Jürgen Habermas is a contemporary theorist who has struggled valiantly to salvage truth and reason from the moral (and factual) relativism that is so dominant today. His key concept is the idea of the public sphere — a social space in which anyone and everyone can test their ideas and engage in debate in order to produce a reasoned public opinion which will then, hopefully, drive politics and social change.
The ideal public sphere is a continuous public discussion among free individuals who read and think in the privacy of their homes — a discussion that is open to all, where the best idea stands on its own merit, where listening and speech are equally important, and one which penetrates to the core of major economic and political organizations.
The core of this concept was developed in a book published first in German in the 1960s. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is a historical review of the birth and eventual disintegration of public opinion. One of the most interesting things about the book is the way in which Habermas teases out the complexities in our understanding of public and private and their interrelations.
Our modern idea of public and private didn’t exist in the middle ages. Habermas traces its roots to the 1500s. Before then, art existed exclusively to indicate rank and the meaning of words was shaped by the status of the person who spoke them. In particular, Habermas looks at the ‘dignity’ of kings and nobles. Dignity was a blending of power and culture, produced by heredity, military might and the rituals of the court. The court was a form of government, but it was also a cultural show performed for the lower classes. Without onlookers, this sort of dignity wouldn’t really exist and the pronouncements of the king would lose their significance. As members of the court, the life and actions of a nobleperson were always under the eye of the entire society. The word ‘private’ was first used to describe an individual who was not part of the state, who did not have a role to play in courtly life. They lacked a certain amount of dignity, but they also had more freedom to conduct themselves as they saw fit, without being obliged to retrace the footsteps of ritual and tradition. The first ‘private’ individuals to gain some social standing were merchants who amassed private fortunes and gained influence through their wealth.
By the 1700s, these private people had gained considerable power. They owned property and could afford to commission art and music. They were creating culture and meaning outside of the social traditions of the court. For Habermas, this is the type of person who populates the early public sphere; his wealth allows him to influence the behaviour of others without relying upon aristocratic ‘dignity’ and the intimate space of his private home gives him the time and breathing room to reflect and develop personal opinions outside of the pressures of the court. Reading at home is very important for Habermas. ‘Novels’ in the modern sense of stories about the subjective thoughts and feelings of individuals arise at the same time, amplifying the idea that a person can have an individual personality which is different from the role they play in society. This is also approximately the time that modern governments appear. Keep in mind that democracy did not yet exist; first came a new idea about how royalty should handle its subjects. In theory at least, a modern government is supposed to treat all individuals equally, rather than basing their treatment on their cultural or social position. This new equality before the state is also important in shaping the idea of private individuals as equivalent, but distinct — unique atoms forming the molecules of different social groups.
For Habermas, the meat of the public sphere is the written word. Books are now produced en masse. Newspapers are emerging. The rule of law means that power itself has been written down, rather than being determined by the role and personality of the king. In the 1700s, the well-to-do consume culture privately — they read newspapers and novels and musicians perform in their drawing rooms — but they then gather in the public spaces of coffee shops and formal dinner parties to discuss what they have experienced. The public sphere existed everywhere that private individuals met and conversed. Public opinion was beginning to take shape. Debate and discussion was a testing of ideas, a process of determining the best ideas, just as the market was a way of finding the best products and evolution was a way of finding the best genetic arrangement. But for it to be a real competition — ideas had to enter the fray in isolation, they could not be weighed differently based on who spoke them. Habermas says that “critical debate took place in principle without regard to all preexisting social and political rank and in accord with universal rules” (p.54). For the best results, ideas should compete against all other ideas. The public sphere existed in different places and on different scales, but it was continuous; writers and musicians tested their ideas or melodies before the smaller public of the salons before ‘publishing’ them to the broader public. Debate in the coffee houses produced letters to the editor, which, once published, entered back into the coffee houses for a new round of debate. Habermas makes a distinction between the ‘political public sphere’, which was situated in coffee houses and populated exclusively by men, and the ‘public sphere of the world of letters’ which focused on arts and culture and also included women, but these spheres also overlapped and influenced each other. Though each coffee house or salon was small, participants went from one to another and ideas traveled with them; this broader level of exchange is the real public sphere.
To be effective, this public discussion can’t be just a sort of peanut gallery, it must be continuous with the debate in the halls of power. Politicians and amateurs must influence and be influenced by one another. Habermas sees the battle to publish the debate on the floor of the British parliament as a crucial part of this process. Once parliamentary debate was available in print, it too became meat for the coffee house discussions and all this interweaving talk helped to ensure that politicians remained part of the ‘public’ and protected against corruption. The people were talking and what they were talking about was democracy. At this point, the public consensus was that laws should be determined by public opinion and that public consent was the only real legitimacy for power. This sort of public opinion arose before the formal institutions of democracy and is arguably the real substance of democracy. Habermas argues that ideas of equality first arose from the practices of the public sphere where individuals emerging from their private homes confronted each other as equals.
Of course, in its early days ‘democracy’ was very exclusive. In part, this had to do with the way in which the public sphere was initially conceived. In the 1700s, people still thought that only those with a certain net worth could properly participate in public debate. These people were the ‘bourgeois’ — property owners without an aristocratic title. Owning property guaranteed that a person was autonomous and had freely developed their own ideas. It seems odd, but, as a break from feudalism it makes some sense. A property owner was not as tightly embedded in a social role. A servant in the court didn’t have a ‘private life’ in the same way that a bourgeois merchant did. This limit on participation was further justified, in theory at least, by a sense that anyone could gain access to the public sphere by competing in market. This then, gives us a complete picture of what Habermas calls the ‘bourgeois public sphere.’ It is a sort of working prototype of the ideal public sphere. It is founded in the written word, it operates based on rational debate and it has a real influence on politics — but it is certainly not accessible to all. Over the coming decades, rational analysis would begin to conclude that limiting participation to property owners was in itself irrational, little by little the vote would be expanded to include more people in democracy, but wealth and power were also being concentrated in new ways. In part 2 of this blog post, I will look at Habermas’ analysis of the 20th century and his disappointment with the effect that the rise of PR and political parties have had on rational public discussion.
Now let’s take one last look at our notion of ‘public.’ With the birth of democracy, and especially after the expansion of the vote to those without property, something strange happens to the word ‘public.’ Under government by the people, the government, the people it employs, and the things it owns are all referred to as ‘public.’ Public servants, public parks, public schools. Habermas highlights the oddity of this dual meaning of public. ‘Public’ can refer to either the state or to precisely that segment of the population — as in the case of public opinion — which either criticizes or acclaims the state. It is this second meaning of public — the coming together of free individuals — that interests me and it is this distinction between two ‘publics’ that has led to the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces’ focus on grassroots community spaces rather than community centres and public libraries. In fact, public libraries — because of their focus on silent reading — are perhaps better understood as a state-funded private space (a socialized version of the bourgeois home) than as a part of the public sphere proper.