Jurgen Habermas the Public Sphere Jurgen Habermas Essay

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Jurgen Habermas

The Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas and the "Public Sphere"

The idea that the continuum of people in a geographical space make up some sort of cohesive unit has been championed since the beginning of known history. Humans need the protection of groups because only then does brain power outweigh the otherwise immense power of fang and claw. This seems to be an evolutionary imperative that remains strong within people. However, as people gather together, they begin to realize that their close proximity also means that they have the power to decide how they will live as a community, and that every person can influence that through the power of voice. Every person has the ability to state and opinion, no matter how inane it may seem to the others of the group. Teacher's will often say that there are no dumb questions, and within a social group, there are no dumb suggestions. Many times throughout history people have made inane suggestions in the public forum that may have seemed ridiculous at the time, but have since become integral pieces of government, though and education. This forum has been called the "public sphere" by Jurgen Habermas, and he believes that is has been an essential piece of societal growth and sustainment throughout recorded history. This paper examines what Habermas meant by the term public sphere, how it fits into Anderson's idea of imagined communities, what others have said about the practice and how it has changed over time.

The Public Sphere

Habermas formed the idea of the public sphere in the early years of his research and expounded upon the idea for much of his life. He wrote a book called "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere" in which he looked at the historic antecedents of the practice, and the changes that had occurred since its inception. Habermas believed that the maintenance of the sphere was critical for a society to grow within the governmental constraints in which it existed. His theoretical stance was based on the philosophy of political liberalism expounded by such philosophers as Locke and Kant. To understand the philosophy it is first necessary to grasp the definitions as Habermas saw them.

Habermas (1991, 398) first delineates the elements of what he means by public. He said "Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus, with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely." He was basically talking about a form of government that would allow its citizens to discuss matters of social import in an open forum without fear of governmental reprisal. He also advocates a free and open print media when he says that the public should be able to "publicize their opinions freely" (Habermas, 1991, 398).

The public sphere then is the grouping of these people together (Habermas, 1991, 398). It is common for individuals to think of their "sphere" of friends, and this was exactly what Habermas was talking about. However, it did not have to be just friends or even people one was acquainted with. The public sphere that each individual is associated with in a society grows as the society grows. Thus, the public sphere quickly becomes too large for it to occupy coffee houses, the town square or even a small town newspaper. When the sphere grows large it is helped by the media. Habermas (1991, 398) says "When the public sphere is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere." He does not say that the need is simply for the media dissemination, but also for the influence of the people who are writing or speaking the opinions of the entire sphere. This influence, just as it would have been for someone important in the small town sphere, is important so that people can believe what they are hearing about the social aspects of their world.

Habermas (1991, 398) also makes the distinction between the whole of the public sphere and the political public sphere. Although he seems to believe that the general interest of the sphere is in the political realities of the society, he realizes that there are other interests that the public can use the sphere forum for. He says that the political public sphere is not part of the state, but is its "counterpart" (Habermas, 1991, 398). In many cases the public sphere, even when it is political in nature, does not have power over the state. The caveat to this is when the state is "subordinated to the requirements of democratic publicness" (Habermas, 1991, 399). When the government is set up as either a democracy or a representative republic (such as the United States), the public sphere and the discussions had there have great influence on the state.

Imagined Communities

To properly analyze how Anderson's "imagined communities" (2006) and Habermas' "public sphere" (1991) do or do not coincide, it is first necessary to understand what Anderson meant by his concept. He says "I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community -- and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (Anderson, 2006). It is first necessary to understand what he means by the words "limited and sovereign." A nation is a finite concept because only so many people can fit within the geographical bounds of it. Also, the nation is sovereign within its own limited borders. He then goes in to explain what he means by imagined. He says "It is imagined because even the members of the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (Anderson, 2006). Thus, people cannot who have no actual acquaintance are imaginarily grouped together within a bounded geographical district that is distinct from others of similar imaginary type.

Anderson makes his point by using examples of how this concept manifests itself. He mentions the Olympics as a good test source for his theory. He says that people see athletes who are wearing uniforms that can be recognized as being from a particular community. Since the person watches imagines him- or herself to be a member (citizen) of this particular grouping, they cheer for said athlete. Watching on TV, this individual notices other people that he or she has never had any acquaintance with before, rooting for the same athlete. The individual feels a sense of camaraderie with these individuals and feels that they are known just because they are all cheering for the same athlete and chanting a nationalist slogan (such as U-S-A). This is also an example of the nationalism that he speaks about in the book.

Habermas and Anderson

The two concepts coalesce very well because they talk about some of the same ideas. For one thing, the media is the backbone of both the imagined community and the public sphere. Habermas believes that the media is the current method for the continued success of the public sphere. As discussed above, it is not now possible for the public sphere to exist solely in small segments of communities. Discussing national events would not be possible in the present large public sphere unless the print and electronic media made people aware of it. Happenings in the government move so fast and what the government does is more critical for people to understand. When the public could only rely on word-of-mouth, it the issues were not as complex or integral to the lives of individuals. Now, with the advent of the global economy and the relative shortening of distances between the corners of the earth, it is necessary for electronic media to publish events quickly for the masses so that they can become part of the discussion. Anderson (2006) says that "so often in the nation building process of the new states one sees both a genuine, popular national enthusiasm, and systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of nationalist philosophy through the mass media, the educational system, administrative regulations, and so forth." The media then supports the nationalist ideology that first comes from the imagined community created by the people who have formed their unique government.

It is interesting that Habermas and Anderson agree on the effects of education. Interesting because it would seem that a high level of education would work for Anderson but not as much for Habermas. If the public discourse is going to remain equal and meaningful to all, then the education system should turn out people who are relatively equal in the public sphere. However, he says "Along with is social exclusivity the public lost the cohesion given it by institutions of convivial social intercourse and by a relatively high standard of education" (Habermas 1991, 403). He is talking about how French and English socialism tor down the utility of the…[continue]

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