Bourgeois Constitutional State

The bourgeois constitutional state is an invention of the 19th century, 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 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 18th and 19th 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 can represent its interests to the state through the public sphere.

Literary Public Sphere

The literary public sphere develops in the 18th 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 analyzed and often opposed government action, thus preventing 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 a king or the nobility representing their political power before the people. They merely displayed their power, and there was no political discussion because there was no “public” in the modern sense. 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.


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, only that certain feudal elements are returning.

Rational-Critical Debate

The lifeblood of the public sphere. Rational-critical debate occurred in the 18th-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.