Habermas, Jürgen

Assigned: Habermas, Jürgen. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” (1496-1502); “Modernity—an Incomplete Project” (1502-13). Also read the editors’ introduction (1492-96).

“The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” (1964)

1. On 1496-97  (“1. The Concept…”), how does Habermas define his key term “public sphere”? What is the “public sphere,” and what is it not? What is its function with regard to politics and society? In what historical conditions, according to the author, did this sphere come into existence—what made the public sphere (as opposed to merely private opinion) possible?

2. On 1497-99 (“2. History…”), Habermas discusses matters of representation during the feudal age. In what way did feudal lords and monarchs “represent” their own power, and how was this manner of representation different from what happens within the modern “public sphere”? What changes in society began to alter this older form of representation, and what happened when “national and territorial states” (1498) came into their own? How did the development of “public authority” (1498) lead in turn to a situation in which private individuals “now made up the public body” (1499) and spoke and wrote in opposition to state authority as such?

3. On 1499-1500 (“3. The Liberal Model of the Public Sphere…”), how does Habermas characterize the transformations in the public sphere that came with the advent of the modern liberal state? How, according to Habermas, did “[b]ourgeois individuals” (1499) influence and even transform the power of the state, even though they could not, as private citizens, demand to exercise political power directly? What happened to journalism with the development of the liberal state and society—how, according to Habermas, did newspapers progress from simply publishing noteworthy events to becoming “weapons of party politics” and, finally, fully commercial ventures that saw no need to be entirely polemical in their function (1500)?

4. On 1500-02 (“4. The Public Sphere in the Social Welfare State…”), according to Habermas, what happened to the public sphere when its membership expanded beyond the bourgeoisie and began to include the working class? What model of political change began to come into vogue, and how did it differ from the older model in which new laws came about “from the consensus of private individuals engaged in public discussion” (1501)? In what way is the public sphere threatened with the advent of the “social welfare state” in modern times, and yet what hope does Habermas place in the people’s power to organize and make demands upon the state in the name of fundamental rights and democracy?

5. General question: As our editors point out, Jürgen Habermas’ focus has evolved continually over the decades to suit a rapidly changing world order. He wrote “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” in 1964, more than half a century ago. Our own time is a tumultuous one in which democratic institutions across the world have come under strong pressure by forces that threaten to overwhelm them. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the survival of anything resembling a “public sphere” of communication that might help us defend democracy in the face of oligarchy, authoritarianism, corruption, moneyed special interests, and so forth? Explain.

“Modernityan Incomplete Project” (1980)

Introductory Section

1. On 1502-03 (“In 1980, architects were admitted…”), what thesis set forth by a German newspaper critic of architecture does Habermas find to be an apt way of capturing “an emotional current of our times” (1502) with regard to the concept of postmodernity? How does Habermas go on to discuss the historical development and treatment of the concept of “modernity”? How did the present’s relation to the past come to be theorized differently than it had been previously, finally culminating in what Habermas calls a sense of “classical modernity”? (1503)

The Discipline of Aesthetic Modernity

2. On 1503-04 (“The spirit and discipline of aesthetic…”), how does Habermas characterize “the spirit and discipline of aesthetic modernity” (1503)? What intellectual and artistic lineage does he trace for this concept or approach, and what “changed consciousness of time” (1503) do members of this lineage apparently share? How, too, do these avant-garde artists and movements engage in “the exaltation of the present” (1504 top) instead of looking to the past, and in what way, according to Habermas, do they also embrace “the extremes of history” (1504)? How does Walter Benjamin’s “posthistoricist” notion of Jetztzeit (literally, “now-time”) exemplify the sense of “the relationship of modernity to history” (1504) shared by proponents of aesthetic modernity?

3. On 1504-05 (“Now, this spirit of aesthetic modernity…”), Habermas cites Octavio Paz and Peter Bürger on what they see as the decline and failure of avant-garde culture, and in particular “the surrealist rebellion” (1505 top), as an artistic and social force. The question is, says Habermas, does this failure indicate “a farewell to modernity” and a shift into postmodernity? He cites one contemporary response to this question in the work of neoconservative sociologist Daniel Bell. How does Bell analyze what he sees as “a split between culture and society” (1505), one that has supposedly resulted in the destructive preeminence of “hedonistic [pleasure-centered] motives” that make it impossible for a given society’s members to live and produce in a purposeful way? In what sense, in Bell’s framework, is modernism “dominant but dead” (1505), and what is Bell’s projected solution to the societal and cultural problems he believes he has diagnosed?

