A new social order developed with the emergence of early finance and trade capitalism. Capitalism stabilized the power structure of the society of estates and worked toward their dissolution. The instruments of this dissolution were the traffic in commodities and news created by capitalist trade. Long-distance trade led to the development of trade fairs that required horizontal economic relationships at odds with the vertical estates system. The traffic in news also developed. This traffic became public in the seventeenth century, and became revolutionary only in the mercantilist phase, which was a new stage of capitalism. Merchant companies opened up new markets and required political guarantees; the modern state developed in time with mercantilism. Increasingly sophisticated tax systems developed, along with permanent armies and administration. The public now referred to a state apparatus with a monopoly over legitimate coercion. The opening of foreign markets served the development of domestic economies. Trade in commodities causes a revolution in production.

Civil society was born as the corollary of the depersonalized state authority. Activities formerly confined to the household framework emerged into the public sphere. Economic activity became private but was oriented towards the public commodity market. The very idea of economics also changed; it ceased to relate to the household/oikos, and took its modern form.

The press took on an important role; political journals developed. The traffic in news was related to commercial need; news became a commodity. Also, new states began to use the press for state administration and intelligence. A new stratum of the bourgeois developed within the public, which included officials, doctors and lawyers. Craftsmen and shopkeepers fell in social status. The bourgeois reading public became the real carrier of the public. Their important status in civil society led to tension between town and court. States encouraged an awareness of publicness and the public sphere of civil society. The interplay between state regulation and private initiative was important in early capitalism. Broad strata of the population were affected by the regulations of mercantilist policy. Official interest in private households constituted the development of a critical sphere; administrative contact between domestic and public authority provoked the critical judgment of the public making use of its reason. The public could assume this function, as all it needed was a change in the function of the press, which had turned society into a public affair. As early as the seventeenth century, periodicals existed that mixed criticism with news. Critical reasoning made its way into the press in the eighteenth century. Private people prepared to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion.


Habermas begins by outlining the areas that he discusses later; he also defines some key terms and provides a historical overview of the philosophical problem he is addressing. His initial emphasis on terms is important, as his argument rests on the idea that the very concepts of public and private changed through time. However, English readers should be aware of problems with Habermas's own terms. The German word "Offentlichkeit" is central to the work, and can be translated as "publicity", "public sphere" or "public". Many translators and scholars emphasize "public sphere" as the best translation, making "offentlichkeit" appear as a place or a concrete thing, rather than as a more abstract idea of "publicity". Although Habermas often seems to emphasize the spatial dimension of the public sphere, it is important to remember that he is not referring to an actual place, but rather to a more abstract quality. Scholars frequently talk about various groups "occupying" the public sphere as if it were a physical place. In reality it is not a place. It is an idea that is dependent on various social and economic factors, and linked to various terms and concepts

One of the key socio-economic factors that Habermas introduces in this section is the development of civil society. This term essentially comes from Hegel's Philosophy of Right, where it denotes the realm where goods are produced and exchanged, and where all other economic relationships occur. Civil society is governed by economic laws, and includes all those areas apart from the family that are not included in the state. It exists only when economic activity is separated from the household to an extent. Habermas's model of the public sphere depends completely on the existence of civil society, but because he is interested in its development, in this section, he describes some of its history, and analyzes the type of publicity that preceded it. This history begins with classical notions of the public and private.

Like many accounts of Western cultural and intellectual history, Habermas begins with ancient Greece. The division between polis and oikos, or city and household, is the oldest form of public/private distinction. Various similarities and differences are evident between this and later models. The Greek household was the sphere of labor, exchange and the family. Greek men were allowed to enter the public world of the polis only if they had the status of the head of a household. The polis was the sphere of discussion, but also of collective action, which took the form of war or competitive sports. One could not debate, fight, excel, or be free in the private sphere; the household was the place of women and slaves in ancient Greek thought and practice. In many ways, all the later divisions of public and private that Habermas discusses have their roots in his ideas about ancient Greece; the idea that people can move into a public place or sphere because of their private status is central.

Popular pages: Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere