Mere Rhetoric

Habermas and public sphere theory

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movemnts who have shaped rhetorical history. special thanks to the rhetoric society of america student chatper at the university of texas at Austin.  I’m Mary Hedengren and today I’m joined by Laura Thain.


Have you spent much time thinking about coffee? If you’re a grad student, the answer is probably yes, but really do you spend much time thinking about what coffee did, especially coffee shops, especially in Europe? Coffee houses were an integral part of the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century and they spread quickly throughout all of Europe. By the 17th century, coffeehouses, not taverns, were the places to gather in your neighborhood. And if you think about how caffeine-fueled coffeehouses differed from the sloppy drunkenness of taverns, it’s little surprise that coffeehouses quickly gained a reputation as being a place of open political and intellectual discussion. 15th century Ottomans and 20th century Seattleites alike saw the coffeeshop as a place to open up dangerous conversation. The Spanish king Charles II even tried to restrict coffee houses on the grounds that there were places where “the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers” (qtd Times 23 Feb 2008). Gathering around a cup of Joe seemed to set everyone to riotous conversation, to the public discussion that led to revolutions in America and France in the 18th century, and because of this the coffeehouse became the place of obsession for 20th century philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

Habermas noted an 18th century seachange in the relationship between people and sovereign. Earlier, people supported (or didn’t) their sovereign as a symbol for them: France is the king and the king is France, therefore it’s to the benefit of France for the king of France to be as rich and grand as possible, regardless of how this impacts the everyday peasant on the street. But in the 18th century, a rise in coffeehouses and the conversations they engender accompanied an increase in newspapers reading clubs, journals, salons and other groups of public political conversation. This Habermas calls the öffentlichkeit, or the public sphere. The public sphere was a dialogue, a conversation of opinions. “Is the king France? Should the king be France? Let’s hear the pros and cons, then!” Habermas drew a direct line between the increase of coffeehouses and their conversations and the toppling of the French monarchy.

This public sphere isn’t a given and not every coffeehouse, town hall meeting etc. is going automatically be a public sphere. In fact, Habermas identified some of the identifying characteristics and requirements for a public sphere.

1-    First, the public sphere requires a temporary disregard of public status, according to Habermas. He believed in “a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether” () . It doesn’t work if only the princes of France get their say and the merchants don’t. Everyone needs a place at the coffee table.


In many ways, our conception of a “public sphere” as ordinary citizens in the US is so pervasive that we have trouble imagining a world without one.  But what Habermas points out is that before the birth of a public sphere in the eighteenth century, there was little linking the private sphere (the discourse of ordinary subjects of the sovereign) to the bureaucratic sphere (the discourse of the sovereign to his subjects).  Imagine if laws and edicts were all that existed to communicate between king and subject. Habermas argues that the public sphere emerged as a unique space for what were once private murmurings to have real and legitimate impact upon bureaucratic procedure under certain rhetorical constraints.  This was no pitchforks-and-barn-burning kind of conversation, but rather, the emergence of a new rhetorical practice that rapidly came to be dominated by a nascent middle class of people: the bourgeois.  


2-    Talking about private and bureaucratic coming together is tricky, though.  “Private” doesn’t mean what we might think today.  In the public sphere, there needed to be some sort of common issue, a public issue of common concern. Before the emergence of a public sphere, according to Habermas, the kinds of things we think about as very public were private conversations among citizens, if they were articulated at all.  For instance, the question of whether France needs a king is a question that everyone in France is concerned about. The question of whether wine dealers in the northwest of Paris should ration a particularly good vintage is not. The question of whether Pierre ought to marry Margarite is definitely not. Often these common concerns were rarely discussed—they were given. The civic or religious authorities told the people that France needs a king and that’s that. Until the people begin sitting around in coffeehouses started asking the questions about things that they all had an interest in.


