Influences on Jürgen Habermas & Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Several important influences on Habermas’s work are evident. Firstly, he borrows many important terms and categories from Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Many of his ways of thinking about the public sphere are explicitly Kantian, and he develops Hegel’s central category of civil society into the basis from which public opinion emerges. Of these, Kant is perhaps the greatest influence, simply because for Habermas his work represents the “fully developed” theory of the public sphere.

The Marxist cultural theory of the Frankfurt School is also an important influence, particularly on the second part of Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The Frankfurt School was a group of philosophers linked to the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, active from the 1920s onward. Two of its most famous names were Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. The Frankfurt School adapted Marx’s theories greatly, to study modern culture and society.

The Frankfurt School took the unorthodox view that the experience of totalitarianism in World War II showed that the lower classes, or proletariat, had become corrupted by mass culture. They could no longer act as a revolutionary force. Their pessimism about what social force might replace the proletariat increased as the 20th century progressed. Adorno is well known for his critique of the modern “culture industry,” which manipulated the public, creating consumers of the mass media, rather than critical readers. Habermas draws on this savage criticism of modern society and culture in his treatment of advertising and the press.

A more personal influence on Habermas was the German legal scholar Wolfgang Abendroth, who supervised Habermas's original thesis at Marburg, after it was rejected by Horkheimer and Adorno in Frankfurt. Abendroth’s work analyzed the relationship between the social-welfare principle and the inherited structure of the German constitutional state. He argued that the Federal German constitution aimed to extend the ideas of equality and welfare, and that a socialist democratic state could emerge from its constitutional predecessor. Habermas moved away from this concept of the development of states but acknowledges his debt to Abendroth in the dedication to Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

The Influence of Jürgen Habermas & Criticisms of His Work

Habermas’s influence over other writers is considerable. It became more evident in the English-speaking world after the publication of a translation of Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1989. An important collection of essays edited by Craig Calhoun shows wide range of responses to his work: scholars in English, political theory and philosophy respond to Habermas in this volume. Responses are so varied because so many different elements are present in Habermas’s work. Some historians have criticized the factual basis of many of his claims about the publishing industry, about economic history, and bourgeois culture. More abstract theorists have challenged his assumptions about a range of issues. Feminist and gender scholars, for example, argue that Habermas neglects the importance of gender, and of the exclusion of women from the public sphere. This is a point that Habermas conceded.

Theorists have attempted to work out the implications of the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere for modern political theory. This is perhaps a more difficult task, as the second half of the book is more problematic than the first. Habermas’s debates about public reason with the U.S. philosopher John Rawls has been widely discussed. Also, many writers have attempted to apply Habermas’s model of the bourgeois public sphere to other countries and periods. They have tried to find the public sphere in America, East Asia, and other places. There has been a tendency for these projects to cloud Habermas’s original idea of the public sphere. Given that he makes it clear that the public sphere was inseparably related to the social and economic conditions of 18th-century Europe, these attempts do not always seem worth the effort. Almost all histories of publishing and the book trade, such as those of the U.S. historian Robert Darnton, react to Habermas's ideas.

Habermas has attempted to answer his critics. In his essay Further Reflections on the Public Sphere, he revises his position in several ways. First, he admits some problems with the historical basis of his work. He also suggests other areas for consideration, namely:

1) the possibility of a popular or plebian public sphere with a different social basis, in which popular culture is not merely a backdrop to representative publicity;

2) a reconsideration of the role of women in the bourgeois public sphere;

3) a need to develop a less pessimistic view about the modern mass public.

Some of the issues about public discourse and the role of the state raised in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere reemerge in later works, such as his Theory of Communicative Action and Legitimation Crisis. Habermas has changed so many of his positions, however, that it can one has to be careful about considering his work on public sphere as a basis for his later philosophy.