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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas


Important Themes, Ideas and Arguments

Social Structures of the Public Sphere


Habermas sets out to define the term "public sphere." The terms "public" and "public sphere" have a variety of meanings. However, ordinary and scientific language cannot replace these terms with more precise ones. Despite the disintegration of public opinion, society still studies it.

Public means open to all, but also relates to the state. The public is a critical judge. The public sphere is a specific public domain, set against the private. The German word "Offentlichkeit" comes from the French adjective meaning "Public". There is no seventeenth-century word for the public sphere because it did not exist before the eighteenth century. In Germany, the public sphere emerged as part of civil society, the realm of commodity exchange and labor governed by its own laws.

Notions of public and private go back further than that, however. They are Greek categories with Roman additions. In ancient Greece, the polis-oikos division existed. Political life took place in the polis; the public sphere existed as a realm of discussion and common action. Citizens were free of productive labor, but their status depended on their role as the head of the oikos, or household. The Greek public sphere was the sphere of freedom and permanence, where distinction and excellence were possible.

Since the Renaissance, this Greek model was important and influential. Medieval categories of public and private came from Roman law. But they developed only with the rise of civil society and the modern state. For more than 100 years, the foundations of this sphere have been decomposing. Publicity is still important. By understanding it, we can understand a key category of our society.

In the middle ages, the public-private contrast from Roman law was familiar, but had no standard usage. The attempt to apply this distinction to the feudal system shows that ancient and modern public and private spheres did not exist. Various higher and lower powers existed, but there was no definite way for private people to enter the public sphere. The tradition of ancient German law did have a contrast comparable to the Roman tradition: that of common and particular. This was exactly reversed in feudalism; the common man is private, exemplified by the private soldier. One cannot show sociologically that the public sphere existed in the middle ages, but a publicity of representation did exist. This was a status attribute and not a social realm. The holder of office or power represented or displayed himself. The lord and master had an "aura" that he displayed before his subjects. Lordship was represented before the people. Representation was not about political communication but about social status.

Only after modern states had destroyed feudal power, helped by the development of a capitalist economy, could court sociability develop into the eighteenth century idea of a "good" society. For the first time, public and private spheres became separate in the modern sense. Bureaucracy, the church, and the army also became public institutions, separate from the increasingly private sphere of the court.

A new social order developed with the emergence of early finance and trade capitalism. Capitalism stabilized the power structure of the society of estates and worked toward their dissolution. The instruments of this dissolution were the traffic in commodities and news created by capitalist trade. Long-distance trade led to the development of trade fairs that required horizontal economic relationships at odds with the vertical estates system. The traffic in news also developed. This traffic became public in the seventeenth century, and became revolutionary only in the mercantilist phase, which was a new stage of capitalism. Merchant companies opened up new markets and required political guarantees; the modern state developed in time with mercantilism. Increasingly sophisticated tax systems developed, along with permanent armies and administration. The public now referred to a state apparatus with a monopoly over legitimate coercion. The opening of foreign markets served the development of domestic economies. Trade in commodities causes a revolution in production.

Civil society was born as the corollary of the depersonalized state authority. Activities formerly confined to the household framework emerged into the public sphere. Economic activity became private but was oriented towards the public commodity market. The very idea of economics also changed; it ceased to relate to the household/oikos, and took its modern form.

The press took on an important role; political journals developed. The traffic in news was related to commercial need; news became a commodity. Also, new states began to use the press for state administration and intelligence. A new stratum of the bourgeois developed within the public, which included officials, doctors and lawyers. Craftsmen and shopkeepers fell in social status. The bourgeois reading public became the real carrier of the public. Their important status in civil society led to tension between town and court. States encouraged an awareness of publicness and the public sphere of civil society. The interplay between state regulation and private initiative was important in early capitalism. Broad strata of the population were affected by the regulations of mercantilist policy. Official interest in private households constituted the development of a critical sphere; administrative contact between domestic and public authority provoked the critical judgment of the public making use of its reason. The public could assume this function, as all it needed was a change in the function of the press, which had turned society into a public affair. As early as the seventeenth century, periodicals existed that mixed criticism with news. Critical reasoning made its way into the press in the eighteenth century. Private people prepared to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion.


