the subject, Natanson’s Literature, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences: Essays in Existential Phenomenology (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962) and Anonymity: A Study in the Philosophy of A fred Schutz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
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    See the invaluable discussion of subjectivity and objectivity in Phenomenology of the Social World. Google Scholar
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    Bruce Wilshire, Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre as Metaphor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), xi.Google Scholar
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    For discussion of tragedy’s etymology and its interpretation in this regard, see Eva Figes, Tragedy and Social Evolution (New York: Persea Books, 1976), especially 11.Google Scholar
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    This notion of tagging tokens and types raises a fundamental difference between a phenomenological approach and the recent theory of naming developed by Ruth Marcus but most popularly known through the work of Saul Kripke. Marcus and Kripke assert, on the basis of modal logic, the notion of essential identities. There is a sense in which an ideal type is essentially itself, for then it would not be ideal, would it? But the tokens of itself, and even the quantification of itself for the basis of theoretical inquiry, require identities that are sufficiently anonymous—this right triangle is ultimately no different from any other right triangle (unless one begins to count such properties as color or size)—that tagging in this case becomes similar to phenomenological bracketing: its ontological commitments have been suspended. For Marcus’s and Kripke’s views, see Ruth Barcan Marcus, Modalities: Philosophical Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980). For Schutz’s interpretation of the Husserlian phenomenological views of essence and identity, see his illuminating essays, “Some Leading Concepts of Phenomenology,” in Collected Papers, vol. 1, and “Type and Eidos in Husserl’s Late Philosophy,” in Collected Papers, vol. 3, ed. Ilse Schutz (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975).Google Scholar
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    See Schutz, “Some Leading Concepts of Phenomenology.”Google Scholar
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    Aristotle’s reflections on tragedy are found primarily in his Poêtikês, and his denigration of female protagonists and slaves can be found at 1454a20: “The play will show character if . . . either the dialogue or the actions reveal some choice; and the character will be good, if the choice is good. But this is relative to each class of people. Even a woman is ‘good’ and so is a slave, although it may be said that a woman is an inferior thing and a slave beneath consideration,” trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe, in Aristotle’s “Poetic “; Longinus “On the Sublime “; Demetrius “On Style “ (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932). A detailed discussion of Aristotle’s remarks on slavery would exceed the scope and space available here.Google Scholar
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    This interpretation emerges from Kant’s discussion of ethics and the sublime in his Critique ofJudgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), Book II. See also Iris Murdoch’s discussion of Kant and tragedy in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 431–60.Google Scholar
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    See especially Cynthia Willett’s informative essay, “Hegel, Antigone, and the Possibility of Ecstatic Dialectic,” Philosophy and Literature 14 (1990): 268–283. See also her comparison of Hegel and Frederick Douglass’s conceptions of manhood in this regard, in her essay, “Frederick Douglass: The Genealogy of Freedom in Slave America,” in Key Figures in African-American Thought, ed. Lewis R. Gordon (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997). These essays draw upon Hegel’s interpretation of Euripides’ Antigone in Hegel’s Aesthetics, vol. 2, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) and Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1977).Google Scholar
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    See Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, in “Fear and Trembling” and “Repetition,” ed. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983). 17. The absoluteness of the absolute is not necessarily unethical. See Calvin O. Schrag’s “Note on Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,” Ethics 70, no. 1 (1959): 66–8, for a reading of a religious ethical dimension in the sense that the Absolute is, in the end, not an evil Absolute, albeit logically not one that is limited by the universal. It should be obvious here, however, that Kierkegaard has tapped into a variation of the problem of theodicy that may be even more challenging than the traditional problem of accounting for evil. Josiah Royce has argued, for instance, that a good theodicy must make God logically possible with the existence of evil. See Royce’s Studies in Good and Evil (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), 1–28, relevant selections reprinted in The Philosophy of Josiah Royce, ed. John K. Roth (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972), ch. 4. The Kierkegaardian version raises more than the question of whether the Absolute is logically possible with the existence of evil. It raises the question of whether the Absolute can both be Good and Evil and simultaneously “beyond” both. 18. See Fanon’s essay, “Racisme et culture,” in Pour la révolution Africaine: écrits politiques (Paris: François Maspero, 1979).Google Scholar
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    This black gospel version of the Oedipus story was performed at the Brooklyn College performing arts center during the late 1980’s. It was eventually aired on the Public Broadcasting Station.Google Scholar
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    I have shown elsewhere, however, how his thought is useful for radical progressive political thinkers. See my Fanon and the Crisis of European Man, in which I demonstrate a connection between Fanon’s thought and Schutz’s, and show how Schutz’s discussion of the everyday is essential for any serious revolutionary.Google Scholar
  19. 21.
    See Aristotle’s Poêtikês (1454a 1–5). On the difference between excuse and justification, see J.L. Austin’s illuminating essay, “A Plea for Excuses,” in Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lewis R. Gordon
    • 1
  1. 1.Brown UniversityUSA

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