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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas

Bourgeois Public Sphere: Idea and Ideology

The Political Functions of the Public sphere

The Social-Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere


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.

The bourgeois public sphere arose together with a society separated from the state. But by the mid nineteenth century, you could see that this public sphere would come under the control of groups with no interest in society as a private sphere. The public sphere also presumed to be able to realize what is promised - the subjection of political domination to reason. The development of a socialist society would lead to the end of political power, which requires the power of men over men. The class relationships of private to public sphere would be reversed. Criticism and control by the public would be extended to a private part of civil society. Private persons became private persons of a public. The informal and personal interaction of human beings became freed from labor constraints and became really private. An intimate sphere free of economic functions was created.

The dialectic of the bourgeois public sphere was not completed as in early socialist expectations. It proved possible to widen the public sphere within the framework of class society. But criticism of the public sphere was so obviously correct that its socio-philosophical representatives were forced to deny the principle of civil society even as they celebrated it. Liberalism had an ambivalent conception of the public sphere. Eighteenth-century bourgeois consciousness conceived of the idea of making political domination rational within the framework of the philosophy of history. Liberals examined the idea that a rational basis for the public sphere could exist. The outward appearance of the public sphere changed in response to revolts on the continent. Once the public sphere expanded, coherence and consensus ended. The public sphere became the arena of competing interests and violent conflict. Laws passed according to public pressure did not embody rational consensus.

Mill and Tocqueville approved of extending the franchise. The competitive order no longer lent credibility to the idea that it maintained open access to the political public sphere. The topic of the nineteenth century was the enlargement of the public sphere. But Mill and Tocqueville devalued the broadened public opinion. They saw public opinion as a force that could limit power, but that must itself be limited. The demand for tolerance was now directed at public opinion.

The political public sphere became a mere limit on power, rather than its dissolution. Independent citizens were needed to purify mass public opinion. Elements of representative publicity were needed to save the principle of publicity from opinion itself. Tocqueville, like Montesquieu, wanted new intermediary powers, but he also analysed the tyranny of the increasingly bureaucratised state. Citizens had slipped into a new kind of tutelage. Marx too became concerned about the power of the state apparatus. In the 100 years after the heyday of liberalism, the original relationship of public and private spheres dissolved. The contours of the bourgeois public sphere eroded, but neither liberalism nor socialism could diagnose the problems. While the public sphere penetrated into more spheres of society, it lost its political function.


Part of this section - the discussion of Kant, Hegel and Marx - was missing from the original manuscript of the Structural Transformation. Habermas wrote it only when he revised his thesis for publication.

Habermas has already analyzed the social structures of the public sphere. He now considers its theoretical and intellectual foundations. Essentially, this involves trying to trace the development of a theory of the public sphere in various writers. This project leads Habermas into an interpretation of modern intellectual history from the viewpoint of the public sphere, but also into the history of political terms themselves.

Habermas's novel history begins with the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. Leviathan is an argument for an all-powerful state that guarantees the security of its subjects against war in the state of nature. The main danger threatening Hobbes' state is religious controversy, which frequently leads to civil war and unrest. Hobbes seeks to resolve this problem in part by establishing a minimal, Christian religion that the sovereign enforces, but also by devaluing the status of religious belief as knowledge. Subjects can believe whatever they like in private, but cannot debate their opinions in public, nor can they form organizations to discuss the government. Habermas believes that these measures represent a restriction of the public sphere, but that they also place great importance on the individual's opinions. Although they cannot debate in public, individuals have their private opinions protected from state scrutiny and control. This is the inconspicuous beginning of opinion as a publicly critical force.

The next great thinker in the history of the public sphere is John Locke. Habermas argues that Locke's greatest philosophical work, the Essay concerning Human Understanding, develops Hobbes' idea of private opinion. For Locke, the informal ideas, habits and opinions of other people restrict your behavior. They are often more effective than more "official" methods of control, such as state or church laws. However, Locke does not argue that this opinion, which he also calls the "law of private censure" is a real law. It is not formed in public, and does not depend on education or social status; anyone can have an influential opinion about others.

