The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Summary and Analysis of Part 4

Summary of Part 4 (“The Bourgeois Public Sphere: Idea and Ideology”)

The fourth part of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is both the book’s longest and its least typical. The chapters surrounding it are more or less historical, spelling out social changes in Western countries. In contrast, this chapter is a history of ideas rather than of institutions or classes or people. Its task is to see how different philosophers have theorized the concept of “opinion” from the 17th century through the 19th century. This matters because it shapes how we understand concepts like the “public” or what it means when we say things like “the will of the people.” Habermas begins by noting that the etymology of “opinion” has at least two origins. One traces back to a word meaning “uncertainty”: an opinion is something that hasn’t been proven yet. The other is associated with judgment and reputation, as when we say we have a good or bad opinion of someone or something. For his purposes, Habermas says, what matters the most is this second sense, because it gets at the larger question of social or public belief.

Philosophically, Habermas begins his history of ideas with Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher who lived from 1588 to 1679. What interests Habermas is Hobbes’s equation of opinion with “conscience,” or one’s personal religious convictions. Because this makes opinion ultra-private, it is very different from the “public opinion” that is Habermas’s endpoint. But Hobbes is important because this connection of opinion and religion made religion a private, rather than public, matter. John Locke, another English philosopher from later in the 17th century, also identified opinion with conscience. He was particularly interested in what he called the “Law of Opinion,” or how a society judged virtue and vice. But because these judgments did not arise from discussion or education, they are very different from the kind we get in a public sphere.

In the 1700s, many philosophers in France also discussed “opinion publique.” Here, public opinion referred to the common sense of the people, supported by tradition, and “the enlightened outcome of common and public reflection on the foundations of social order.” Public opinion made judgments about how a nation should be run, but it did not actually run a nation, like Parliament or another ruling body does. This gets us closer to a public sphere, because it is a space of opinion outside and critical of the state, rather than absorbed within it. Habermas discusses two public opinions, or philosophies of how a country should be run. The first belonged to agricultural economists, or “physiocrats,” who thought there was a “natural order” to the world that merely had to be discovered in order to make society cohere. In contrast, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in a “social contract” that had to be constructed in order for people to function in harmony. In a social contract, each individual is submitted to the general will of a society. This natural and social sense mapped onto what Habermas calls a “critical” and a legislative” function in public opinion. The first critiques the state to align it with nature; the second creates laws in order to bind people in a social contract. After the French Revolution, Habermas argues, these two senses came together, and public opinion was both critical and legislative.

Perhaps the most important philosopher for the purposes of a modern understanding of “public opinion” is the German Immanuel Kant, who wrote in the second half of the 18th century. Like the members of the bourgeois public sphere, Kant valued rational discussion. Truth could be attained through reason. At the same time, Kant aligned legislative law with morality, how one ought to behave in a society. 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.

Another German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, agreed with Kant’s sense that critical debate led to truth and that the validity of a thing depended on any rational human being consenting to it. Criticism and universalism are the two keys. But Hegel thought this was also, precisely, why public opinion was doomed to failure. For the public is not homogeneous, and it is therefore difficult to develop an opinion all could hold. Society is divided; opinion is fractured. As Habermas glosses: “The public opinion of the private people assembled to form a public no longer retained a basis of unity and truth; it degenerated to the level of a subjective opining of the many.” Karl Marx took Hegel’s insight further by arguing that the division of society was essentially into different classes, based on their position and power within a capitalist society. In such a society, “public opinion” will always be bourgeois opinion, and to call it “public” is to make it seem universally valid when in fact it is only serving the interests of one class. In this case, Marx says, public opinion can only be “false consciousness.”

