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Historical, Philosophical and Biographical Contexts

Biographical context

Jurgen Habermas was born in 1929 in Germany. He studied at the universities of Gottingen, Zurich and Bonn, and wrote a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of Schelling. His Habilitationsschrift, or post-doctoral thesis, presented at the University of Marburg, formed the basis of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. It was initially rejected by the University of Frankfurt, after criticism by the social theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Structural Transformation was published in German in 1962.

Habermas worked as Adorno's research assistant at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt (home of the the famous "Frankfurt School"). He has been a professor at the universities of Heidelburg and Frankfurt, and was director of the Max Planck institute in Starnberg until 1981. His major works include Theory and Practice (1963), Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), and the Theory of Communicative action (1981).

Historical and philosophical context

Several important influences on Habermas's work are evident. Firstly, he borrows many important terms and categories from Kant, Hegel and Marx. Many of his ways of thinking about the public sphere are explicitly Kantian, and he develops Hegel's central category of civil society into the basis from which public opinion emerges. Of these, Kant is perhaps the greatest influence, simply because for Habermas his work represents the "fully developed" theory of the public sphere

The Marxist cultural theory of the Frankfurt School is also an important influence, particularly on the second part of the Structural Transformation. The Frankfurt School was a group of philosophers linked to the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, active from the 1920s on. Two of its most famous names were Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. The Frankfurt School adapted Marx's theories greatly, in order to study modern culture and society. They took the unorthodox view that the experience of totalitarianism in the Second World War showed that the lower classes, or proletariat, had become corrupted by mass culture. They could no longer act as a revolutionary force. Their pessimism about what social force might replace the proletariat increased as the twentieth century progressed. Adorno is well known for his critique of the modern "culture industry", which manipulated the public, creating consumers of the mass media, rather than critical readers. Habermas draws on this savage criticism of modern society and culture in his treatment of advertising and the press.

A more personal influence was the German legal scholar Wolfgang Abendroth, who supervised Habermas's original thesis at Marburg, after it was rejected by Horkheimer and Adorno in Frankfurt. Abendroth's work analyzed the relationship between the social-welfare principle and the inherited structure of the German constitutional state. He argued that the Federal German constitution aimed to extend the ideas of equality and welfare, and that a socialist democratic state could emerge from its constitutional predecessor. Habermas moved away from this concept of the development of states, but acknowledges his debt to Abendroth in the dedidcation to the Structural Transformation.

Habermas's influence over other writers is considerable. It has recently become more evident in the English-speaking world, with the publication of a translation of the Structural Transformation. An important collection of essays edited by Craig Calhoun (see bibliography) shows wide range of responses to his work: scholars in English, political theory and philosophy respond to Habermas in this volume. Responses are so varied because so many different elements are present in Habermas's work. Historians criticise the factual basis of many of his claims about the publishing industry, about economic history and bourgeois culture. More abstract theorists challenge his assumptions about a range of issues. Feminist scholars, for example, argue that Habermas neglects the importance of gender, and of the exclusion of women from the public sphere. This is a point that Habermas has recently conceded.

Theorists have attempted to work out the implications of the Structural Transformation for modern political theory. This perhaps a more difficult task, as the second half of the book is more problematic and less satisfying than the first. Habermas's debates about public reason with the US philosopher John Rawls are well-known. Also, many writers have attempted to apply Habermas's model of the bourgeois public sphere to other countries and periods. They have tried to find the public sphere in America, the Far East, and a host of other unlikely places. There is a tendency for these projects to misrepresent Habermas's original idea of the public sphere. Given that he makes it clear that the public sphere was inseparably related to the social and economic conditions of eighteenth century Europe, these attempts do not always seem worth the effort. Almost all histories of publishing and the book trade, such as those of the US historian Robert Darnton, react to Habermas's ideas.

Habermas himself has attempted to answer his critics. In his essay Further reflections on the public sphere, he revises his position in several ways.. Firstly, he admits some problems with the historical basis of his work. He also suggests other areas for consideration, namely; one) the possibility of a popular or plebian public sphere with a different social basis, in which popular culture is not merely a backdrop to representative publicity two) a reconsideration of the role of women in the bourgeois public sphere three) a need to develop a less pessimistic view about the modern mass public. Some of the issues about public discourse and the role of the state raised in the Structural Transformation reemerge in later works, such as his Theory of Communicative Action and Legitimation Crisis. Habermas has changed so many of his positions, however, that it is unwise to see his work on public sphere as a basis for his later philosophy.

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