The Public Sphere and Communicative Action

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 11/23/2014

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Jürgen Habermas redefined critical social theory as a theory of communication. This project set out in On the Logic of the Social Sciences of finding a way to ground "the social sciences in a theory of language. This 'purposive rational action' is steered by the "media" of the state, which substitute for oral language as the medium of the coordination of social action. An antagonism arises between these two principles of societal integration—language, which is oriented to understanding and collective well being, and "media", which are systems of success-oriented action.

Communicative action is cooperative action undertaken by individuals based upon mutual deliberation and argumentation in which participants in an argument can learn from others and from themselves by reflecting upon their premises and thematizing aspects of their cultural background knowledge to question suppositions that typically go without question. Habermas situates rationality as a capacity inherent within language, especially in the form of argumentation. The structures of argumentative speech, which Habermas identifies as the absence of coercive force, the mutual search for understanding, and the compelling power of the better argument, form the key features from which intersubjective rationality can make communication possible. Action undertaken by participants through a process of such argumentative communication can be assessed as to their rationality to the extent which they fulfill those criteria. Communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge, in a process of achieving mutual understandings. It then coordinates action towards social integration and solidarity. Finally, communicative action is the process through which people form their identities.

Habermas notes the rise of institutions of public debate in late seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain and France especially. In these nations, information exchange and communication methods pioneered by capitalist merchants became adapted to novel purposes and were employed as an outlet for the public use of reason. The notion of communicative rationality in the public sphere is therefore heavily indebted to Immanuel Kant's formulation of the public use of reason in What is Enlightenment?. Habermas argues that the bourgeoisie who participated in this incipient public sphere universalized those aspects of their class that enabled them to present the public sphere as inclusive—he even goes so far as to say that a public sphere that operates upon principles of exclusivity is not a public sphere at all.

The public sphere is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. The emergence of bourgeois public sphere was particularly supported by the 18th century liberal democracy making resources available to this new political class to establish a network of institutions like publishing enterprises, newspapers and discussion forums, and the democratic press was a main tool to execute this. The key feature of this public sphere which formed a new phenomenon called public opinion, was its separation from the power of both the church and the government due to its access to a variety of resources, both economic and social.

In Habermas's view, the growth in newspapers, journals, reading clubs, Masonic lodges, and coffeehouses in 18th-century Europe, all in different ways, marked the gradual replacement of "representational" culture with Öffentlichkeit culture. As an example of "representational" culture, Habermas argued that Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles was meant to show the greatness of the French state and its King by overpowering the senses of visitors to the Palace. Habermas argued that the essential characteristic of the Öffentlichkeit culture was its "critical" nature. Unlike "representational" culture where only one party was active and the other passive, the Öffentlichkeit culture was characterized by a dialogue as individuals either met in conversation, or exchanged views via the print media. Habermas maintains that as Britain was the most liberal country in Europe, the culture of the public sphere emerged there first around 1700, and the growth of Öffentlichkeit culture took place over most of the 18th century in Continental Europe. In his view, the French Revolution was in large part caused by the collapse of "representational" culture, and its replacement by Öffentlichkeit culture.

The public sphere was well established in various locations including coffee shops and salons, areas of society where various people could gather and discuss matters that concerned them. The coffee houses in London society at this time became the centers of art and literary criticism, which gradually widened to include even the economic and the political disputes as matters of discussion. In French salons, as Habermas says, "opinion became emancipated from the bonds of economic dependence". Any new work, or a book or a musical composition had to get its legitimacy in these places. It not only paved a forum for self-expression, but in fact had become a platform for airing one’s opinions and agendas for public discussion.

As Habermas argues, in due course, this sphere of rational and universalistic politics was destroyed by the consumeristic drive that infiltrated society, which turned the critical public into a passive consumer public. Suddenly the media became a tool of political forces and a medium for advertising rather than the medium from which the public got their information on political matters. This resulted in limiting access to the public sphere and the political control of the public sphere was inevitable for the modern capitalistic forces to operate and thrive in the competitive economy. Media power was used for purposes of manipulation, once and for all took care of the innocence of the principle of publicity. The public sphere, simultaneously prestructured and dominated by the mass media, developed into an arena infiltrated by power in which, by means of topic selection and topical contributions, a battle is fought not only over influence but over the control of communication flows that affect behavior while their strategic intentions are kept hidden.

Disfranchisement of citizens occurs as representative democracy replaces participatory one. Democratic public life cannot develop where matters of public importance are not discussed by citizens. An "ideal speech situation" requires participants to have the same capacities of discourse, social equality and their words are not confused by ideology or other errors.

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