Civil society literally means a society of citizens. In Habermas’s account, it refers to private individuals or families engaged in the market, in contrast to government actors involved in the state administrations or police. Civil society is in the private realm, in contrast to the public authorities like the state or courts. But civil society is also what makes up the public sphere, at least at the height of the bourgeois public sphere in the early 19th century. At this time, the public sphere consisted of private individuals communicating about art and politics.
The Public Authority
In contrast to civil society, Habermas groups state actors and the courts under the “public authority.” But the public authority does not ideally participate in the public sphere. Rather, the public sphere critiques and holds the public authorities accountable to the best interests of the nation. This is what makes them “public”: their actions are exposed to and responsible for a wider audience, in contrast to private interactions between individuals.
The bourgeoisie refers to the middle class in capitalist societies. Although not as rich as the upper classes, they nonetheless control most of the nation’s wealth. At the same time, they are not involved in the actual production of goods like laborers or the working classes are. Habermas calls the public sphere of the early 19the century “bourgeois” because it is primarily composed of individuals from the middle class. As this class became educated, they exchanged letters discussing the affairs of the day, and especially art, which came to be made by and for the middle classes instead of for the monarchy or the Church.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a vastly influential German philosopher who wrote on many topics. For Habermas’s purposes, Kant provides crucial developments in the philosophy of the public sphere. Like the bourgeois members of the public sphere, Kant valued rational discussion. Truth could be attained through reason. At the same time, Kant aligned legislation with morality. He thought law should reflect rationally-derived, universal truths. For Kant, morality required universalization: the validity of my action requires that it be valid for anyone to perform. This is essentially the “golden rule” or what Kant called the “categorical imperative”: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The point, for Habermas, is that this requires individuals to think not of their personal needs, but of the universal needs of mankind. This is an essentially public function: in order for a private action to be moral, you first have to publicize it or imagine others in the public doing the same action.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a revolutionary German political and economic philosopher. Habermas discusses him in relation to the socialist critique of the public sphere. A principle of the public sphere is that it is open to all. This is what distinguishes it from power in the monarchy, for instance, which is based on a bloodline. Theoretically, anyone can participate in the public sphere regardless of their parents or circumstance of birth. But Marx shows that the public sphere relies on criteria that essentially belong to middle-class ideals: you have to own property and be educated to participate. That means this “universal” space is actually only open to one class in society. The illusion of universalism masks an underlying class conflict.
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Questions and Answers
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