Jürgen Habermas is a primary figure in the Frankfurt School of critical theory that emerged in Germany after World War II. He wrote several important works addressing a variety of fields, including legal hermeneutics, to liberal political philosophy, to systems theory, and language analysis. Throughout his research, he has lauded intersubjective “communicative action” as a key paradigm for politics, law, and ethics. Habermas’s theory of communicative action frames human beings as rational arguers. In his view, communication involves discussants disputing “validity claims” to gain mutual understanding and reach consensus. When he applies this communicative action perspective to culture and society, Habermas diagnoses the pathologies that occur when people coordinate their actions strategically through artificial systems rather than cooperatively through dialogue. When he applies it to ethical theory, he draws out the assumptions interlocutors must make when they argue—they are obliged to attempt to justify claims so that they could be universally accepted by those involved in the discourse. In addition to theorizing communication, Habermas throughout his work analyzes the structures and systems that enable public communication in civil society. From this perspective, democratic society relies on spaces and institutions that allow for the public to debate matters of common concern, particularly when they involve the state. In his historical account, Habermas argues that the “public sphere” transformed during the Enlightenment to give communicative outlets to an emerging bourgeois class. From a legal and philosophical perspective, he outlines conditions for political and communicative agency in a modern constitutional state. Communication scholars have had a mixed reaction to Habermas. He offers a vision of critical theory that allows for practical reason, but some assert that his theories are too idealistic and counterfactual to apply to real-life discourse. However, other scholars have nuanced his theory by putting him in dialogue with the rhetorical tradition. Publics and counterpublics especially have become common parlance and have helped explain protest, advocacy, and the constitution of communities in democratic culture.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.” Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.
Damien Smith Pfister
Public spheres are sites of communicative interaction that feature citizens turning their attention to collective problems and democratically legitimate solutions. Closely associated with German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, the idea of public spheres constituted by a range of publics and counterpublics animates a broad array of interdisciplinary scholarship relating to democracy and political theory, argumentation and deliberation, citizenship and civic engagement, media ecologies and the press, and institutions and power relations. Habermas originally theorized the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere as a counterpoint to the aristocratic regimes of early modern Europe, aiming to rescue select democratic practices from an otherwise flawed ideology. Critics of Habermas’s early formulation of the bourgeois public sphere have noted the presence of a multiplicity of public spheres, rather than a single public sphere, the problem of the public/private divide that is definitive of the public sphere, the role of bodies and emotions in addition to language and reason in the formation and operation of publics and counterpublics, the role of media technologies in sustaining and expanding critical publicity, and the difficulties in extracting knowledge claims from the power relations that constitute them. The idea of public spheres has remained resilient despite these criticisms, as any functioning democracy requires a space between the family, the market, and the state to thematize, problematize, and address the challenges of life in groups. Strong public spheres are characterized by hospitality to counterpublics, groups that distinguish themselves from the rational-critical debate of dominant publics through different dispositions, styles, and strategies for steering public attention. Scholarship on public spheres, publics, and counterpublics continues to proliferate, with new directions accounting for the increased prominence of visuality, ecology, digitality, and transnationality in deliberating bodies.