The eighteenth century French physiocratic thinkers discussed politics and political economy; among many other things, they debated the status of the French monarchy and the reform of the French economy. In Habermas's reading, the physiocrats prized public opinion as a positive force, but only within the context of the monarchical system.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau breaks with this model in the Social Contract, his attempt to solve the problems with modern society and government he diagnosed in his Second Discourse. Rousseau wanted a situation in which the people was sovereign, and the state acted according to the general will. The general will is a complex term, but Rousseau makes it clear that it does not depend on public debate. Rousseau opposes democratic debate because it allows individual and group interests to control the general will. In this way he develops an influential concept of public opinion that is formulated in private.

For Habermas, Kant's philosophy is the best description of the public sphere as it operated. Many of the elements of this work originate with his reading of Kant. Habermas engages in a complicated discussion of different issues in Kant's complex philosophy, centered on his concept of publicity. He focuses on Perpetual Peace, Kant's theory of a peaceful international system, and his essay What is enlightenment? Publicity is a mechanism to unite morality and politics, but the public itself must learn to use its reason. Kant's discussion of enlightenment centers on people emerging from self-incurred intellectual infancy to think for themselves. This process of thinking publicly is enshrined in what Kant calls the republican constitution—his idea for the organization of the state that he felt offered the best chance of international peace. This constitution depends on similar social conditions to the actual public sphere, and Kant provides philosophical justification for them.

Habermas also addresses Kant's moral theory. The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals essentially argues that the moral maxims that provoke action should be universal, and that everyone should know and follow them. In his political work, Kant argues against secret diplomacy. Habermas turns this into a statement of the need for publicity in politics, and presents Kant as the main theorist of public politics.

The final element of Kant's thought that Habermas uses is his philosophy of history. Kant argues that human progress depends on our own "unsocial sociability", in which conflicts between people drive the human race forward. Habermas uses this as evidence of Kant's confidence about the rapid appearance of the public sphere.

Hegel's concept of civil society is central to any discussion of the public sphere. In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel identifies three major categories - family, civil society and state. Civil society as Hegel defined it was the location of the economy, exchange and production. In Habermas's interpretation, Hegel saw it as a disorganized sphere; the economy tended towards crises of underconsumption, which produced a mass of unemployed laborers who sank to the bottom of society and became a "rabble". This flaw within civil society needed to be corrected by state intervention or by the corporations of civil society. Therefore while Hegel "invented" civil society as Habermas uses the term, he also exposed its problems and devalued it in comparison to the state. Public opinion as a product of civil society was also devalued. Ultimately, Hegel was more interested in the progress of nations on the "world- historical" scene than in the regulation of the domestic sphere through critical publicity.

Marx's critique of the bourgeois state is well known. He criticized not only its origins and class basis, but also the economic conditions of civil society that allowed it to function. In a way, this criticism exposed the real foundations of the public sphere, chiefly the idea that property owners were also real human beings. In fact, Marx argues, they exploit and deform other people. Marx exposed the public sphere as a bourgeois fiction.

Marx's solution to these economic and social problems was the communist state. Communism would reverse a whole series of relationships. The public would destroy the oppressive state, and exercise control over the property owning bourgeois (in fact, they would disappear in a truly communist state). The economic conditions of the public sphere would be destroyed, and relationships between people would become truly human and unrelated to economic functions.

Their expectations of transformation were not realized, but the criticisms of Marx and other communist and socialist thinkers forced the representatives of the public sphere to take note. Habermas discusses the work of Mill and Tocqueville as an example of this response. How far they saw themselves as representatives of the public sphere is uncertain.

In the face of criticism and its evident problems, their notion of the public sphere was uncertain and ambivalent. The key feature of this period for Habermas is the expansion of the public sphere through electoral reforms; people who previously lacked the property qualifications to vote could now do so. But expansion led to a loss of coherence; many diverse groups could now participate, rather than merely one. Different private interests competed. This was the beginning of the end, as Habermas sees it. Both Marx and Toqueville were suspicious of the expanded public, seeing it as a powerful force that needed to be restrained, not unlike Hegel's rabble. Both the liberals and Marx felt themselves to be trapped between an overpowerful state and an unstable public. The problem was expansion and instability in the public sphere. The solution was unclear.

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