Seyla Benhabib on the public sphere


SB: For me, Habermas’ s most important contribution has been his reformulation of the concept of rationality, in terms of communicative rationality. He sees communicative rationality as reason-giving; as concrete practices of answering, response and interrogation. For me as well this concept of rationality is a foundation and a premise. I would say that all my work presupposes the validity of that transition to communicative rationality. I have been most interested in the connection of communicative rationality to ethics and deliberative democracy and in this sense the public sphere concept has been crucial. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was so significant because it also contained his exchange with, or distancing from, Hannah Arendt. For Arendt, the public sphere is dominated by a visual metaphor. It is a metaphor of those we can see, who are united in a public square; it is the metaphor of citizens being present to one another. Habermas disembodies the public sphere from the Greek model by saying that the public evolves into the reading public with the advent of Enlightenment and modernity. This is more a virtual community of authors, readers and writers, and one does not need to be present to one another physically. But this reading public is at the same time also the embodiment of critical public opinion. The book, however, is about the structural transformation of the public sphere of the 18th century into the 20th and towards the end he describes a further transformation where there is s shift from the ‘reading public’ to the ‘culture consuming public’ with the rise of the mass journalisms and radio. Because the book was published in 1962 the electronic media is not discussed, but already the emergence of mass journalism with daily circulation, radio and to a lesser extent, television, are commented upon. In a mode quite typical of Theodor Adorno’s thesis on mass culture, Habermas presents this transformation as a kind of decline. We often forget the really negative evaluation of this transformation in the second half of the book.

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