Habermas: Public Sphere and Knowledge and Human Interests

Simon Susen’s Critical Notes on Habermas’s Theory of Public Sphere

In his book the Social Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas does a socio-historical analysis of how the public sphere changed from the 18th century and beyond. Put into the perspective of Habermas’ life work, he is intrigued by this change because he sees great potential in the public sphere, particularly for the sake of deliberative process in a democracy. Though it should be noted, he wasn’t quite at this point yet in his thought. This work is significant not so much for the accuracy of its historical analysis, but for the tools Habermas uses, his overall approach to understanding the public sphere and why it should demand our attention. Both Habermas and Susen are greatly concerned with the normative function of the private and public distinction.

As is often the starting point with the public/private dichotomy, we are meant to go back to the two spheres of society in ancient Greece; the polis and oikos. Polis referred to the public sphere, a space where free citizens engaged in open interactions. Oikos, in contrast, meant the private sphere, which was a hidden sphere of interactions in the domestic realm (p. 38/39). Key to understanding the distinction between the two is not to understand their relationship as a polarity, but as a reciprocity. These two realms were mutually dependent on one another, particular the power structures of both. Why we might bother looking at this dichotomy at all is that, for the sake of socio-historical analysis, it allows us to explore the unique ideological and material contingencies that arise given the reciprocity between the two in any given society at any particular time.

In his text, Habermas is interested in the factors that led to the transformation of the relations between the public and private in the modern era. His answer, which we will not focus on, was that given the rise of mercantile capitalism in the 16th century along with evident changes in institutional forms of political power within and between European countries at the time, a whole new form of public sphere emerged in early modern Europe (p.40).

Susen wanting to look at Habermas’ theory critically asks what does the conceptual separation between the two spheres actually represent? For this he denotes three different meanings often attached to the concept: society versus individual, visibility versus concealment and openness versus closure. The first of these is a central concept to sociological thought. The social sciences of course emphasize, “the society” and tend to study the individual in terms of the social and not the reverse (p.41). The second of the three, visibility and concealment asks what parts of social life are visible and which parts are hidden. The more intriguing political question asks, which parts of society ought to be visible and which parts ought to be concealed. Here numerous ideological institutional frameworks come forth. Susen uses the example of liberalism, which has maintained a deep suspicion toward an interventionist state and is critical of any form of authoritarian attempt to control people’s lives, a topic which we have discussed a great deal about in previous meetings. The third meaning, which often accompanies the private/public dichotomy, is that of openness and closure. Questions we might ask are: is the state simply a part of the public sphere and thus open and accessible; is the family an integral part of the private sphere and therefore closed and sealed to the public? Undoubtedly all possibilities are needed as the state requires some closure and the household, openness. All of this said, Susen concludes that the public/private distinction is a useful one, but a rather controversial one particularly for social and political analysis.

Habermas is interested in the public sphere in this dichotomy. His public sphere is a specific kind, he writes, “[t]he bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as a sphere of private people who come together as a public” (p.43). Such a definition implies an immediate connection, for Habermas, between the two parts of the dichotomy we have described above. Individuals are autonomous with one another, not in isolation, but in relation with one another. Susen calls this the “socialized expression of individuals” (ibid). Sociologically, the interest in the public sphere is how it works as mode of societal integration. Habermas takes this a step further and tries to capture how these modes, themselves, might change. Lost in the English translation of the title, Habermas’ is not invested in the structural transformation of the public sphere, but in the transformation of structures in the public spheres and how this happens. Here Susen clarifies Habermas normative sensitivities—within the (bourgeois) public sphere there is emancipatory potential. The existence of the public sphere depends on the promotion for civic engagement and communicative processes (p.45). If subjects are capable of speech and action, they too can reflect and criticize. Habermas here denotes three specific forms of critique that appear in a bourgeois public sphere: a critique of the absolutist state, a critique of democratic states and a self-reflective critique of the public sphere itself. It is this capacity for critique, which we will discuss again shortly, that Habermas finds most attractive about the public sphere. The public sphere, in short, is a collective realm where individuals, through their cognitive capacities and abilities, take on the role of critical and responsible actors; this is indicative of society’s coordinative capacity to transform itself into an emancipatory project shaped by the normative force of communicative rationality (p.47). One wonders if Habermas can conceive of any other form of liberation, be that it may, individual or one which works differently from the version of the public sphere he envisions.