Marx did not only critique public opinion for its false claims of universal access that masked its exclusion of everyone but the middle class. He also critiqued the idea that property owners—the bourgeoisie—could really be “human” at all. When interests are reduced to economic interests, people are not acting out of humanity or their own inner freedom of emotion and action. Rather, they are cogs in a system. He thought the bourgeois public sphere, in turn, would inevitably disintegrate. Instead, a new public sphere would emerge based around those who were actually doing the labor in society: the working classes or proletariat. Once the proletariat gained power, the public sphere would be based not on private property, but on the autonomy of free human beings.

Such a reversal never happened, however. Instead of the socialist revolution, Habermas says there was the development of liberalism, as theorized by the 19th-century philosophers John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. Liberalism argued for extending the public sphere from the bourgeoisie to other classes. But this meant, as Hegel suggested, that the public sphere became a space of competition between different class interests. In the hundred years since liberalism, the public sphere in turn disintegrated. It became more accessible to different classes, but this caused the sphere to lose its political function, as it became no longer possible to resolve different class interests through rational debate. The public sphere became a space of coercion—attempts to dominate other groups of people, rather than a space of exchange between equal opinions, because it was no longer possible to pretend society positioned people on equal footing.

Analysis of Part 4 (“The Bourgeois Public Sphere: Idea and Ideology”)

This Part may seem a bit unlike the others in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and in fact, it was added after Habermas wrote his dissertation. Overall, it is an effective and illuminating history of philosophy organized around the subject of the public sphere. Habermas names all the big names in Western philosophy, and this demonstrates he is doing his due diligence even though he is trained more as a sociologist. Indeed, his desire to cover a great range of the Western canon suggests why he begins with people like Hobbes and Locke, who really do not contribute as much to the conception of the public as later philosophers like Kant do. At the same time, Habermas makes surprising connections among authors, like from Kant to Hegel, that more traditional philosophy reviews might not have made. Thus, this Chapter is both broad and focused—covering a broad range of thinkers, but isolating only what they have to contribute to the common topic of the public.

In some ways, this chapter is the “theory” to the previous chapters’ “practice.” The philosophers in this chapter are not describing actual social conditions, but theorizing the ideal form society might take. In this way, the history of this chapter runs parallel to, but it not necessarily interacting with, the history of the previous chapters. But Habermas shows fascinating relations. For the philosophy of the public transforms alongside changes in the actual public, as it becomes wider and more accessible, but not open to all.

At the same time, looking through these theories of the public also drives home, for Habermas, that the “real public sphere” was itself always an idea as much as a reality. This comes out with particular force toward the end of the chapter, as Habermas leans into the Marxist critique of the public sphere as really only presenting the interests of the middle class. In the previous chapters, Habermas sometimes seemed to be saying that institutions like the coffee house really did provide universal access to critical debate. Now, he is saying that even this public sphere was in part a fiction. There were real changes in how citizens interacted with their state, and there really was a development of a new critical public space, but the public sphere never became what it imagined itself to be. It was always an aspirational ideal, something the real world was trying to catch up to without ever achieving.

Although Habermas, by way of someone like Marx, critiques the ideal of the bourgeois public sphere for not including everyone, he also demonstrates some of his own exclusions. Again, this chapter is a survey of canonical thinkers, and from exclusively British, French, and German contexts. On the one hand, this is a surprising international exchange. It suggests that Habermas’s general tendency to think that these three countries evolved in the same way at roughly the same time is supported by the fact that philosophers in the three countries are building off each other’s ideas. Habermas seems justified in telling the history of these three nations as one history.

On the other hand, it is surprising that no other national traditions are represented. The Founding Fathers of the United States, for instance, were also theorizing the public sphere in order to draft their Constitution, with its rights to assembly and so on. And what about other European national contexts, including Spain and Portugal, who, like England, transformed from empires into relative democracies? Or further abroad, Habermas might consider the influences of these nations’ imperialism on their own self-conception of a public. What does a public sphere mean for England, for instance, when many of its citizens are ruling abroad in India? These colonial and postcolonial questions do not enter into Habermas’s analysis, but they provide further avenues for complicating his history.