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Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Summary of the Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: What is his principle argument? How does he demonstrate his conclusion?

According to Habermas, the public sphere is any simulated or imaginary society which exists virtually and is not necessarily in any detectable plane. The ideal public sphere comprises of private individuals jointly grouped as ‘public’ who enunciate the requirements of society with the state.

Habermas reflects the thought that individuals are to a great extent more rational than empirically reported. The text depicts the expectations of how a society ought to operate and also discusses Habermas views on the concept of structural transformation which forms the basis of the text. Habermas traces the multifarious and dynamic relationship between the public and private to its origin in prehistoric Greece, to the hierarchical realm of the mid ages, where the public and private existed without distinction. The public and private spheres adopted their present form with the advent of the modern state. “Public” refers to ‘power’ the ‘state’ while “private” refers to the economy, social order, community and the family.

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Habermas traces the history and gradual transformation of the public sphere. The public sphere is described as an abstract and continually changing model which responds to varying societal issues by evolving, this phenomenon necessitated the author’s use of historical, philosophical, economic, and sociological sources of information to incorporate the different circumstances that result in the effective operation of the public sphere.

In presenting his views on the model public sphere and how it must function to be effective, Habermas employs the use of different sources of information to present a complete historical narrative of the transition of the public sphere from its absence or inexistence in feudalism, to its actual advent with the division of the private and public in the initial capitalist commercial economy, proceeding further to the period of its close to perfect operation within the bourgeois public sphere, and lastly and he traces this history to the fall of the public sphere in modern society and the through the disintegration of the private/public fusion out of which the public sphere materialized.

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The first chapter of the text provides concise description of commonly used key terms; to avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation of his conclusions, Habermas presents clarity to his definitions; two of the most important being the definition of public opinion and public sphere. He presents the criteria for ‘what can be considered as public opinion when he infers the necessary requirement of public opinion to be created by a ‘critical judge’.  The implication of this is that a private idea turns out as a public opinion after/if the idea is put through rational-critical debate. He goes further to state that in addition to the public debate of an idea, the debate has to be by a knowledgeably literate public whose sort of opinion(s) is capable of becoming public. Habermas’s critique of modern society is centered on the dearth of critical judgment as well as the impracticality of individuals to be ‘critical judges’.

In order to explain the public sphere as the entirety of social situations which aid the development of public opinions and actions, Habermas alludes to the Greek model of society with Agora as the public place, Lexis exists as the as the public sphere and Praxis which is the shared group action constituting the public sphere. Habermas distinctively states that individuals devoid of political power, political office, political position or those who are unable to partake in debates would not have publicness and thus, would be barred from the public space. He states further that the private spheres encompasses reproduction, free/slave labor, birth, death etc. and is characteristically involved with the internal household and individuals without any effect on state affairs. (Habermas, 1991, p.3, 12). This serves as the basis for the private and public distinction which is very significant in the discussion of the operation of the public sphere in different societies.

Habermas conclusion on his initial analysis which is of the feudal society existent during the High Middle Ages is that due to the absence of public and private distinction, the public sphere is non-existent and only subsists as an archetypal entity intertwined with private authority, simply stated, the lack of dichotomy between the private and public creates an impossible situation for the independent existence of the public sphere. Habermas references the lack of dichotomy which is evident within the feudal society with instances such as the transposable use of the terms ‘lordly’ and ‘publicus’ , also, to the fact that the king delights in his ‘publicness’ status and the assigning of power to the nobleman to the extent to which he exhibits certain qualities. Habermas highlights the significance meaning that the totality of what should otherwise makeup the public sphere lies entwined in the lord and his household with no provision for the public sphere to exist.

Following the High Middle Era, Habermas refers to a transitional phase exhibiting feudal lordships and budding capitalism, during this phase Habermas does not make any functional diagnoses but instead concentrates on detailing reforms that occurred leading to the conception of the bourgeois’ public sphere. This post resurgence phase occurred during the disintegration of archetypal publicity and called for the literal differentiation in the designation of private people from individuals holding public office thus spawning the foremost private and public sphere within contemporary logic.

