Public Sphere in XVIII Century Research Paper

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Any reflection trying to understand how the notion of public sphere was constructed in the eighteenth century is necessarily referred to the classical book published by Jurgen Habermas in 1962 (Habermas 1962). According to Habermas, the ‘political public sphere’ was construed in the eighteenth century (in some places sooner, in others later) as a space for discussion and exchange removed from the control of the state. The new ‘public sphere in the political realm,’ founded on the exercise of public criticism was thus opposed to the ‘sphere of public authority’ identified with the exercise of state power. For Habermas, this new intellectual and political ‘space’ was distinct from the court, which belonged within the domain of state power, and from the common opinions of the people who had no access to enlightened critical debates. This is why it is possible for him to qualify it as ‘bourgeois.’

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1. Definitions Of The Public

There were different ways of conceiving the construction of the new political public sphere of the eighteenth century. Was it issued from the literary controversies of the seventeenth century and rendered possible by the diffusion of new forms of intellectual sociability? Or was it the extension of the modalities of print communication proper to the Republic of Letters to a greater number of individuals which made possible the transformation of dispersed private persons into a unified public community?

1.1 Habermas’s Political Public Sphere

For Habermas such a ‘public’ supposed, on the one hand, that the various participants were not acting as agents or subjects of the ruler and, on the other hand, that they were considered as equal. The political public sphere thus ignored both the obedience required by the exercise of state power and the distinctions of ‘orders’ and ‘estates’ imposed by the traditional social hierarchies.

No limit could subject the critical exercise of reason, and no domain was to be forbidden to it. Overcoming the division instituted by the cartesian methodical doubt between opinions which could legitimately be submitted to examination and obligatory credences and obediences, the members of the new public sphere considered that no domain of thought, including the political and religious ones, was to be removed from critical and reasonable judgement.

This judgment was exercised within the different forms of sociability which had been previously erected as a tribunal of aesthetic criticism: the salons, the cafes, the clubs. In the seventeenth century, this new public challenged the traditional monopoly of the court, the official academies, or the connoisseurs in such matters. It was enlarged during the eighteenth century thanks to the multiplication and diffusion of the periodicals, and the success of new forms of association: the book clubs, the reading societies, the masonic lodges. But it supposed also the exclusion of all those who lacked the competence which made possible the participation into a critical community welcoming only the persons who had sufficient wealth and culture.

1.2 Kant’s Public Use Of Reason

Habermas’s perspective was based on one of the most famous text of the eighteenth century, Kant’s What Is Enlightenment? published as an article in the periodical Berlinische Monatsschrift in 1784. But it also distorted it. In his text Kant proposed a new way of conceptualizing the relation of the public to the private. He equated the public exercise of reason with judgment produced and communicated by private individuals acting ‘as scholars before the reading public’ and he defined the public as the sphere of the universal in opposition to the private considered as the domain of particular and domestic interests (which may even be those of an army, a church, or a state).

He inverted, thus, the accepted meanings of the two terms by associating the private use of reason with the exercise of an office or with the duties toward the state and by locating the public use of reason within a community without limitations or boundaries. If the private use of reason can be restrained legitimately in the name of public ends without prejudice to the progress of enlightenment, the liberty of the public use of the reason was absolute and has to be respected by the prince himself.

In this same text, Kant shifted the way in which the legitimate limits put on critical judgment should be conceived. Such limits were no longer defined by domains forbidden to methodical doubt; they laid in the position of the subject who exercises his reason. He could be constrained legitimately when he was executing the duties of his charge or of his status, but he was necessarily free when he acted as a member of the ‘society of world citizens.’

That universal society was unified by the circulation of written works that authorized the communication and discussion of thoughts without the necessity of physical presence of the different interlocutors. Kant systematically associated the public use of reason with the production or reading of written matter by private individuals. The public was not construed on the basis of new forms of intellectual sociability such as clubs, cafes, literary societies, or lodges, because those associations were modalities of particular, circumscribed, and domestic entities. For him, only written communication was admissible as a figure for the universal.

Kant’s conception of the public use of reason was drawn for the notion of the Republic of Letters as it was constructed through correspondence and the circulation of manuscript or printed texts from the late seventeenth century onwards (see Goldgar 1995). Founded on the free engagement of its members, on equality among its interlocutors, and on reciprocity and disinterestedness, the Republic of Letters which united the learned and the scholars provided a model and a support for thinking of the new public sphere. At the same time, it showed the distance separating the universality of the ‘society of world citizens’ and the restricted social composition of the ‘reading public.’ In Kant’s time, this reading public was not the whole of society by any means, and those capable of writing were even less numerous. It is only when everyone will be able to exercise critically one’s reason that humanity will experience ‘an enlightened age.’

1.3 The French Philosophers: Public Opinion vs. Popular Opinions

Kant held the distinction between the public and the people to be temporary, transitory, and characteristic of a century which was a ‘age of enlightenment’ but not yet an ‘enlightened age.’ But for many thinkers of the eighteenth century, particularly within the framework of the French Enlightenment, the two notions constituted an irreconcilable dichotomy (see Ozouf 1989, pp. 21–35). Public opinion was defined precisely in contrast to the opinions of the multitude. Public opinion, set up as a sovereign authority and a final arbiter, was necessarily stable, unified, and founded on reason. The universality of its judgments and the constraining self-evidence of its decrees derived from that unvarying and dispassionate constancy. On the other hand, popular opinions were multiple, versatile, and inhabited by prejudice and passion. Such a qualification reveals a strong persistence of older representations of the people considered as subject to extremes, inconstant, and foolish.

When the concept of public opinion did emerge in France around 1750 as the superior authority to which all particular opinions must bow, the distinction between the public and the popular became essential. A new political culture thus took shape which transferred the seat of authority from the will of the king alone, who decided without appeal and in secret, to the judgment of an abstract entity embodied in no institution, which debated publicly and was more sovereign than the sovereign who was obliged to seek to win its approval and support.

This gave acuity and urgency to a fundamental question: how could the people, eliminated from the exercise of critical judgment by their lack of competence, be ‘represented’ in the new political space? A first answer to this question assigned this function to one or another of the theories of political representation confronted after the mid-eighteenth century. Following Keith Baker, three of the theories were fundamental: the absolutist theory, which made the person of the king the only possible representative of a kingdom divided into orders, estates, and bodies; the judiciary theory which instituted the Parliaments as interpreters of the consent or remonstrances of the nation; and the administrative theory, which attributed the rational representation of social interests to muncipal or provincial assemblies founded not on privilege but on property (see Baker 1990).

An alternative model of representation that removed the notion institutional setting—monarchical, parliamentary, or administrative—was offered by the category of public opinion. Substituting the self- evidence of unanimity to the uncertainties of particular and popular opinions, detached from any form of exercise of governmental and state authority, the concept delegated the representation of the whole nation to those who were able to express its reasonable decrees: the men of letters.

2. Public Opinion: Voice Or Tribunal?

Although everyone recognized the existence of public opinion and postulated its unity, there was no unanimous consent on two issues: first, who were its true spokesmen and, second, how was one to evaluate the self-evidence of its judgments? In eighteenth-century France, the answers to such questions were expressed through the metaphors used to designate this new entity: public opinion as a voice to be heard; public opinion as a tribunal which had to be persuaded.

2.1 From Theater To Tribunal

In 1775, in his discours de reception before the Academie francaise, Malesherbes forcefully expresses the idea, by then commonly accepted, that public opinion was to be considered a court of justice more imperious than any other. It is a tribunal ‘independent of all powers and that all powers respect,’ composed by the men of letters who are ‘amid the public dispersed, what the orators of Rome and Athens were in the middle of the public assembled.’

There are several arguments contained in this comparison. First, it invested the new ‘judges’ with an authority that ordinary judges did not have. Their competence knew no bounds and their jurisdiction no limits; their freedom of judgment was guaranteed because they were in no way dependent upon the power of the ruler; their decrees had the force of self-evident propositions. With such a definition of public opinion, the men of letters were invested with the judiciary legitimacy of all traditional powers and with veritable public office.

Reference to this dispersed judiciary function had another meaning, however. It aimed at establishing a connection between the universality of judgments and the dispersal of persons, and at constructing a uniform opinion which, unlike that of the ancients, had no physical location in which it could construe and experience its unity. As for Kant later, it was the circulation of written matter and particularly the printed one which made it possible to envisage the constitution of a unified public in a nation in which people were necessarily separated from each other and formed their ideas individually. By associating the public nature of the written word, vastly increased by the invention of the printing press, with the supreme authority of the judgments pronounced in the new political sphere, Malesherbes (as many others) converted the plurality of reflections and criticisms that emerged from solitary reading into a collective and anonymous conceptual entity.

From the seventeenth century to the eighteenth century there had been a radical shift in the manner of conceiving the public. In the age of baroque politics the traits that defined the public were the same as those which characterized theatrical audiences: heterogeneous, hierarchized, and formed into a public only by the spectacle in which the most powerful effects were produced by hidden machines and secret maneuvers.

When the concept of public opinion did emerge, it effected a dual rupture. It opposed the art of dissimulation and secrecy by appealing to transparency. Before the tribunal of opinion all causes were to be argued without duplicity. But all citizens were not (or not yet) adept at joining together to form enlightened opinion. If the audience which mingled in the theaters potentially was composed of men and women from all social levels, the public which served as the tribunal to judge literary merits, religious matters, or political issues was more selected and homogeneous. When opinion was thought of more as actor than as acted upon, it became public, and by that token it excluded many people who lacked the competence to establish the decrees which it proclaimed.

2.2 From Audience To Public

Constituting the public as an entity the decrees of which had more force than those of the established authorities supposed several operations. They can be exemplified by the memoirs published in great number by both French lawyers and litigants from 1770 onward. They took the judicial comparison literally and exposed before opinion affairs which were examined by a court of justice. The cases subjected to the secret procedures of justice were thus transformed into public debates, shifting the place in which judgment had to be pronounced (see Maza 1993).

The most fundamental strategy required by such an operation consisted in endowing particular cause with general and exemplary value. The debt that a court noble refused to pay to his bourgeois creditors became an ideal occasion for denouncing unjust privilege, just as the arbitrary imprisonment of a young gentleman was an opportunity to criticize the lettre de cachet. To achieve such goals supposed, first, that the secrecy of judicial procedure had to be broken by the circulation of printed memoirs on the largest possible scale, and, second, that a dramatic style or a first-person narrative had to replace the customary legal prose. Universalizing the particular, making public what had been secret, and ‘fictionalizing’ discourse were the techniques that lawyers used to appeal to opinion and, in doing so, to proclaim themselves the authorized and legitimate interpreters of that opinion.

The traditional, discrete, and exclusive relationship that bound individuals to the king, the guarantor and guardian of domestic secrets, gave way to a totally different situation in the public exposition of private conflicts. From that point of view, judicial memoirs are the exact inverse of the lettres de cachet accorded by the sovereign in response to requests from families interested in concealing familial disorders which sullied their honor. The memoirs displayed what the lettres concealed; they expected from the judgment of opinion what the lettres hoped to gain from the omnipotence of the monarch; they converted into public issues the scandals that the lettres were charged with burying.

It is in this sense that the new public space was built on conflicts proper to the private sphere, assigning political significance to simple familial or conjugal strife. In a parallel manner, the clandestine pamphlets stigmatized the aristocracy, the courtiers, the queen, and finally the king by revealing their corrupt mores. People became accustomed to seeing individual affairs transformed into general causes. This procedure was not restricted to pamphlet literature but also lay behind the lawsuits instituted by rural communities against theirs landlords or by journeymen workers against their masters. It was the process of ‘privatization’ in which individuals conquered autonomy and freedom removed from state authority which permitted the very existence of a new public sphere.

Even if, or because, it was defined as a conceptual entity, and not in sociological terms, the notion of public opinion which invaded the discourse of all segments of society—political, administrative, judicial—in the second half of the eighteenth century operated as a powerful instrument for social division and legitimization. The mobilization of the category founded the authority of all who, by affirming that they recognized its decrees alone, set themselves up as mandated to pronounce its judgments. Universal in its philosophical essence, the unified, enlightened, and sovereign public was far from universal in its social composition. The public sphere, emancipated from the domain in which the ruler held sway, thus had nothing in common with the shifting opinions and blind emotions of the multitude. Between the people and the public there was a fundamental difference.

3. Prohibited Books, Subversive Words

According to Darnton, this new public was detached from the traditional authorities by a wider and wider dissemination of philosophical ideas. In this process the role played by the great classics of the Enlightenment was perhaps less important than the texts that the eighteenth-century book trade called ‘philosophical books’: critical pamphlets, scandalmongering chronicles, anticlerical satires, pornographic works. The circulation of this clandestine and seditious literature, which depicted the despotic corruption of the monarchy or the depraved mores of the court, engendered a change in thought and in collective representations, henceforth detached the subjects from their old loyalties: ‘Sedition was hatching. It was instilled in people’s minds […] We know for certain that it was communicated by a formidable instrument: the book’ (see Darnton 1991, 1995).

But other historians like Farge have challenged this interpretation which sees the increase in seditious writings in the last two or three decades of the ancien regime as the matrix of a desacralization of the monarchy. She affirms: ‘Popular opinion did not emerge from the cumulative reading of pamphlets and placards; it was not unilinear and did not base arguments on the sum of what is read’ (see Farge 1994, p. 35).

Statements of disapproval or hatred of the sovereign, attacks on his acts, and expressions of a desire to kill him did not arise from the flourishing clandestine literature. Nor did they start with Damiens’s attempt to assassinate Louis XV, which, rather than unleashing a proliferation of regicide discourse, persuaded the authorities of the reality of Jansenist and Jesuit plots and set them in pursuit of such literature. For Farge, ‘the failed murder of Louis XV had a ready-made public opinion; it tells us more about the monarchy’s reactions than about any new and/original turn of popular thought’ (p. 174).

The symbolic and affective disinvestment which transformed relations with authority when it was deprived of all transcendence was manifested but not caused by the wide diffusion of ‘philosophical books.’ The erosion of founding myths of the monarchy, the desacralization of royal symbols, and the distancing of the person of the king formed a body of representations which was ‘already there,’ ‘ready-made’ when the public sphere arose conceptually and sociologically.

4. Women And The Public Sphere

What was the role played by women in this new public sphere? Joan Landes’ thesis opposes radically the ‘symbolic politics of the emerging bourgeois public sphere (which) was framed from the outset by masculinist interests and assumptions’ with the forms of sociability dominated by women in the ancien regime, for example, the salon society conceived as ‘an alternative sphere of cultural production inside absolutism’ (Landes 1988, p. 40). This is the reason why the exclusion of women from political rights during the French Revolution is inscribed by Landes within the logics of the enlightened condemnation of the role that women played within the absolutist public sphere: ‘the structures of modern republican politics can be construed as part of an elaborate defense against women’s power and public presence’ (p. 203).

Against such a perspective Goodman argues that women played a central role both in the collective project of the Enlightenment and in the construction of a new political and critical public space. For her, ‘the French Enlightenment was grounded in a femalecentered mixed-gender sociability that gendered French culture, the Enlightenment, and civilization itself as feminine’ (Goodman 1994, p. 6). In this perspective the salon society did not belong to the old regime absolutist public sphere but had a fundamental role in shaping a ‘discursive space’ opened to public and political criticism. Between 1750 and 1775 women were essential in the government of such society because they kept within the limits of civility and politeness the tensions which necessarily arose from the free confrontations of opinions and the competitions for intellectual leadership: ‘Enlightenment salons were places where male egos were brought into harmony through the agency of female selflessness’ (p. 104).

According to Goodman (1994, p. 280), it is during the 1770s that women began to be excluded from the new public sphere. On the one hand, the harmony of Republic of Letters was then destroyed by a series a ferocious discords starting with controversies about Physiocracy. On the other hand, new forms of association (among them, literary societies called lycees or musees and masonic lodges) either excluded women or gave them a subordinate position. The return to ‘masculine self-governance’ prepared women’s expulsion from the revolutionary political space: ‘When the literary public sphere was transformed into the political public sphere in 1789, it had already become masculine; the ‘democratic’ republic of 1792 would reflect the limitations and exclusions of the Republic of Letters of the 1780s.’

It is possible to discuss such an interpretation. The Freemasonry did not ignore women’s presence and gave them an important role in the ‘lodges of adoption.’ In these lodges many women were involved in the new values coined by the late Enlightenment: the philanthropic activities, the interest for political issues, the friendship between men and women (Burke and Jacob 1996, pp. 513–49). Besides that, it is clear that even between 1750 and 1775, the salon society was always very minoritary and limited to a restricted number of participants. They cannot be considered as the center of the Republic of Letters.

The collective construction of the new public sphere cannot be reduced either to a unique process or to a sole place. It arose from the intertwining between conceptual novelties and social practices, the alliance between speech and print, and the common (but dissimilar) participation of men and women.


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