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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

DUVENAGE, Pieter. A critical reconstruction of the concept of the public sphere in Habermas (and the mass media). Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.4-1, pp.701-715. ISSN 2224-7912.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2018/v58n4-1a6.

In this contribution, the concept of the public sphere is critically reconstructed with reference to the philosophical and social theoretical work of Jürgen Habermas (born 1929). Habermas, though, is also known for his work in communication theory. In the introduction (section 1), a brief sketch of Habermas's intellectual career is provided to serve as a starting point to reconstruct his concept of the public sphere. In section 2, Habermas's concept of the public sphere is examined by considering four aspects of his early work - The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962): Firstly, Habermas provides an historical argument of the transition from the feudal public sphere to the bourgeois public sphere (modern era) since the 17th century. Secondly, an optimistic picture of the development of the bourgeois public sphere is provided where a normative ideal of the public is connected with a claim to public reason. Thirdly, Habermas also provides a view of the decline of the public sphere in a post-liberal era of market manipulation and consumption - a view strongly influenced by Adorno and Horkheimer. Finally, I refer to early criticism of Habermas's concept of the public sphere (liberal, systems-functional, Marxist and feminist). In section 3 of this article, I discuss the manner in which Habermas's concept of the public sphere changed siginificantly over a period of about twenty years. It is indicated how it shifted from a more historically informed concept of the public sphere to a more formal and normative version thereof. Eventually this shift culminated in Habermas's defining work - The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). This work consists of three argumentative lines. Firstly, there is a theory of argumentative reason in which speech act theory plays an important role. Secondly, a theory of social rationalization (with the distinction between lifeworld and system) is developed. Finally, Habermas provides an interpretation of modernity/postmodernity. Towards the end of section 3.3. I discuss the ethical (a kind of deontological discourse ethics) and the political implications (a politics of deliberation), of his theory of communicative reason. In section 4, Habermas's concept of the public sphere and its communicative rational reformulation (with its ethical and political implications), is then applied in the context of contemporary mass communication as a public sphere. In this regard, an article by Habermas (2006) is pivotal. In this contribution, which he calls a normative and empirical reflection of the public sphere in our own time he emphasises three things: In the first place, he distinguishes between liberal, republican and deliberative models of democracy-opting for the latter model. Secondly, he focuses on the structure of mass communication and the formation of considered public opinions as well as the power structure of the public sphere and the dynamics of mass communication. Thirdly, certain contemporary pathologies of political communication are considered - such as the colonialization of the public sphere by imperatives of the market. In this article, then, the last section (5) conludes with some inconclusive and critical remarks on the concept of the public sphere. As mentioned before, Habermas's original formulation of the public sphere was criticised from a liberal, systems-functional, Marxist and feminist perspective. Eventually these different critical perspectives are complemented by those of multiculturalism and post-colonialism. It is well known that Habermas's work, despite its emphasis on the universal ideal of normativity, is applicable to historical societies in the northern hemisphere. The question here is: How compatible is Habermas's idea of rationality and normativity with a society such as South Africa? This question is an important one in a society where metanarratives and binary options must be critically challenged. As the different South African perspectives are moving closer to one another at the start of the 21st century, the need for a critical public sphere is of the utmost importance.

Keywords : Habermas; public sphere; history; normativity; communicative reason; discourse ethics; deliberative politics; mass media; criticism.

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