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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas

Social Structures of the Public Sphere


The Political Functions of the Public sphere


The bourgeois public sphere was the sphere of private people who have come together as a public. It claimed the public sphere against public authorities, and engaged in debate over general rules in a privatized but public sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was the public use of reason. Traditionally, power was balanced and regulated between the estates and the prince, or through a parliamentary system. This division was not possible in a commercial economy because control over private property was apolitical. The bourgeois did not rule. Their claims to power undercut existing rule. Public understanding of the public use of reason grew out of the subjectivity of the conjugal family's domestic life, the traditional source of privacy. Commodity exchange burst out of the family domain and the conjugal family was separated from the sphere of social reproduction. The polarization of state and society was repeated within society itself. A private man was head of a family and the owner of commodities; he was both property owner and human being.

The subjectivity of the conjugal family created its own public before the public assumed political functions. A precursor of the public sphere operating in the public domain emerged. It acted as a training ground for critical public reflection. The public sphere in the world of letters was similar to representative publicity; the court was an important influence. Towns were also important. Institutions such as salons and coffee houses shaped the literary public sphere. The literary public sphere was a bridge between representative and bourgeois public spheres. The state-society divide separated the public sphere from the private realm. The public sphere contained the state and court; the private sphere contained civil society as the realm of commodity exchange, and the family. The public sphere in the political realm evolved from the literary public sphere. It put the state in touch with the needs of society through public opinion.

As towns took over the functions of the medieval court, the public sphere was transformed. The institutions of the coffee house and salon strengthened the role of towns. They were centers of literary and political criticism. Coffee houses emerged in seventeenth century England, and were very popular in the eighteenth century. Writers patronized various coffee houses, but the coffee house also brought culture to the middle classes. In French salons, aristocrats, bourgeois and intellectuals met on an equal basis. Writers first had to legitimate themselves in the salon before publishing their work. German literary and "table" societies were institutions of the public sphere; people of unequal social status met there. Masonic lodges represented the secret use of enlightenment and reason. These movements needed to be kept secret because they threatened the relations of domination. Reason had to become public slowly. Secret societies eventually developed into exclusive associations that separated themselves from the public sphere. All these types of society had certain institutional criteria in common. 1)They ignored status in their social relations; all that mattered was the authority of the better argument. This idea was important despite never being realized. 2) They discussed previously unquestioned areas. 3) The public became in principle inclusive. Everyone had to be able to participate. The composition of the public changed, however.

People became able to express their opinion about art for the first time. The profession of art critic developed. Critical writing about art and literature emerged, as did critical periodical journals. Coffee houses continued the discussion begun in their pages.

The "great" public that formed in concerts and theaters was bourgeois. The concerns of the public sphere stemmed from the subjectivity of the conjugal patriarchal family. This type of family emerged from capitalist economic transformations. The family was dependent on labor and exchange, but people had autonomy as economic agents and property owners. The conjugal family's self- image collided with the real functions of the bourgeois family. It played a key role in the reproduction of both capital and social norms. The householder had autonomy in the market and authority in his house.

Ideas of conjugal freedom and love sometimes conflicted with economic realities, but they did have some objective reality. Privatized individuals saw themselves as capable of interacting in a purely human, non-economic way. This interaction occurred through letters. Letters, diaries and first person narratives were all experiments with subjectivity, oriented towards and audience. The relationship between author, work and public became intimate.

The press now supported the public that grew out of coffee houses and salons. This was the public sphere of rational-critical debate. Private people using their reason appropriated the state-governed public sphere. This process occurred through the conversion of the literary public sphere. The ideas of the privatised section of the market economy were represented with the aid of ideas developed within the private family. The public sphere began to debate critically, rather than discuss common political tasks. Questioning absolute sovereignty and state secrecy was the beginning of criticism.

A political consciousness developed in civil society that articulated the demand for general laws and eventually asserted itself as the only legitimate source of these laws. This was public opinion. Bourgeois debate occurred according to universal rules; the results of this debate claimed moral authority, because according to reason they were right. The intimate sphere was in fact caught up in market operations. As a privatised individual, the bourgeois was bourgeois and man, human being and property owner. The people making up the two types of public were different; women and dependents were excluded from the political public sphere but participated in the literary one. But in its self- understanding, the public sphere was one and indivisible. The fully developed bourgeois public sphere was based on a fictitious link between the roles of property owners and human beings. The interest of property owners could converge with that of the individual in general.