The current structural transformation of the public sphere is tainted with an element of social disintegration. Four reasons are given to why Habermas see it as such, though his final point about the development of the culture industry and the tendency toward constant commodification is arguably the most significant. Here he sees that the potential for the communicative element that arises from the public sphere is being colonized by the functionalist rationality of the state and the economy (p.51).

Susen points to a number of issues in Habermas’ work. First of all, Habermas completely relies on a notion of the “bourgeois” public sphere, entirely ignoring any other forms of public sphere that could contribute to the critical engagement with the world he so demands. Secondly, by focusing on both these bourgeois and critical elements, Habermas is clearly overestimating the potential for the emancipatory in public life and therefore he underestimates the influences of its repressive elements. The third, more recent critique of Habermas’ theory is that it is gender blind, but in so being gender blind, inevitably gives into the dominant patriarchal view of society (p.53). This introduces a broader series of attacks from all marginalized groups. Fourthly it is entirely stuck in the western philosophical tradition, which conceives of a rationalistic conception of the public. This privileges rational approaches to non-rational forms of engagement with the world (p.54). Fifthly, Habermas promotes a universalistic conception of public interest, though he obviously focuses on the bourgeois public sphere. We might ask, what might other public spheres look like? Counterpublics?

Habermas’ analysis, more that the fruits of this analysis, are worthy of our attention. More for the trajectory of his own work, the concept of the public sphere is useful as it provides a forum for deliberative processes aimed at the democratic construction of society (p. 56). As Susen notes, without a doubt, “the development of social life in the modern era is shaped by both the normative opportunities and the normative limitations of public discourses” (ibid). Understanding the dichotomy and reciprocity between the public and private spheres is fundamental for understanding the construction of modern liberal societies and the construction of new societies.

Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interests

To a great extent this text of Habermas’ is firmly seated in the tradition of the Frankfurt school, a tradition which, as we have most recently seen with Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, circulates around the question of criticality. The particular direction of this critical level of reflection in this text is made clear in his preface:

“I am undertaking a historically oriented attempt to reconstruct the prehistory of modern positivism with the systematic intention of analyzing the connections between knowledge and human interests. In following the process of the dissolution of epistemology, which has left the philosophy of science in its place, one makes one’s way over abandoned stages of reflection. Retreading this path from a perspective that looks back toward the point of departure may help to recover the forgotten experience of reflection. That we disavow reflection is positivism” (vii, emphasis added).

Though we will not discuss his socio-historical analysis of this positivism he speaks of, as is the case with Habermas, what he offers in this analysis is a powerful means of thinking about the relationship between knowledge and the human condition. In this text, Habermas is convinced that we are becoming increasingly reliant on the importance of the natural and behavioral sciences (and their means to knowledge i.e. positivism). Before we continue further, we must come to an understanding of the meanings and justifications of these sciences. We must come to know how they generate knowledge. How, in fact, does human interest generate knowledge? Habermas denotes 3 schemes or domains of knowledge and their corresponding human interests. Briefly the forms of knowledge are: instrumental/analytical, practical/hermeneutical and critical/emancipatory. Instrumental knowledge comes from technical interests of people and its correlating methods are positivistic. Its equivalent epistemological direction would be, “Knowing that”. This form of knowledge refers to the way individuals control and manipulate their environment. Practical knowledge comes from practical human interests, and attempt to “Know how”. The methods are hermeneutic and interpretive. Here it identifies human social interaction and the notion of communicative action (which we will look at next week). Critical knowledge leads to emancipatory interests. The direction of emancipatory interests are “knowing why”. The method of this last form of knowledge is where Habermas often seats himself, that is, the critical social sciences and critical theory in particular. This domain identifies self-knowledge and/or self-reflection. Here the point is to gain knowledge through reflection which in turn leads to a transformation of consciousness. Feminist theory, critiques of ideology and psychoanalysis are examples of this, as is Habermas’ own work.

In the final chapter of his text, Habermas is interested in seeing how some of these critical theories hold out. Here he is particularly interested in Freud’s psychoanalysis and Freud’s own adaptation of psychoanalysis as applied to the broader society, or “civilization” in Freud’s words.

