The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. –Jurgen Habermas
Jurgen Habermas (1929– ) is a German social theorist who has devoted most of his career to defending the Enlightenment and its legacy. As we have seen, the crisis of liberalism (1914–1945) shook widespread confidence in its ideals, leading Carl Becker to argue that it was not as great a departure from Christianity as has generally been thought, and Michel Foucault to criticize its aspirations to universalism and rationality as a power play. A similar criticism was made during the Second World War by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, whose Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) argued that “instrumental rationality,” or in other words, the desire to “get something done,” had undermined human aspirations to freedom, since, plainly, many of our desires hinge on the activities of other people, and we are thereby incentivized to manipulate them in order to fulfill them. To the extent that we are successful, we have deprived others of their freedom, and the most successful institutions of all are the institutions of modernity (the state, corporations, universities, etc.), which systematically manipulate us, and deprive us of our freedom, in order to achieve their own ends. In that sense, they argued (like Foucault) that the Enlightenment had undermined, and must ultimately defeat, itself.
Jurgen Habermas was a student of Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, but he rejected their conclusions as too pessimistic. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) he argued that the role of critical theory (an updated, non-revolutionary Marxism) should be to criticize the heritage of the Enlightenment in order to make it live up to its own ideals, not in order to undermine it. However bad things might be, they can get a lot worse—our best hope lies in a defense of the values of freedom and rationality, not in their abandonment. Yet clearly things had gone wrong. The crisis of liberalism, which ended with Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and MAD, had shown this. What was the most constructive response?
The Enlightenment, Habermas argued, had its origins in a new kind of institution, or, perhaps more accurately, non-institution—the public sphere. The public sphere encompassed all the places where people could meet, discuss, and decide, without fear of coercion. During the eighteenth century it encompassed coffee houses, newspapers, and the salons (i.e., clubs devoted to the art of conversation). Today it would include things like unions, professional associations, volunteer organizations, churches, blogs, Facebook, and so on. (The last two are my examples, not Habermas’s). The public sphere was and is, in short, an open meeting space where free communication was and is possible, and thus the bedrock of a democratic society. The best proof of this is that totalitarian states aim to destroy the public sphere by banning such associations, or else turning them into departments of the state, precisely because they understand the threat they represent.
Similarly, the values of the Enlightenment are those of the public sphere. One participates in the public sphere because one wants to, not because one is forced. The only force in the public sphere is the force of the better argument, or in other words, of reason. In the public sphere, everyone has a chance to speak and persuade. In the public sphere, it is not who you are, but what you contribute, that counts. These values were in opposition to the values of traditional society, where the right of dissent was not admitted, either in politics or in private beliefs, and where unequal social relations were normal and accepted. When these two ways of looking at the world clashed, naturally many people preferred the values of the public sphere to those of traditional society, and this is what generated the revolutionary pressure that exploded in 1789.
But the public sphere has always faced encroachment (or, as Habermas put it, “colonization”) from other areas of society, for hierarchical institutions like the state and corporations, where coercion is the norm rather than the exception, have a definite interest in what goes on in the public sphere. The most obvious manifestation of this is advertisement, but there are many others as well. For instance, when a person loses their job for saying the wrong thing on Facebook, this is a definite intrusion into the public sphere by a coercive institution. To the extent that we are all aware that this is a possibility, we have a strong motivation to watch what we say. Or, put another way, our communication is distorted because it is not genuinely free, and this will be the case whenever “instrumental rationality” controls our communication.
According to Habermas, the public sphere is not simply a vehicle for producing agreement, for the norms of rationality are implicit in the norms of conversation. When someone says, for instance, that such and such is the case, they are making a claim about truth—the way things are, the world as it really is—not about what it is useful to suppose, the structural arrangement of symbols, or anything of the sort. The mere act of communication implies truth claims. Similarly, when someone presents a reasoned argument, they are presuming that people can in fact be swayed through reason, or that, in other words, there is something more than mere prejudice involved in their deliberation. We naturally expect sincerity and openness from the people with whom we enter into discussion. If we realize that they are saying things they do not believe themselves, or only trying to manipulate us, it changes the grounds of discussion. Open discussion presumes the pursuit of truth, and that is what, in the absence of external colonization, it produces.
Because the norms of discussion, reason, and democracy are all the same, the defense of one logically entails the defense of the others. When our right to speak freely, without fear of consequence, is impinged on (by corporate and state surveillance, for instance) we should resist. For the same reason, we have to make a moral commitment to take discussion seriously—as a means, not for manipulating other people, or as a stage for egotism, but of understanding other people, and of being understood ourselves. Finally, we should reject irrationalist philosophies that deny the ability of conscientious people to think matters through for themselves. Open communication, reason, and democracy are the substantial heritage of the Enlightenment. It’s a heritage worth defending.
Photograph of Jurgen Habermas by Wolfram Huke (http://wolframhuke.de).
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.