Habermas moves to discuss the social and institutional structures of the public sphere. Habermas describes the public sphere as private people transformed into a public. Private people come from the economic sphere of labor and exchange, but also form the family, and they oppose or debate with public authority. Their use of reason is "public" for three reasons: 1) because it occurs in public 2) because it is practiced by a public and 3) because it is opposed to the actions of public authority.

The conjugal family is the first important structure. Essentially, Habermas's version of the conjugal family is a bourgeois nuclear family. It is patriarchal, or male-dominated. However, it offers a way for private individuals to enter society; the family provides the economic credentials and emotional training necessary to participate in the public. It depends upon the wider field of civil society, but has its own autonomy. This autonomy derives from the fact that the conjugal family is also a property-owning structure. Its property gives it a degree of independence, and is protected by private law against state interference. The state cannot interfere with private property, and this makes the family strongly independent.

The independence granted by private property is the economic qualification necessary for a private person to join the public. But Habermas argues that the family also provides the individual with a certain emotional training that prepares him for interaction within the public. Relationships between people and the emotional life of the family are important. The family is the source of subjectivity or individuality and privacy. People are "taught" how to feel as part of a family, and this subjectivity is an important part of the structure of the private man in public. Habermas recognises that a tension exists between this image of the perfect conjugal family and the reality, however.

A key paradox comes from the role of the private man. Like the Greek citizen, who is both a householder and public man, the bourgeois is both property owner and human being. This stems from his dual identity as the owner of family property and someone who loves and feels emotion as part of a family. Ultimately, the bourgeois needs both economic qualification and emotional preparedness to use his reason critically as part of a public.

The second key structure is the literary public sphere. It acts as a bridge between representative publicity and the bourgeois public sphere. The literary public sphere prepares people for political reflection by giving them the chance to discuss art and literature critically. The political public sphere, where the public challenged and criticized state authority, developed from its literary predecessor. The public discussion of literature and art is promoted particularly by critical journals and periodicals, but also by the emotional experience of the conjugal family. The shift away from representative publicity towards a literary public sphere is paralleled by the decrease in importance of royal courts and a related rise of towns. The various social institutions and structures that develop within towns promote critical debate and the use of reason. Coffee houses were enormously popular in eighteenth century England; customers could read newspapers, debate and hear the latest news. The quality of debate found in coffee houses led one writer to refer to them as "penny universities"; a cup of coffee usually cost a penny in the seventeenth century, and all social classes mixed there. Various attempts were made to close down London coffee houses by the government.

Salons were a Continental invention, and perhaps more socially exclusive than coffee houses. French writers and intellectuals met at the homes of other society figures to discuss and debate. The salon is traditionally located within the home, in the domestic sphere. Similarly, the German reading clubs were restricted to a slightly more narrow bourgeois reading public. In all these institutions, the key theme was critical debate about literature and reading material. Habermas argues that all were unconcerned with social status, addressed "unthinkable" questions and were by principle inclusive. This is largely true, but it must be remembered that he is still talking about a literate, bourgeois public, and not about the mass of society.

The final, and perhaps most important, element is the transition from the literary public sphere to a political one. The public formed in coffee houses, salons and reading groups shifted to discuss directly political questions. Habermas sees the roots of this political discussion in traditional questioning of absolute sovereignty and the power of kings. The political public sphere is not merely discussion about politics, which presumably occurred before the eighteenth century, but a concerted, rational discussion about political questions that affect a particular section of society. Habermas sees this discussion as the ideas and needs of civil society being represented before the public authority.

The public acts in the political sphere to secure own demands, but also creates itself as a powerful force. This force is "public opinion". As its demands are based on rational argument and criticism, public opinion can claim a kind of authority; Habermas calls this both "moral authority" and "the authority of the better argument".

The key agent in transforming the literary public sphere into a political force is the press. Critical journals began to carry political articles, and eventually specifically political newspapers and journals emerge. Habermas's insistence on the power of the press as a force shaping the transformation of the public sphere remerges later.

Habermas recognizes the extent to which this new public sphere excludes people, and the essential fiction that it is built upon. Women contribute to the literary public sphere, but cannot exercise their reason about politics because they lack the economic "qualifications". Similarly, the sphere that excludes them depends upon a link between property owners and people as "human beings" that Habermas claims is a fiction. In claiming the moral authority to speak for all people, the bourgeoisie performs a clever sleight of hand and excludes many groups.

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