Cultural Modernity and Societal Modernization

4. On 1505-07 (“One can certainly not conjure up…”), how does Habermas assess the neoconservative arguments of authors such as Daniel Bell, whose thesis revolves around the supposedly destructive effects of modernist attitudes that he says pervade everyday life? What fundamental mistakes and confusions drive neoconservatives when they try to identify the cause of what Habermas calls “the uncomfortable burdens of a more or less successful capitalist modernization of the economy and society” (1506)? Why do they end up blaming artists and aesthetic movements for problems that are best understood as being caused by social and economic developments? How does Habermas himself explain what he calls “the subordination of the life-worlds under the system’s imperatives” (1506)?

The Project of Enlightenment

5. On 1507-08 (“The idea of modernity is intimately tied…”), Having dispensed with “feeble” neoconservative arguments positing the decadence of cultural modernity, Habermas turns to consideration of the flaws in what he calls “the project of modernity” (1507). How does he employ the framework of sociologist Max Weber to analyze the present failure of this broad-ranging “project,” which extends beyond art and into the vast historical and cultural phenomenon known as the Enlightenment? How did Weber define “cultural modernity” (1507)? What did his analysis suggest had caused “science, morality and art” to split off from one another and go about their tasks in isolation? How, according to Weber, did increasing “professionalization” in the three areas named contribute to an ever-greater split between the public and the realms of scientific, moral, and aesthetic knowledge? What expectations did Enlightenment philosophers such as Condorcet nonetheless uphold for the role of the arts and sciences in society and politics? Why, as Habermas implies at the end of this segment, is it no longer possible to hold on to such optimism?

The False Programs of the Negation of Culture

6. On 1508-09 (“Greatly oversimplifying, I would say…”), Habermas traces a trend in modern art towards “ever greater autonomy in the definition and practice of art” (1508). In other words, as he says, by the mid-nineteenth century in Europe, Baudelaire and others are promulgating a doctrine of “art for art’s sake” (1598). What was it about this approach to aesthetics that, according to Habermas, drove the surrealist movement to try to “force a reconciliation of art and life” (1509)? Even so, what paradoxical and negative results did this surrealist assault-by-experiment against reified, alienated art have on people’s perception of the relationship between life and art? According to Habermas, what is the first of “two mistakes” that brought the surrealist “revolt” (1509) to an unsuccessful conclusion?

7. On 1509-10 (“Their second mistake has more important…”), what is the second of two mistakes that Habermas attributes to the surrealist revolt against art for art’s sake? Why, in his view, is only “breaking open a single cultural sphere” [namely, art, and not ethics and science as well] (1509) doomed to failure? How, too, does Habermas characterize certain anti-democratic, rigidly moralistic, and even terroristic attempts to undo the reified status or isolation of the three elements he has already mentioned? (The three elements are cognitive; moral-practical; and aesthetic-expressive; these correspond to the simpler terms science, morality, and art.) Nonetheless, what stern criticism does he make of those who would dismiss the “Enlightenment tradition” altogether on this basis? (1510)


8. On 1510-11 (“I think that instead of giving up modernity…”), Habermas offers a first alternative to rejecting the project of modernity. How does he first describe the expectations that bourgeois art had of its consumers? In what sense were these expectations somewhat confused? In part on the basis of this confusion, what opportunity for integrating art with everyday life opens up for an ordinary person even within the realm of bourgeois aesthetic experience? That is, what happens “as soon as aesthetic experience is drawn into an individual life history and is absorbed into ordinary life” (1510)? How does Habermas use Peter Weiss’ long novel The Aesthetics of Resistance to illustrate this opportunity? In addition to this alternative, what does Habermas suggest must also occur in the “life-world” (basically, our everyday lives) to overcome the destructive autonomy of spheres that reigns in the modern world? In responding to this last question, consider the paragraph beginning, “In examples like this…” (1511).

9. On 1511-13 (“If I am not mistaken…”), who, according to Habermas, are the “young conservatives” (1511 bottom-1512 top)? How do they supposedly appropriate modernistic attitudes and developments for anti-modernist purposes? How does Habermas describe the group he calls “old conservatives” (1512)—how does their stance on modernity differ from that of the “young conservatives”? Finally, how do the “old conservatives” regard “cultural modernism” and what view of art do they promote (1512)? On the whole, does Habermas sound optimistic about the prospects for preserving what is valuable about modernity and the Enlightenment? Explain.

10. General question: At base, Jürgen Habermas, in his 1980 study “Modernity—an Incomplete Project,” was responding to what he and many others believed to be a crisis in the evolution of cultural modernity and indeed a crisis for the Enlightenment’s hopes for a better, fairer, more rational world. How would you describe the current moment in American and European history as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century? Is there cause for renewed faith in our ability to maintain human rights, peaceful relations with other countries, democracy and law, and sound environmental practices, or do you find this an ominous time for such vital things? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake