Habermas' Key Moves

1. Re-defines what we mean by public.

No longer does public refer to government/political decision making organizations. Rather, Jürgen Habermas defines the public sphere as follows:

By the "public sphere" we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body. They then behave neither like business or professional people transacting private affairs, nor like members of a constitutional order subject to the legal constraints of a state bureaucracy. Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion -- that is, with the guarantee of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions -- about matters of general interest. ("The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article" New German Critique 3 (1974): 49)

Habermas's definition highlights the importance of free speech and consensus building in a public arena as essential to the development of a healthy public space. Additionally, he underscores the primary essence of a public realm -- conversation. This essentially Legitimizing sphere stands in contrast to the Decisionmaking political sphere, typified by public discussion about objects connected to the state (Note Klumpp's distinction between decisionmaking and legitimizing).

This distinction (between the public and political as well as private) is critical distinction. As Nancy Fraser, author of "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy" notes, Habermas's distinction provides a useful conceptual resource that can overcome problems encountered in Marxian theory and contemporary feminisms because Habermas highlights a forum in which people can discursively interact and be critical of the state, thereby allowing scholars to remain mindful of the distinctions among state apparatus, economic markets and modes of production, and democratic associations/civic participation. These distinctions Fraser believes, "are essential to democratic theory." (111) In other words, Habermas:

2. Argues that discursive action forms the basis of a healthy public sphere.

Unlike the political scientists who posit institutions as the basis of public life, Habermas claims that public life is communication. This proposition forms the basis of Habermas's theory of universal pragmatics and communicative action, both of which locate the basis of coordinated human action in universal speech acts. In other words, Habermas wants to develop a theory about how we use universal rules for using language to arrive at consensus.

Questions for The Theory of Communicative Action

1. What does Habermas mean by communicative action?

2. Both Burke and Habermas are concerned about coordinating human action. How do their programs differ methodologically and conceptually? What are the merits/strengths of each?

3. Are distinctions among private, public and politics necessary? important? How does Habermas distinguish among these terms? How might we? What is the place of rhetoric in these distinctions?

4. What is an "ideal speech situation" according to Habermas?

5. Habermas seems to privilege consensus, or the reaching of understanding/agreement throughout his works. Is consensus a defining characteristic of the public sphere? What is the role of controversy? difference?

6. How might Habermas conceive of the role of morality, history and ethics in his conception of the public sphere?

Questions for "The Public Sphere: What Does a Crisis Mean Today?"

1. To what extent is Habermas's attack on "capitalism" misguided? What can we learn from Habermas's critique that can help form our theoretical conceptions of the public sphere?

Key Move

1. Public Sphere as Discursively/"Narratively" constructed from a contextualist perspective

Rather than conceiving of the public sphere as a state in which people rationally deliberate on matters of common interest, Fisher shifts perspectives from a more normative tradition to one in which people discursively construct the public sphere through creating and making sense out of narratives. Unlike Habermas, participation in the public sphere is guaranteed to all people on an equal basis because of our natural capacity as story-tellers. In some ways, then, Fisher reverses the role of the speaker, critic and audience in that the citizens/audience become the creators of discourse.

Questions for Fisher's "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument."

1. In what ways might Fisher's argument be viewed as a critique against Habermas? In what ways does Fisher's project parallel that of Habermas?

2. In Fisher's view, what constitutes the public sphere? What is the role of rhetoric in the public sphere? Does he distinguish the public from the private? If so, how? If not, on what basis might he do so? How is Fisher's notion of the public sphere and the purpose of rhetoric in the public sphere different from Habermas's conception of the role of rhetoric in and nature of the public sphere?

3. What is the role of difference, gender, cultures in Fisher's conception of the public sphere?

4. What does Fisher mean by the "logic of good reasons"? What is the role, if any, for traditional argument/reasoning in the public sphere?

Key Moves

1. Public Sphere as Constituted through Deliberative Argument.

As Goodnight states "The study of why uncertainties appear, what they mean, how they are banished only to be reformed, and what practices shape the course of future events is important, for knowledge of argument's varieties may illuminate the values, character, and blindspots of an era, society, or person." (216) This statement also implies the necessity for self-reflexivity and reflects Goodnight's sensitivity to the process of social change.

2. Through deliberation, spheres may potentially expand, contract and/or shift rhetorical ground

Like Fisher, Goodnight does not conceive of a "static" normative public sphere. Instead, as people deliberate, the grounds of argument may shift in and out of the spheres, as exemplified by the deliberation about poverty (from personal to public), environment (from public to technical) and


1. Goodnight assumes that public deliberation is a necessary requirement for a healthy public sphere. In fact, because he perceives a decline in space for public deliberation, he asserts that public life is diminishing. On what grounds does he make this case? Do you agree? Is there a hint of romanticism/of the ideal/ of a time gone by when we had a public life?

2. Goodnight's argument allows for uncertainty and sometimes controversy. Indeed, he asserts uncertainty as an essential component of argument. On the other hand, Goodnight also notes that "an appropriately designed public forum would provide a tradition of argument such that its speakers would employ common language, values, and reasoning so that the disagreement could be settled to the satisfaction of all concerned" (217). In doing so, Goodnight demonstrates a major problematic for contemporary rhetorical theorists engaged in public sphere studies: the relationship/dialectic/tension between consensus and controversy; commonalty and difference. Do any of the theorists we have read thus far provide us with concepts for talking about this dialectic in meaningful terms?

3. Goodnight's breakdown of the public spheres is similar to that of Habermas (life-world/techno-world and bourgeois, state and plebeian spheres)? What does Goodnight do differently in theorizing the public sphere that may have helped Habermas avoid a more normative conception?

4. How does Goodnight conceive of the relationship among the three spheres and what is the place of rhetoric in each?

5. Goodnight asserts that a "theory of argument that would ground reason giving in the technical sphere is in opposition to the requirements of personal and public life" (223) Given that a few pages earlier (219), Goodnight discussed academic logic as pertaining to the technical world, I think Goodnight raises another problematic: what is the role of the public intellectual in the public sphere? the academic intellectual? the public participant? are these mutually exclusive? Why do we write for academic journals?

Food For Thought: How might you theorize the public sphere? What is the place of difference? contestation? consensus? What are the signs of a healthy public sphere and what is rhetoric's role in its construction?

In General, Public Sphere Literature Works On Several Key Issues

1. Rhetoric of Science/Technology/Mass Media and Public Sphere OR Public Society Vs. Mass Society: (Klumpp, Jensen, Willard, Mills, Hogan, Lucaites)

What is the role of technology in the public sphere? Of the mass media (internet, art, television, print media)? As J. Michael Hogan suggests in "George Gallup and the Rhetoric Scientific Democracy," have opinion polls/technology devices become the primary vehicle of public opinion--and if so, how do we evaluate this shift? What is the role of public opinion in the public sphere? Should public opinion drive public policy, or does public opinion serve some other vital democratic functions?

Drawing on Dewey's notion of pragmatic aesthetics, Jensen writes: "Taking Dewey seriously means taking seriously the possibility that aesthetic activity, even if it involves unsophisticated, untrained, non-intellectuals, is of a piece with, is coterminous with, is not essentially different from, the aesthetic activity of sophisticated, trained, artists and connoisseurs" (374). In Jensen's mind, democracy is recognizing the mundane forms of democracy already in existence not the educating/training of the masses to be better democratic participants [or in his analogy, recognizing car washing, gardening and cooking as art (read democracy) instead of valuing the Monets, Renoirs, Titians as art (read exclusive property of the intellectuals)]. The cure for the public sphere--more "mass"/common democracy! What are the implications of Jensen's efforts to dissociate "education, taste, arts and democracy" for public sphere theory? How might we read Jensen as a critique of Habermas? As an affirmation of Habermas? (376)

Klumpp's critique of Willard can be read as a call for a public sphere grounded in common sense and legitimation as opposed to decision making. What is the place of "ordinary" people in the public sphere? What type of discourse/discussion/modes of talking characterize the public sphere? What is the function of the public sphere? What types of questions should we be asking in the public sphere? I read Klumpp as also calling for contextualist public sphere? What kinds of characteristics are embedded in this conception? In other words, what does a conceptualist sphere look like?

Lucaites notes that the "rise to prominence of social and photographic documentary in the 1930s marks a significant shift in the rhetorical consciousness of American public culture, for it represented a pronounced alteration in the way in which the increasingly mass mediated rhetorical culture invited and encouraged Americans to think of themselves as 'the people'" (274). I believe that the internet has done something similar. How do electronic media (e-mail, fax, www, etc.) inform our conception of American public culture?

2. Rhetoric of Morality and Ethics (Hogan, Lucaites):

What is the role of morality and ethics in the public sphere? Hogan suggests that public discourse is poorer because of the merger between opinion polls and journalism, two distinct fields with diverse institutional objectives. Polls, Hogan, claims have substituted for substantive information about political issues and therefore, stifle debate. As his example, Hogan notes that in the Persian Gulf War, pollsters were not asking questions regarding Bush's war policy but instead were asking the public to speculate about "less important issues" such as how many Americans would be killed, how long the war would last and the role of prayer in saving lives. Hogan's piece raises questions about how we might go about judging quality public debate. What readings have we read that may help us answer this question?

Lucaites implicates a morality in discussing the aesthetic and political representation of people. In other words, Lucaites calls attention to the moral, ethical and political implications of the ways in which we talk about "the people" and "individuals." Lucaites urges us to consider the problems in conflating particular "individual" with the abstract class of "aggregate individuals" (individual as synecdoche for "the people"), treating human subjects as "objects" of manipulation, and discouraging reader active engagement with the democratic process, all potential outcomes of a mass-mediated society and the need for differentiation and unity in democratic society.

3. Rhetoric of Difference and Controversy

Is consensus a defining element of the public sphere? What is the place of controversy in the public sphere? How can we account for differences (i.e. language, race/ethnicity, religion, geography, class) and still talk meaningfully about public opinion, the public sphere, "The People"? Many feminists, in particular, have critiqued Habermas for locating a normative account in a historical setting, thereby precluding participation of a variety of people in the public. What do you think of these critiques (Fraser, Griffin, Phillips, McLaughlin, Calhoun Book)? How do they help us think differently about the public sphere in beneficial or unproductive ways?

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The Public Sphere: A Bibliography According to Major Theoretical Moves

COMM 652: Contemporary Rhetorical Theory

Professor James F. Klumpp


Lisa M. Gring-Pemble

Habermas on the Public Sphere

Habermas, Jürgen. Communication and the Evolutions of Society. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

­­­. Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon, 1975.

­­­. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT P, 1996.

­­­. The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon, 1984.

­­­. The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon, 1987.

About Habermas or Extensions of The Habermasian System

Burleson, Brant R. and Susan Kline. "Habermas' Theory of Communication: A Critical Explication." Quarterly Journal of Speech. 65 (December 1979): 412­28.

Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1991.

Francesconi, Robert. "The Implications of Habermas's Theory of Legitimation for Rhetorical Criticism." Communication Monographs 53 (1986): 16­35.

Klumpp, James F. "The Unconsummated Flirtation: Contextualist Approach to Argument." Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Argumentation, Amsterdam, 19-22 June 1990. Eds. Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, J. Anthony Blair, Charles A. Willard. Amsterdam: International Society for the Study of Argumentation, 1991. 54­60.

McKerrow, Raymie E. "Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis." Communication Monographs 56 (1989): 91­111.

The Media, Technology, Mass/Public Society, and the Public Sphere OR The American Public Sphere

Aufderheide, Patricia. "Public Television and the Public Sphere." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8 (1991): 168­83.

Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Henry Holt, 1927.

Golding, Peter. "The Mass Media and the Public Sphere: The Crisis of Information in the 'Information Society.'" Debating the Future of the Public Sphere. Eds. Stephen Edgell, Sandra Walklate and Gareth Williams. Brookfield: Avebury, 1995. 25­40.

Herbst, Susan. Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Mills, C. Wright. Power, Politics and People. Ed. Irving Louis Horowitz. London: Oxford UP, 1963. 353­73.

Roche, Maurice. "Recent European and American Conceptions of Democracy and Politics and the Public Sphere." Debating the Future of the Public Sphere. Eds. Stephen Edgell, Sandra Walklate and Gareth Williams. Brookfield: Avebury, 1995. 41­61.

Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Warner, Michael. "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject." Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge: MIT P, 1996. 377­401.

Morality and Ethics and the Public Sphere

Baynes, Kenneth. "Communicative Ethics, the Public Sphere and Communication Media." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 11 (1994): 315­26.

Kelly, Michael. "The Dialectical/Dialogical Structure of Ethical Reflection." Philosophy and Rhetoric 22 (1989): 174­93.

McCarthy, Thomas. "Practical Discourse: On the Relation of Morality to Politics." Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge: MIT P, 1996. 51­72.

Race and the Public Sphere

(Inquiry Into Race and the Public Sphere is Probably one of the Most Underdeveloped Areas of Public Sphere Thought)

Black Public Sphere Collective, Ed. The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End, 1989.

Murphy, John. "Inventing Authority: Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Orchestration of Rhetorical Traditions." Quarterly Journal of Speech 83 (1997): 71

West, Cornel. Race Matters. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Feminist Critiques of Habermas/Feminist Explorations into the Public Sphere

Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.

Fraser, Nancy. "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy." Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge: MIT P, 1996. 109-42.

­­­. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Herbst, Susan. Politics at the Margin: Historical Studies of Public Expression Outside the Mainstream. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

McLaughlin, Lisa. "Feminism, the Public Sphere, Media and Democracy." Media, Culture and Society 15 London: SAGE, 1993.

Ryan, Mary P. Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825­1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Young, Iris. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

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