The idea that the coffee house became a new space for people who previously had no visible platform to communicate with existing power structures is really important because it signals the emergence of not just a new place to talk but a new center of institutional authority.  Habermas argues that the public sphere is an important and new site of power in the 18th century.  This might sound familiar to you if you’ve heard talk about “public discourse” in the things you read and discuss in your own life.  Public discourse and a space to have that discourse in is really important, but it’s important to understand how that space happened to read how we might read what the public sphere means as a concept today.


3-    Habermas argues that the public sphere is a public good, but in order to do so he claims that once-private-now-public issues had to be open for anyone to discuss. As Habermas said “The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate” In coffee houses and salons, there were no rules about who was allowed to open their mouths.  

The coffeehouse seems to fulfill these expectations, which is probably why Habermas was so keen on the example. But the coffeehouse wasn’t perfect and these imperfections highlight some of the problems of the public sphere in general.

For instance, there were rules about who could get in the coffeehouse. While Germany made some exceptions for silent baristas, in France and Germany, women were personae non gratae in these vibrant spaces of public debate. It’s all very well to say coffeehouses were inclusive, except where they weren’t.

And for that reason, Habermas’s dreamy ideal of the public sphere is seen by some as just a dream, a bourgeois dream that pretends to be inclusive but actually excludes voices of women and other minorities. The scholar who is mostly closely associated with a criticism of Habermas’s public sphere is American scholar Nancy Fraser.

Nancy Fraser’s Rethinking the Public Sphere makes her three points about the public sphere to challenge Habermas’. While Habermas emphasizes disregard of public status, common issues and the freedom to open your mouth and speak, Fraser refutes these same points.

  1. When Habermas says that everyone is equal in the coffeehouse, Fraser contends that this is actually a “bracketing [of] inequalities of status” and far from removing these differences of status, “such bracketing usually works to the advantage of dominant groups in society and to the disadvantage of subordinates.” Instead of saying—inauthentically—that there is equality in the public sphere, Fraser recommends instead that we “unbracket inequalities in the sense of explicitly thematizing them.” Instead of saying that a prince and a merchant are the same in the coffeehouse, some of the conversation should be about the fact that they aren’t and why.
  2. Fraser also challenges the idea that there are common issues in the public sphere. She says that there “no naturally given … boundaries” between public issues (or “common concern”) and private ones. So remember the example about how the question of whether France needs a king being a public one while Pierre marrying Margarite is a private one? Well, what if the names were instead Louie XV and Marie of Poland? Is that a public issue or a private one? Fraser points out that many issues that were once personal issues like domestic abuse, have become public issues. As she says, "Eventually, after sustained discursive contestation we succeeded in making it a common concern".
  3. Finally, Fraser points out that not everyone is welcome to the table. Women were excluded everywhere—in clubs and associations—philanthropic, civic professional and cultural—was anything by accessible to everyone. On the contrary, it was the arena, the training ground and eventually the powerbase of a stratum of bourgeois men who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class’” The deception that such spheres were truly public justified the male, middle classes in making decisions that were for ‘all of France’ when, in actuality, hegemonic dominance had excluded many participants.

Instead, Frase suggests that theses marginalized groups form their own public spheres, which she called Counterpublics. These counterpublics are “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs"


Another site of vibrant research in public sphere theory is in the field of spatial rhetorics.  While Habermas arguably saw the public sphere as an ideological shift that just happened to be housed in Europe’s coffee house and salon culture, scholars like Henri LeFebvre, Edward Soja, David Fleming, and UT Austin’s own Casey Boyle are increasingly interested in talking about, to quote Dr. Boyle, “how spaces affect our shared practices and sense of identity.”  To these scholars, the coffee shop as a physical, embodied space is as important to the structural transformation of the public sphere as the folks who inhabited it.

            So the next time you visit your favorite cafe and order yourself a hot beverage, think about what kind of public you’re a part of. What, if anything, do you have in common with the people around you? What are some power differentials between you? What “common concerns” do you have? And what do you think about the king of France?





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