Habermas begins by outlining the areas that he discusses later; he also defines some key terms and provides a historical overview of the philosophical problem he is addressing. His initial emphasis on terms is important, as his argument rests on the idea that the very concepts of public and private changed through time. However, English readers should be aware of problems with Habermas's own terms. The German word "Offentlichkeit" is central to the work, and can be translated as "publicity", "public sphere" or "public". Many translators and scholars emphasize "public sphere" as the best translation, making "offentlichkeit" appear as a place or a concrete thing, rather than as a more abstract idea of "publicity". Although Habermas often seems to emphasize the spatial dimension of the public sphere, it is important to remember that he is not referring to an actual place, but rather to a more abstract quality. Scholars frequently talk about various groups "occupying" the public sphere as if it were a physical place. In reality it is not a place. It is an idea that is dependent on various social and economic factors, and linked to various terms and concepts

One of the key socio-economic factors that Habermas introduces in this section is the development of civil society. This term essentially comes from Hegel's Philosophy of Right, where it denotes the realm where goods are produced and exchanged, and where all other economic relationships occur. Civil society is governed by economic laws, and includes all those areas apart from the family that are not included in the state. It exists only when economic activity is separated from the household to an extent. Habermas's model of the public sphere depends completely on the existence of civil society, but because he is interested in its development, in this section, he describes some of its history, and analyzes the type of publicity that preceded it. This history begins with classical notions of the public and private.

Like many accounts of Western cultural and intellectual history, Habermas begins with ancient Greece. The division between polis and oikos, or city and household, is the oldest form of public/private distinction. Various similarities and differences are evident between this and later models. The Greek household was the sphere of labor, exchange and the family. Greek men were allowed to enter the public world of the polis only if they had the status of the head of a household. The polis was the sphere of discussion, but also of collective action, which took the form of war or competitive sports. One could not debate, fight, excel, or be free in the private sphere; the household was the place of women and slaves in ancient Greek thought and practice. In many ways, all the later divisions of public and private that Habermas discusses have their roots in his ideas about ancient Greece; the idea that people can move into a public place or sphere because of their private status is central.

A key point that Habermas omits, however, is that in the Greek world the private and public were gendered spheres. The head of a household was always male, and women had no real legal or political status. The public realm was male, competitive and open: the private realm was female, and secret.

Habermas begins to chart the transformation and development of these of Greek categories. He makes it clear that the "modern" public sphere is tied to very specific economic, social and political conditions.

The stage that comes after the classical period for Habermas is the "feudal period", or the Middle Ages. For Habermas, a social hierarchy of orders or estates characterizes this period, with the King at the top, followed by the nobility and then the common people. There is no division between public and private in the modern sense, in that the King is the only "public" thing in the kingdom. There are no private or public institutions, hence Habermas' admission that he can find no "sociological basis" for the public sphere. However, publicity does exist in a representative form. It is not exactly the competitive, masculine publicity evident in ancient Greece, but rather a display of status and power.

In representative publicity, the King or noble displays his status before the people in a ceremonial display. He represents himself before a public; no discussion or collective action takes place. The public is merely required to watch, and to acclaim the sovereign. Such ceremonies typically take place at court. The best examples of this kind of publicity, according to Habermas, are the French and Burgundian courts of the fifteenth century, and the court of Louis XIV of France.

Representative publicity and the structures that surrounded it were dissolved by the development of the bourgeois, capitalist system. The emergence of a capitalist economy in early modern Europe both supported and undermined the old structures. News and commodities were key features in this process. Trade in commodities such as spices and coal developed, and required new economic structures; merchants formed companies, and began to promote their commercial interests. Initially, the trade in news was directly related to business needs. Merchants needed information about ships, the weather and the political situation in various countries. But this need became more generalized, and news reached a wider audience. This was the very beginning of a critical, debating press.

The new economic structures of early capitalism formed what Habermas calls civil society. Its specific character depended on the separation of household and production. Economics, a word which comes from oikos, no longer related to household production but to a more public system of exchange.

From the beginning, civil society was linked to the modern state. The state developed alongside the new kinds of business and economic structure. Its major components were new systems of taxation to exploit the wealth of the new economy, systems of administration to control the population, and a more permanent army. In this period, according to Habermas, the state began to take on more and more functions, and to affect people's lives more directly. This involvement provided the basis for critical debate. Habermas argues that in complaining about tax officials, or debating with minor officials, people began to learn how to use their reason publicly and critically.

The last key development is the emergence of a new social class. The bourgeoisie, or middle class, grew in numbers and influence; it became a reading public. The bourgeois is the most important element in Habermas' story in many ways. The last remaining factor was the further development of the press from providing information to encouraging critical debate. Habermas ends the section by leaving the bourgeois poised at the beginning of the public sphere.

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