Publicity & the Public Sphere – Reading Habermas as a Historian of Concepts

As I was getting ready for a discussion of Jürgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in a seminar that I’m teaching on Enlightenment and its Critics, I recalled an incident from the distant past. A colleague returned from a visit to Paris with the news that “Habermas has a new book out — and it’s about advertising!” This struck me as rather unlikely and, after further discussion, I realized that the book she’d seen must have Habermasbeen L’espace public: Archéologie de la publicité comme dimension constitutive de la société bourgeoise,” the French translation of Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. The French title is not without its charms, and not just because Archéologie de la publicité manages to make it seem like Habermas and Foucault were, indeed, engaged in a similar project. I now believe that if the English translation had opted for something along the lines of “The Structural Transformation of Publicity, we might have been spared many misunderstandings about what Habermas was up to in what may well be his most audacious book.

Anyone who compares the English translation with the German original will discover that there have been some bumps along the way.  Fortunately, the “Translator’s Note” at the start (though, since two translators are credited, shouldn’t this have been a “Translators’ Note”?) alerts readers that Öffentlichkeit is not a term that goes easily into English. After noting that the word “may be rendered variously as ‘(the) public’, ‘public sphere,’ or ‘publicity’,” it offers the following solution: “Whenever the context makes more than one of these terms sensible, ‘public sphere’ was chosen as the preferred version.” And here the troubles begin.

As W. G. Runciman observed in a review of the German original, we once had an English word for the object of Habermas’s inquiry: “publicness.” The word, he noted, can be found in the OED, but it has passed from usage and with its passing “a useful abstract noun has been lost to the English-speaking writer.” An Ngram for “publicness” (you knew there would be an Ngram coming, right? — these damn things are a sort of catnip for intellectual historians) would seem to suggest that the rumors of term’s demise were greatly exaggerated:

PublicnessBut the scarcity of occurrences of “publicness” should be warning enough that what looks like a surge in usage may be less significant than it might appear. The easiest way to confirm that “publicness” is, indeed, dead (and may not ever have been all that lively) is to compare it to “public sphere”:

Publicness and PDAnd, while we’re at it, let’s turn this into a threesome:


Poking among the rare nineteenth-century appearances of “publicness” turns up appearances of the word in three translation dictionaries. Supporting Runciman’s suggestion, Nathan Bailey’s  English-German and German-English Dictionary (Leipzig and Jena: Friedrich Frommann, 1801) offers “publicness” as a translation for Öffentlichkeit.  George J. Adler’s monumental mid-nineteenth-century dictionary does the same, but adds “publicity” and “openness” as possible options. Finally, “publicness” can be found in the French-English dictionary put together by Thomas Nugent (who is probably best known as the first English translator of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws): it is offered as a translation for the French Publicité.

The pickings in English are somewhat richer for “publicity” and a look at texts using the term in the first half of the nineteenth century turns up a fair amount of Jeremy Bentham, who used the term in ways that parallel the German Öffentlichkeit. Faced with a choice between a word we have lost (“publicness”) and a word that has taken on a different meaning  (“publicity”), the decision to translate Öffentlichkeit as “public space”might seem the best choice from a bad set of options.  But it comes at a cost. As Harold Mah has argued in an article that should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding (rather than merely citing) Habermas’s book, the decision to render Öffentlichkeit as “public sphere” inevitably fosters the impression that Habermas was concerned with something that functions like a physical space, “a domain that one can enter, occupy, and leave.” Now Habermas is interested in understanding the how the notion of Öffentlichkeit began to take on spatial connotations. But the decision to translate the German term as “public sphere” cannot help but deprive this crucial development of the attention it deserves by conveying the impression that the historical moment when Öffentlichkeit “presents itself as a sphere [selbst stellt sich als eine Sphäre dar]” was more or less preordained. Translating “Die Öffentlichkeit selbst stellt sich als eine Sphäre dar — dem privaten steht der öffentliche Bereich gegenüber” as “The public sphere itself appears as a specific domain — the public domain versus the private” [see Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 2] turns what should be a novel development (i.e., just how did an attribute — namely, “publicness” — come to be associated with a distinctive social space — “the public sphere”?) into a foregone conclusion: why should we be surprised to see the “public sphere” presenting itself as a “sphere”?

