Skip over navigation

Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas

Important Terms

General Summary

Important Themes, Ideas and Arguments

Bourgeois constitutional state  -  The bourgeois constitutional state is a nineteenth century invention, formed as an attempt to link the public sphere to an idea of law. It guarantees its citizens certain basic rights, which amount to establishing the public sphere as a public institution. The state does this in order to abolish the idea of the state as a dominating force by linking law to rational debate. The bourgeois state is not long-lived, however, as it depends on particular social and economic factors that are unique to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Civil society  -  Habermas borrows the term "civil society" from Hegel. Civil society is the sphere of production and exchange, which forms part of the private realm and is distinct from the state. Civil society is essentially what most people call "the economy", but includes other social institutions. It operates according to its own laws, but is able to represent its interests to the state through the public sphere.
Literary public sphere  -  The literary public sphere develops in the eighteenth century; its key institutions are literary journals, periodicals, and the coffee houses and salons where these publications were discussed. The literary public sphere represented the first time that the public could critically discuss art and literature, drawing on the emotional resources they developed within the family. It developed into the political public sphere.
Political public sphere  -  The political public sphere represents private people who have come together as a public to use their reason critically. It is not so much a place as a series of actions. It developed out of the literary public sphere, and depended on private people's status as both property owners and human beings; its roots were in the family and in the world of property ownership. In the past, the political public sphere represented a critical voice that analysed and often opposed government action, and prevented domination by the powerful state. In its modern form, however, the public sphere is no more than a manipulative form of publicity, as politicians, advertising agents and public relations experts try to create and manipulate a false public.
Representative publicity  -  Representative publicity is the form of public sphere that preceded the literary public sphere. It operated in the feudal states of medieval and early modern Europe. Essentially, it consisted of the King or the nobility representing their political power before the people. They merely displayed their power; there was no political discussion, because there was no "public" in the modern sense. In order for political power to exist at all, an audience was required. Habermas sees elements of this style of publicity returning in the behavior of modern political parties and public relations experts. See refeudalization
Immanuel Kant  -  (1724–1804) German philosopher. Habermas argues that Kant's philosophy of right and of history form the foundations of the eighteenth-century theory of the public sphere. He undertakes a detailed analysis of Kant's work in terms of publicity.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel  -  (1770–1831), German Philosopher and author of the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right. For Habermas, Hegel views public opinion in a similar way to Kant, but his view of civil society emphasizes its discontinuity and confusion. Civil society for Hegel cannot provide the rational basis for private people to turn political authority (domination) into rational authority.
Karl Marx  -  (1818–83). German political philosopher and social critic who rote Capital and the Communist Manifesto. Habermas analyses Marx as a theorist of the public sphere who both denounced the idea, and yet used it to reveal the problems with bourgeois society.
John Stuart Mill  -  (1806–73) English philosopher who wrote On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Principles of Political Economy. Habermas analyses Mill as a central theorist of the liberal public sphere; public opinion for Mill is a powerful force, but one that needs to be controlled.
Jeremy Bentham  -  (1748–1832) English philosopher and author of Fragment on Government and Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Bentham is best known for formulating the principle of utility—all humans should maximize utility by producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville  -  (1805–1859) French social theorist who wrote Democracy in America and The Ancien Regime and the Revolution. Together with Mill, Tocqueville is identified by Habermas as an ambivalent liberal theorist of the public sphere.
Refeudalization  -  A process that Habermas identifies in modern social-democratic states. Refeudalization involves a merging of the state and society, public and private that approximates to conditions in the feudal state, and a return of elements of representative publicity. Habermas does not believe that modern states are returning to the Middle Ages, merely that certain feudal elements are returning.
Rational-critical debate  -  The lifeblood of the public sphere. Rational-critical debate occurred in the eighteenth century public sphere between members of a property-owning, educated reading public using their reason. It centered first on literary questions, then on political issues. One of Habermas's criticisms of the modern state is the decline of rational, meaningful argument.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us