This period heralded numerous changes for the public sphere, including but not limited to the detachment of the private assets of the lords from the public budget demonstrating the separation of public assets from private properties, secondly, the generation of ‘horizontal economic dependencies’  as a result of the transformation in fiscal conditions from feudalism to industrialist and specifically, the creation of public dialogue by the press through the publication of news articles in ‘political journals’, led to the transmutation of primitive authority. The results of these changes resulted in public/private sphere separation and significantly rational/logical debates and climaxed in England with the establishment of the ‘Bank of England’ as well as state authority and the abolishment of suppression. The evolution affected power, politics and authority and the fiscal economy leading to the advent of the public as well as public views and an operative public sphere which ultimately would become the bourgeois public sphere.

The existence of a knowledgeable and cognizant public with the ability to analytically and logically deliberate on issues and create a functional government reactive to public interest epitomizes the most similar representation to the existence of Habermas conception of the model public sphere. Habermas embodies this effective functioning with the ‘salon’ where he recalls the origin of genial dialogue and analytical/logical debate within the public sphere without the existence of any limitations or barriers.

However, Habermas critique of the facet of the bourgeois public sphere concerning property owners is based on the point that any public sphere with exclusions of groups or individuals was not a public sphere in any sense because the restriction of the public sphere to property owners provides an opportunity to limit the public sphere. Conversely, Habermas suggests that as far as possibilities or opportunities of collective access to the public sphere are present, then his critique does not apply.

Habermas argues that an efficient public sphere and public opinion resulted in the emergence of social pressure and the evolution from a constitutional state to a bourgeois’ state. The effect of this is, the entrenchment of the public within the society not as a constituent of society but maintaining the all-important status as the society’s crucial feature.

The evolution of the public sphere into the modern public sphere heralds a significant phase, significance in the sense that the process depletes a host of the practical structures of the bourgeois public sphere resulting in Habermas notion that the modern public sphere is dysfunctional. He argues that the modern public sphere results in the ‘re-feudalization’ of society, in order words, the outcome of the modern public sphere is the lack of distinction between the public and private sphere, a situation he views as the reason for the destruction of the public sphere and opinion.

The civil society interests implemented by the public sphere led to disorder in the status quo, because instead of private individuals to engage in discourse for public opinion, the public society was manipulating views of itself; that is, the public was subjectively recreating itself and transferring public roles to the private sphere while distorting the private. These resulted in the emergence of a social sphere without the separation of the public and the private.

Habermas argues that the issues caused by the relationship between re-feudalization and reading repressed public debate because private readings which represented the requirement for being logical was also prerequisite for an individual to give opinions on public discussions.

Those problems created by the burden of re-feudalization, most importantly the tendency for the creation of a private individual member of state as a public consumer could effectively impede and ultimately destroy the perfect existence of the public sphere. Private bodies successfully influence and individuals in taking consumer decisions. Habermas postulates that the resident and the consumer ought not to be one and the same in a society with separation of public and the private sphere.

Habermas proffers solutions on moving away from re-feudalism. Firstly, he suggests that the experiences of highly intelligent, moral and articulate private people should be executed to create a public sphere based on merit. This infers that within the society there exist knowledgeable individuals possessing the ability to create a public sphere in the modern environment. However, contemporary societal situations make the existence of such spheres somewhat impossible in relation to that exhibited in the world of letters therefore; public opinion can only be formed on the basis of what is provisionally possible.

Habermas second suggestion resolves is based on creating a perfect correlation between information and debate in order to achieve a constructive and knowledgeable decision making process. In the same way some persons can make a functional public sphere, Habermas opines that mutual correspondence between highly informed individuals can create a ‘quasi-public opinion’.  Based on this conclusion, Habermas no longer construes a universal public sphere as a sustainable option, but instead suggests that the public sphere ought to be needs to be restricted to people who are ultimately capable of establishing public opinions or to the organizations possessing a ‘quasi-public’ structure in order words, the state has to cut itself off.

Reading and understanding The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jurgen Habermas was a bit of a task albeit an interesting one because of the complex writing style


  • Habermas, J. (1991). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Cambridge: MIT press.


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