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Public opinion has a long history, which has only been known in outline before. The idea of bourgeois public sphere was formulated in the Kantian doctrine of right, revealed as problematic by Hegel and Marx, and had to admit to its own ambivalence in nineteenth century liberalism. Opinion is a judgement that lacks certainty. Opinion did not evolve straightforwardly into public opinion. Both of its original meanings lacked the rationality of "public opinion". Hobbes took the important step of identifying conscience with opinion. Hobbes' subjects are excluded from the public sphere and religion is not a matter for debate; conscience is opinion and therefore inconsequential. But Hobbes' devaluing of religious conviction actually increased the importance of private convictions. Locke ranked the "law of opinion" alongside divine and state law in his Essay concerning Human Understanding; he lacks the idea of public opinion, however. For Pierre Bayle, "critique" replaced opinion and was a private matter. Rousseau was the first to speak of public opinion.
In English, the development was from opinion to public spirit to public opinion. The first documented use of the term "public opinion" came in 1781. It occurred in France from the 1750s onwards. The French "opinion publique" was a term for the opinion of the people supported by tradition and good sense. The physiocrats supported the dual authority of public opinion and the prince. But for the physiocrats, the rationality of public opinion could still not act. This idea contrasts Rousseau, who linked the general will to public opinion. Rousseau's general will did not emerge from competing private interests. The Social Contract made Locke's law of opinion sovereign; a democracy of unpublic opinion existed. The physiocrats wanted absolutism complemented by a critical public sphere; Rousseau wanted democracy without debate. Bentham wrote of the connection between public opinion and publicity. Publicity was vital to allow the electorate to act with knowledge.
Kant's elaboration of publicity in his philosophy of right and history represents the fully developed theoretical form of the bourgeois public sphere. Public opinion saw itself as rationalizing politics in the name of morality. Kant's Perpetual Peace describes the union of politics with morality as possible and desirable. Kant's publicity could unite politics and morality. Kant saw the public sphere as the principle of legal order and the method of enlightenment. Kant felt that the public should enlighten itself; enlightenment was at first a contest of the faculties, a matter for the learned. But the public sphere could be realized by everyone adept at using reason. The public of rational beings became one of citizens wherever communication about the commonwealth occurred. Under the republican constitution, this political public sphere became the organizational principle of the liberal state.
Political actions agreed with law and morality only if their maxims were capable of publicity. Kant's construction of human progress is familiar. Essentially, it argues that individual intentions cancel each other out with positive results. Kant developed the specific sociological conditions for the political public sphere; they depended on relationships amongst freely competing commodity producers. Only property owners were admitted to the public, because a man must be his own master. Those without property were not citizens, but could become one someday. Kant was confident that the public would come about by itself, in the near future. Habermas discusses Kant's conception of the noumenal and phenomenal republic, and his philosophy of history.
The demotion of public opinion is a necessary consequence of Hegel's concept of civil society. He praises it, but his insight into its antagonistic character destroyed the idea of public opinion as reason alone. Hegel discovered that civil society was not rich or efficient enough to prevent the formation of an impoverished rabble. The ambivalent status of public opinion came from the disorganization of civil society, against which precautionary measures were needed. Public opinion had the form of common sense; it was no longer the sphere of reason. Hegel rejected the link between politics and morality. Antagonistic civil society was not the place where autonomous private people related to each other. The disorganization of civil society necessitated political force.
Marx took the idea of the bourgeois public sphere seriously but ironically. He used the bourgeois constitutional state to show its contradictions. Marx denounced public opinion as false consciousness, and criticized the social conditions that allowed it to function. Marx's critique destroyed all the fictions to which the idea of the public sphere appealed. He saw that civil society was not all of society, and that property owners could not be human beings. The separation of state and society corresponded to the separation of public and private persons. The bourgeois constitutional state was mere ideology.
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