Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
Jurgen Habermas sets out to define the term "public sphere." The terms "public" and "public sphere" have a variety of meanings. However, ordinary and scientific language cannot replace these terms with more precise ones. Despite the disintegration of public opinion, society still studies it.
Public means open to all, but also relates to the state. The public is a critical judge. The public sphere is a specific public domain, set against the private. The German word "Offentlichkeit" comes from the French adjective meaning "Public". There is no seventeenth-century word for the public sphere because it did not exist before the eighteenth century. In Germany, the public sphere emerged as part of civil society, the realm of commodity exchange and labor governed by its own laws.
Notions of public and private go back further than that, however. They are Greek categories with Roman additions. In ancient Greece, the polis-oikos division existed. Political life took place in the polis; the public sphere existed as a realm of discussion and common action. Citizens were free of productive labor, but their status depended on their role as the head of the oikos, or household. The Greek public sphere was the sphere of freedom and permanence, where distinction and excellence were possible.
Since the Renaissance, this Greek model was important and influential. Medieval categories of public and private came from Roman law. But they developed only with the rise of civil society and the modern state. For more than 100 years, the foundations of this sphere have been decomposing. Publicity is still important. By understanding it, we can understand a key category of our society.
In the middle ages, the public-private contrast from Roman law was familiar, but had no standard usage. The attempt to apply this distinction to the feudal system shows that ancient and modern public and private spheres did not exist. Various higher and lower powers existed, but there was no definite way for private people to enter the public sphere. The tradition of ancient German law did have a contrast comparable to the Roman tradition: that of common and particular. This was exactly reversed in feudalism; the common man is private, exemplified by the private soldier. One cannot show sociologically that the public sphere existed in the middle ages, but a publicity of representation did exist. This was a status attribute and not a social realm. The holder of office or power represented or displayed himself. The lord and master had an "aura" that he displayed before his subjects. Lordship was represented before the people. Representation was not about political communication but about social status.
Only after modern states had destroyed feudal power, helped by the development of a capitalist economy, could court sociability develop into the eighteenth century idea of a "good" society. For the first time, public and private spheres became separate in the modern sense. Bureaucracy, the church, and the army also became public institutions, separate from the increasingly private sphere of the court.
A new social order developed with the emergence of early finance and trade capitalism. Capitalism stabilized the power structure of the society of estates and worked toward their dissolution. The instruments of this dissolution were the traffic in commodities and news created by capitalist trade. Long-distance trade led to the development of trade fairs that required horizontal economic relationships at odds with the vertical estates system. The traffic in news also developed. This traffic became public in the seventeenth century, and became revolutionary only in the mercantilist phase, which was a new stage of capitalism. Merchant companies opened up new markets and required political guarantees; the modern state developed in time with mercantilism. Increasingly sophisticated tax systems developed, along with permanent armies and administration. The public now referred to a state apparatus with a monopoly over legitimate coercion. The opening of foreign markets served the development of domestic economies. Trade in commodities causes a revolution in production.
Civil society was born as the corollary of the depersonalized state authority. Activities formerly confined to the household framework emerged into the public sphere. Economic activity became private but was oriented towards the public commodity market. The very idea of economics also changed; it ceased to relate to the household/oikos, and took its modern form.
The press took on an important role; political journals developed. The traffic in news was related to commercial need; news became a commodity. Also, new states began to use the press for state administration and intelligence. A new stratum of the bourgeois developed within the public, which included officials, doctors and lawyers. Craftsmen and shopkeepers fell in social status. The bourgeois reading public became the real carrier of the public. Their important status in civil society led to tension between town and court. States encouraged an awareness of publicness and the public sphere of civil society. The interplay between state regulation and private initiative was important in early capitalism. Broad strata of the population were affected by the regulations of mercantilist policy. Official interest in private households constituted the development of a critical sphere; administrative contact between domestic and public authority provoked the critical judgment of the public making use of its reason. The public could assume this function, as all it needed was a change in the function of the press, which had turned society into a public affair. As early as the seventeenth century, periodicals existed that mixed criticism with news. Critical reasoning made its way into the press in the eighteenth century. Private people prepared to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion.