This is an archive of my notes written over the years on the works of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas.
THE SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society by Jurgen Habermas (1962) translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick J. Lawrence (1989)
I read this book as part of an informal seminar organized by my friend Paul Mitacek. I don’t claim to have fully understood it. Habermas wrote in a highly abstract style, but his style was not an attempt to obfuscate, but rather to integrate complex ideas.
Habermas’s subject was the evolution of what’s considered public and what’s considered private. His focus was on Germany, France and Britain, which I found interesting because it showed that the changes he described were not specific to the United States.
In the age of absolute monarchs, Habermas wrote, royalty lived their lives as a public spectacle, while the common people lived private lives in obscurity. What we now think of as the public sphere arose in the mercantile middle class—hence “a category of bourgeois society.”
Merchants organized shared newsletters and foreign correspondents to get accurate information about business conditions. Out of this evolved the press as we know it, which reported on politics and culture. Coffee houses in Britain, salons in France and Germany provided means by which middle-class and upper-class people could meet, talk freely and form public opinion, which in the 18th century was a new concept. There arose an ideal of governance based on free public discussion and exchange of ideas.
Advocates of democracy in the 19th century hoped that the mass of the people could be assimilated to this ideal. Instead the mass media arose, and the mass public became passive consumers of culture.
Ordinary people only to got to choose which newspaper or magazine to read, which political party to vote for and which soft drink to consume, but communication was downward, not upward.