The convention of translating Öffentlichkeit as “public sphere” also makes a complete nonsense of the distinction that Habermas proceeds to work out between the different dimensions in which Öffentlichkeit (see the diagram on p. 30 of the English translation). Habermas’s concise distinction between “politische Öffentlichkeit” and “literarische Öffentlichkeit” here becomes a cumbersome distinction between the “public sphere in the political realm” and “pubic sphere in the world of letters” (sphere? realm? world? huh?).  One of the rules that translators would be well advised to follow is that when the text begins to bury you, stop digging. But having decided that, whenever possible, Öffentlichkeit is going to turned into “public sphere,” the translation grinds on, page after mind-numbing page, turning a book that is not without a certain flair (granted, as a writer, Habermas is no Adorno, but he’s better than this translation) into something that reads like a sociology textbook.

Sadly,  clumsiness is not the least of the problems plaguing the translation. As Mah goes on to point out, once Öffentlichkeit has been “spatialized,” the stage was set for critics to fault the book for its failure to explore the mechanisms of exclusion that had been at work in the creation of the “bourgeois public sphere,” its lack of attention to the existence of other, non-bourgeois public spheres, and its tendency to overlook the less than rational features of what now came to be called “the eighteenth-century public sphere.” Such concerns would have merit if, in fact, Habermas was using the term Öffentlichkeit to denote a space into which groups moved or were barred from entering. But while bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit may “present itself” as a space, it is central to Habermas’s argument that its success in Coffeepresenting itself in this way was grounded in a “fiction”: namely, the fiction that “property owners” are the same things as “the human beings pure and simple.” It is only thanks to this fiction that certain physical spaces (e.g., everyone’s favorite part of “the Enlightenment public sphere,” the coffee-house) could come to be seen as part of that more expansive network of institutions that make up “the public.”

Habermas’s lack of interest in other possible “publics” or his failure to examine the way in which certain groups or forms of political activity are excluded from the “bourgeois public sphere” are less a failing on Habermas’s part than a consequence of the way this fiction functions. Defending Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit against its critics (which now seem to include Habermas himself, who would later take this line of criticism more seriously than it deserves), Mah emphazies that it is misguided to think of Öffentlichkeit is some sort of magical “space” that automatically grants “recognition and a measure of political power” to those who succeed in entering it. Instead, the agents who participate in the fiction of inclusiveness that the concept invokes are able to do so only to the extent that they “appear in a certain form” — namely, that peculiar fusion of “bourgeois property owner” and “human being” that looms so large in Habermas’s account. The denizens of coffee houses shape themselves into a “public” only to the extent that they take on the particular demeanor and embrace the general norms associated with the concept of “bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit.” (If there is a criticism of Habermas’s treatment of institutions like the coffee house it would be that, in tending to treat Addison and Steele’s writings as descriptions of coffee house life rather than as efforts to reform the conduct of those who gathered in them, Habermas tended to downplay just how much effort was required to teach the bourgeois how to act like a “human being,” a point that has been nicely developed by Lawrence E. Klein).

At the risk of pursuing this point further than Mah might be willing to push it, what his argument suggests to me is that — despite its accounts of coffeehouses, salons, table societies, Masonic lodges, and the Tattler — Habermas’s book ought to be read as something other than a social history of the rise and fall of the “eighteenth-century public sphere.” What the book was attempting to do was to trace the fate of a concept: as the subtitle tells us, the book is an inquiry into a “category of bourgeois society” known as Öffentlichkeit. By the opening decades of the nineteenth century, this concept had been inscribed into constitutional arrangements that conceived of legislation as something that was produced through a process of public debate. As a result, law became something other than the expression of a sovereign will (pace Hobbes, it is not the case that Auctoritas, non veritas facit legem). Instead, it was seen as deriving its force from the agreement of parties who have engaged in a process of public deliberation. Once we begin to think about the book in this way it becomes clearer that Habermas was less interested in the various forms of association that defined what we — thanks, in large part, to the opening chapters of his book — have come to call “the Enlightenment public sphere,” than he was with tracing the trajectory of the concept of Öffentlichkeit. In other words, what he was doing is a odd sort of conceptual history: a history in which the concept, at a key moment, had a crucial role in structuring political life.

In this light, it might be useful to consider how Habermas’s Begriffsgeschichte of Öffentlichkeit differs from that other discussion of the “eighteenth-century public sphere” that has haunted Habermas’s book (first in German and then in English) like a sort of evil twin: Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis. In 1954, Koselleck had submitted the manuscript, which would appear in book form in 1959, as his Habilitationsschrift. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit was Habermas’ Habilitationsschrift, begun in 1959 and completed by the summer of 1960. The second edition of Habermas’ book included a footnote that expressed his indebtedness to the Koselleck’s “exceptional [ausgezeichneten] contribution … for many references.” But while Habermas may have been indebted to the “references” he gleaned from Critique and Crisis, he had little use for its overall argument.  That much should be clear from his critique of Koselleck’s book in the review that appeared in Merkur shortly before the appearance of Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (it would be good to have the review translated,  preferably the original Merkur version, rather than the somewhat abbreviated version that Habermas included in his collection Kultur und Kritik).