We return again then to the tension between the state and the individual, that is, to a society and the individuals who comprise it. Why is there society, or “civilization” and why is it necessary? What would a psychoanalytic theory of society look like? The history of civilization, for Freud, is a history that shows the various paths people have chosen to “bind their unsatisfied wishes under the varying conditions of fulfillment and denial by reality” (p.276). Like Marx, Freud contends that “civilization” is the means in which human beings elevate themselves above the conditions of an animal existence and it serves two primary purposes. First, it serves as a retainer for all the knowledge and capacities of people in their self-assertion and control of nature. Secondly, it serves as a way to regulate and adjust the relations of people to one another and distribute wealth (p.277). The institutional framework that derives from the creation of civilization/society is conceived very differently in Marx and Freud however. For Marx institutions derive their force by creating a system of rewards and obligations which, rooted in force, is distorted according to the given class structure. Freud’s conception of the institutional framework however is in connection with the repression of instinctual impulses. For Freud, every individual is therefore essentially an enemy of civilization (ibid). If civilization rests on the compulsion to work, yet individuals who participate in it necessarily renounce or are coaxed to renounce their instinctual impulses, what binds individuals together in a civilization? How does it work? It does so through compulsory norms, which redirects, transforms and suppresses linguistically interpreted needs (p.279). As Habermas writes, collective fantasies are what compensate for the renunciations that have been imposed upon individual by civilization. All of these fantasies are in the public sphere at the level of communication itself. Freud sees all religious views and traditions, all ideals and political systems, all styles and art forms as examples of the “mental assets of civilization”, our “illusions” (Ibid). These illusions change through technical progress.

Is society, then, this superstructure, a pathological phenomenon? It would seem not necessarily so. An illusion is not a delusion. In fact they represent human wishes and are therefore not necessarily unrealizable or in contradiction to reality (p.280). Here Freud makes another sharp distinction between society and the individual offering a space for a kind of emancipation. If we recall that such illusions can change with the development of technology, the individual sees the institutional framework of his or her society as an immovable reality (p.280). But for humans as a whole, the boundaries of reality are in fact movable. There is then a direct correlation between the level of socially necessary repression and the extent of the power of technical control over nature. It would appear then, that technology is the means for which the power structure, which maintains repression, can be loosened. In Habermas’ words then, the illusions of society harbor a utopia. It’s there within reach. In this conception of society, “technical progress opens up the objective possibility of reducing socially necessary repression below the level of institutionally demanded repression” (p.280). At this point the utopian content is freed from the illusions, the ideological components of culture that repress us and legitimize the authority of a given institutional framework. Freed, they can be converted into distinct critiques of the power structures, which have now through technical progress, become historically obsolete. What we have here is a space and a place for class struggle, but one that is only feasible at a particular junction of time. Notably, this juncture is crucially linked to technical development.

Obvious similarities can be seen between this conception of society and Marxs’.

Marx implied in his work that the human species could constitute itself through a process of productive activity and the performance of social labor. Critically he wrote of another process, a self-formative one, which was pushed forward by a critical-revolutionary activity by the classes. This latter process started from a reflection of one’s experiences. But, Marx did not provide an account of the status of science. As he remained lodged into a materialist concept of man with nature he was restricted to the domain of the instrumental described above. In short this instrumental knowledge, knowledge at the level of the productive was not suited for any reconstruction of power or, for Marx, ideology. Key to this would be critical knowledge. For Habermas, Freud’s metapsychology allowed for the conceptualization of how institutional frameworks work and the functioning of illusions to a degree, which Marx could not have reached. For Marx humans raised themselves above animal intelligence when they transformed their behaviors into instrumental action, so his focus is a system of social labor. Instrumental action is purely goal-oriented behavior. Freud on the other hand saw that humans elevated themselves beyond animal existence when they transcended animal society and transformed their instinct-governed behaviors into communicative action, a topic which we will continue with in our next meeting. Of course for Freud his focal point was not social labor, but the family. Habermas’ attraction to Freud, though in may not have been explicit in his work, is his sensitivity to dialogue. For Freud, pathologies of individual consciousness or social institutions resided in the medium of human language and the capacity for communicative action, the ability to mutually deliberate and argue. The interest of this form of reason, this form of action and its epistemological framework is inclined “toward a progressive, critical-revolutionary, but tentative realization of the major illusions of humanity, in which repressed motives, have been elaborated into fantasies of hope” (p.288).




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