Journal Article

The Public Sphere and the Habermas Debate

Andreas Gestrich

in German History

Published on behalf of German History Society

Volume 24, issue 3, pages 413-430
Published in print July 2006 | ISSN: 0266-3554
Published online July 2006 | e-ISSN: 1477-089X | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/0266355406gh381oa
The Public Sphere and the Habermas Debate

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Since its first American edition in 1989, Jürgen Habermas's 1960 classic The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere has made a remarkable come-back and influenced both academic and political discussion on the topic worldwide. Historians, however, have been and still are sceptical about the validity of Habermas's master narrative on the causes of the transformation of the public sphere. This paper summarizes some of the criticism, most of which comes mostly from early modern communication history. It first deals with Habermas's assessment of a new critical public sphere as being bourgeois in character by analysing the social groups which constitute the institutions and circles of communication identified by Habermas as the driving forces behind the early modern transformation of the public sphere. It shows how socially varied the participation in these circles was. The paper then looks at some new research on the developing infrastructure of European and global communication (post courses; networks of correspondence) and the development of the newspaper press and its role in the institutionalization of a political public sphere. It stresses the importance of the early modern state as a main driving force behind these processes. This analysis of the central role of the state for the steady supply of political information which forms the basis of any form of critical debate is then supported by a closer examination of wartime state information policy. Finally the paper tries to suggest a different model from Habermas by moving away from the notion of a unified critical public sphere. Instead it suggests regarding society from the perspective of Niklas Luhmann's system theory and identifying the rise of separate platforms of public debate as a consequence of the rising functional differentiation of society.

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: European History

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