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.