That Habermas was troubled by the political subtext of Koselleck’s work is hardly surprising. The books come from different universes: Kritik und Krise extended Carl Schmitt’s interpretation of Hobbes’ Leviathan into the eighteenth century, while Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit drew out the political implications that Horkheimer and Adorno were never able to incorporate into their account of the dialectic of enlightenment. A fuller discussion of the ideological chasm separating these two books will have to wait for a later post. For now, it might be enough to contrast the way in which Koselleck and Habermas think about the relationship of concepts and history.

One of the least convincing features of Koselleck’s account is the book’s assumption that Hobbes’ account of absolutism has some sort of purchase on the actual structures of political life in late seventeenth-century Europe. Taking Leviathan as a sociological sketch of the relationship between the public and the private in early modern Europe turns Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty from an aspirational project to an empirical description. In their dreams, monarchs may well have imagined themselves as powerful as Moby Dick; but the more realistic ones were probably more concerned with avoiding the fate of Ahab. In contrast, Habermas’ account was on somewhat firmer ground in that, insofar as Öffentlichkeit became an actual constitutional principle, it could play a role in structuring the nineteenth-century liberal state. His point, repeated again and again throughout the book, was that Öffentlichkeit was “both ideology and more than ideology.”

That phrase might be read in two ways. First, and perhaps most obviously, though Öffentlichkeit might ultimately rest on a fiction (i.e., the male property holder is not identical with the human being as such), it nevertheless expressed an ideal that transcended the divisions of class society: a form of rule based on a rational consensus achieved through free and open discussion. In other words, it was both ideology and utopia.  Second, and perhaps more central to the immediate concerns of Habermas’ study, while the concept of Öffentlichkeit was a “category of bourgeois society,” it would nevertheless become something “more and other than a mere scrap of liberal ideology that social democracy could discard without harm” (4).  It came to perform a constitutional function whose significance cannot be underestimated. There two connotations of the phrase merge in the succinct statement of the general argument of the book that can be found at the midpoint of the book (a fact that, I suppose, would delight a hard-core, line-counting disciple of Leo Strauss — in the unlikely event that one of these odd creatures happened to read Habermas’s book).  Here’s the German:

Öffentlichkeit scheint in dem Masse Kraft ihres Prinzips, kritische Publizität, zu verlieren, in dem sie sich als Sphäre ausdehnt und noch den privaten Bereich aushöhlt.

While the argument is straightforward enough in German, the English is somewhat more opaque:

The principle of the public sphere, that is, critical publicity, seemed to lose its strength in the measure that it expanded as a sphere and even undermined the private realm.

Once again we see the price of a translation binds itself to the mast of translating every possible appearance of Öffentlichkeit as “public sphere,” even at the price of producing a sentence where a “sphere” somehow gets to have a “principle”.  So, let’s unpack what the German text is saying:

  1. The fullest development of the “principle” of Öffentlichkeit can be found in the notion of “critical Publizität” that Habermas discusses in §13 (”Publicity as the Principle of Mediation of Politics and Morality”), which deals with the role played by the concept in Kant’s writings of enlightenment, law, and history.
  2. To the extent that, at the start of the nineteenth century, the concept of Öffentlichkeit came to be applied not simply to the bourgeois property owner (who in the fiction on which the concept rests, is identified with human beings in general) but to other human beings who lacked the economic and the educational resources on which the property owner can draw,  we now have a “public” that includes more than just the bourgeoisie.
  3. But, as Öffentlichkeit expands as a sphere to include previously excluded groups, the principle on which it had rested (i.e., that process of critical deliberation that Kant associated with the “public use of reason”) must be supplanted with procedures that do not measure up to the rigorous standards of critical deliberation (e.g., political bargaining and compromises replace critical deliberation) .
  4. Pushed far enough, this process not only undercut the utopian hopes that Kant and others had once associated with the “public realm,” but also undermines the “private sphere” associated with the bourgeois family.

What Habermas is saying here might well be bad history (caveat:  I’m not a nineteenth-century political historian), but getting rid of the infelicities of the English translation at least provides us with a coherent and perhaps suggestive way of thinking about what is taking place in early nineteenth-century Europe. The burden of the second half of the book (which is a part that most of us who work in the area of eighteenth-century studies rarely read and almost never remember) winds up deploying a fair number of the arguments that the earlier generation of Frankfurt School theorists had developed in the 1930s and 1940s (e.g., the interpretation of the transition from “liberal” to “monopoly” forms of capitalism, the replacement of the indirect form of socialization of children via the mechanism of the Oedipal crisis with direct socialization via mass media, and the growing importance of the “culture industry’). To bring their work up to date, Habermas drew on more recent work by American sociologists and cultural critics (e.g., William H. Whyte and David Riesman). But above all else looms the figure of Theodor Adorno.

Nowhere is Habermas’s debt to Adorno clearer than in a rather dense discussion of the ways in which the products of the culture industry (a term that Habermas explicitly invokes) deaden the capacities of those who consume them, a discussion that also manages to work in a reference to Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”:

They draw the public as listeners and viewers under their spell, taking away the distance of ‘autonomy’ [Mündigkeit], namely the chance to be able to speak and to disagree” [“Sie ziehen das publikum als Hörende und Sehende in ihren Bann, nehmen ihm aber zugleich die Distanz der »Mündigkeit«, die Chance namlich, sprechen und widersprechen zu konnen.” — see p. 171 of the English translation for a different take on the passage].

Like his mentor, Habermas had an ear for the violence that had been inflicted on words. There is a striking passage (inevitably blunted in translation) on p. 213 of the German edition in which the English term “publicity” begins to crop up, like an unwelcome weed, choking off whatever meaning once adhered to the Kantian notion of Publizität:

Publizität once meant the exposure of political domination before the public use of reason; publicity [English in original] now adds up the reactions of an uncommitted friendly disposition. In the measure that bourgeois Öffentlichkeit is shaped by public relations [English in original], it again takes on feudal features. The “suppliers” display a showy pomp before customers ready to follow. Publizität imitates the kind of aura proper to the personal prestige and supernatural authority once bestowed by representative Öffentlichkeit” [cf. English translation 195].

In the face of a paragraph like this, a translator can only despair: its impact rests on the way it which it enacts a washing away of meaning, a replacement of terms that once held the promise of something better with terms that serve the aims of the bad present.

Passages like this make me wonder whether the best strategy for translating Öffentlichkeit might involve resigning ourselves to using a word that is all too current — “publicity” — rather than attempting to breathe new life into the word we have lost — “publicness.” Readers might well be discomforted by the sight of a word now associated with the deceptive trade of advertising in a discussion of a period that hoped, through the public use of reason, to make a better world. But perhaps a reminder that “publicity” harbored loftier aims might not be the worst way of remaining loyal to the hopes of past.

To be continued ….

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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12 Responses to Publicity & the Public Sphere – Reading Habermas as a Historian of Concepts

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  5. amelie rorty says:

    The point about , the greater the inclusiveness, the less critique is important, construed as “the less cogently, carefully reasoned is the critique. … The street demos of Arab Spring?…..Mass rallies? How ‘open’ can ad bearing media be? On the other hand, the tighter, the smaller the community, the more perilous for the critic is open disagreement…(See Walzer’s *The Revolution of the Saints.*) All this now under a stacked & unequal power struggle ……..
    When are commercial space ‘public’? See court battles about the Malls –first introduced as the new ‘public space’– are now designated as ‘commercial’ in order to exclude legal political/public demonstrations.

    • I doubt that Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit could illuminate much about the Arab Spring. What would be required would be a study that would do the same thing for the uprising that Habermas was doing vis a vis the eighteenth century in Europe. In other words, we’d need to trace the development of the concepts that were used by the participants, see what, if anything, played a role equivalent to that of Öffentlichkeit, figure out how it was related to the economic and political transformation of the region, etc. In other words, the book (at least as I read it) doesn’t give us a model that can be applied elsewhere.

      But I don’t think that the author of Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit would be at all surprised by the development of commercialized and privatized “public spaces” like malls. They mark the return of something similar to the “representative publicity” of the Old Regime, with the King’s body replaced by the Apple Store.

  6. Concerning the list at the end: Does it imply the following? The weaker publicness’ exclusion operates, i.e. the more people (and classes or whatever) are included, the less one can bet on critical reasoning to reign discourse? So inclusion is diametral to ‘Kritizität’? That would imply one had to replace deliberate discourse with another means to form ‘öffentliche Meinung’ (public opinion) or politic will or anything for that matter which we now consider to be ‘public’. Do you think that’s accurate?

    Makes me want to re-read Habermas and put thorough notes into my ‘Zettelkasten’ to remember this. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Since Öffentlichkeit is both “ideology and more than ideology,” it’s not quite this simple. Öffentlichkeit, insofar as it is “more than ideology,” posits the idea of an unrestricted discussion that, in principle, would have to include all of those subject to the decisions arrived at via this discussion. So, as an ideal that transcends the limits of the period in which it originates, it doesn’t posit “exclusion” rules: in principle, everyone is included. Of course, as “ideology” it is subject to all sorts of material, economic, cultural, and educational constraints and, to the extent that the ideal is actually put into practice in the struggles to expand the franchise in the early 19th century, these constraints become apparent. So “rational deliberation” gives way to other ways of resolving disputes (e.g., bargains by political representative who are not engaged in constant communication with those they represent). Habermas wrestles with some reform proposals late in the book (i.e. §25) but they are very tentative and not well developed.

      By the way (and not to get too geeky all of sudden), I gather from your website that your Zettelkasten is a fork of some sort of Notational Velocity. I’m a big fan of nvAlt myself.

      • Christian says:

        Thanks for the comment. I’ll have to look up the sections and notes again to get any farther concerning Habermas.

        Concerning NV: Indeed it is. I’d like to know how you organize your material with nvAlt, if you do at all. I never found an English translation for the term of the device scholars used to call “Zettelkasten” in German (MK at calls it paper slips, card index and so on). Last time I looked, I already collected ~2500 notes. Do you find nvAlt to be useful when assembling notes to articles, papers, books?

      • I currently have 985 notes in nvAlt (and more in MacJournal that I need to move over at some point). It runs fast, doesn’t lose things, and makes use of the Mac’s Services menu, so it is easy to move text into it. I don’t do much in the way of “organizing” the notes: I’ve tagged some of them, but the search function in nvAlt is adequate for my purposes. When I need to do more complex editing on them, I open them up in Byword (which has good search and change functions) or TextEdit. I settled on nvAlt after adventures with Journler (which I liked quite a bit, but which stopped being supported), MacJournal (which I’ve owned since the days when it was a free program and still use for some journaling), and VoodooPad (which I could never quite get the hang of). As you know, MK is a bit fan of ConnectedText, but I’m not up to task of trying to figure out how to run it on a Mac. I don’t think there is an English translation for Zettelkasten. I guess “card file” or maybe just “index cards”?

  7. amelie rorty says:

    I got quite lost in this. It might help if you gave examples of the various connotations of the original German and the respective translations. I got the coffee house (though I don’t know who went there and who didn’t) … but what about newspapers and who read which ones? And feuilltons? and legislative reports? and neighborhood pubs? and what about letters: did copies of X’s reply to Y get circulated to all of Z’s friends? Who knew what through what media? Suddenly I get the point of what I had thought of as end-of-the-world *Bouvard and Pécuchet*: reception theorie. I thought I liked talk of “public sphere,” until reading this blog, I realize I don’t know exactly what it meant in the way of actual inclusion and exclusion.

    • A quick and likely inadequate response:

      1). Terms and connotations: Habermas is chiefly interested in the transformation in the ways in which the concept of Öffentlichkeit (what used to be “publicness” in English and what I’d propose we now translate as “publicity”, precisely because it seems somewhat jarring) is employed over time (e.g, the “representative publicity” of the Old Regime, where the King’s body is a public object to be displayed to an admiring public, the “bourgeois publicity” of 18th century critical reasoners, and the return of a sort of “representative publicity” in the degraded public life of the modern welfare state, circa 1961). What makes Öffentlichkeit useful to him is that it covers a multitude of things and the things to which it refers alter over time.

      2). What about coffee houses, pubs, feuilltons, newspapers, etc.: The question for Habermas (and for those who read him the way I’m proposing here, inspired by Mah’s work) is to figure out how it is that a group of people gathered in Lloyd’s coffee house circa 1725 can think of themselves as constituting a “public” when, a century earlier, what would count as “public” would be the court, the king, etc.

      3). Regarding inclusion and exclusion: these questions matter only once we already have determined that a given institution is “public” or, as the translators would have it, part of the “public sphere.” Then we can ask all sorts of questions such as “what is the price of entry” (a mere penny, it would appear), whether women were welcome (not in most cases, it seems), did different coffee houses have different clients (yes, depending on their location among other things; time of day also seems to matter: there’s nice piece in the Tattler tracing the coming and going of different groups). But while these are good questions for social and cultural historians to ask, I don’t see them as paramount in Habermas’s book. His concern is with trying to trace the vicissitudes of the concept of publicity over a broad swath of history (roughly mid-17th century to mid-20th). That seems like something worth doing.

      There’s more to say on all of this, of course. It might help, in addition to what I was planning to say about his tensions with Koselleck, to say something about his debts to Arendt.

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