The Public Sphere and the Internet

| Introduction | Jurgen Habermas: Background | What is the Public Sphere? | The Contemporary Public Spheres and the Internet | Closing Thoughts | References


This intention of this article is to present the interconnected aspects of the Theory of the Public Sphere, best recognized through the writings of Jurgen Habermas, and how the theory has be perpetuated through the advent of the Internet in contemporary societies from a global context. The article will reveal the intriguing background of Habermas, as one of the most prolific social philosophers of the Twentieth Century. Further discussion will expose the long-standing notion of the Public Sphere prior to Habermas' theoretical framework for democracy. In addition, this article will track the Public Sphere applications for benefit of modern society. The longevity of the Public Sphere and its abundant affects on civil societies worldwide, thus far, provide evidence that it will continue to bring about significant democratic change globally, if rightly applied by an autonomous, rationally communicative Public Sphere.

Jurgen Habermas: Background

Jurgen Habermas (1929) is the most renowned German social theorist and philosopher living today. The majority of Habermas' work is directly connected to his philosophical perspectives of social and political theories. However, in recent times, Habermas' wide-ranging works have influenced and been applied to other fields of study, such as cultural and literary studies, philosophy, law, politics, and education Habermas began his philosophical journey, as a doctoral student in the 1950's, under the guidance and mentorship of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (Finlayson, 2005). Habermas and his mentors were affiliated specifically with the Institute of Social Research, Frankfurt's School of Critical Theory founded in 1923 in Frankfurt, Germany (Agger, 1977). The School of Critical Theory was fundamentally based on popular Marxist manuscripts written in 1844, in which Karl Marx implied that social alienation "...took both economical and psychological forms" (Ibid, p. 6), particularly, in reference to the working class.

Traditional theorists of the day were referred to as Critical Ideologists. Long-established Critical Ideologists, such as Freud, Nietzsche, and Hegel, were non-Marxist, conventional academics, whose school of thought surrounding Capitalism and the working class was idealistically based on narrow suppositions, instead of theories. On the other hand, Horkheimer and Adorno "...sought a critical theory that would challenge and undermine prevailing culture" (Levine, 2012, para 3). Their reflective appraisal and analysis of culture and society pertained to knowledge drawn from the disciplines of the social sciences and the humanities (Ibid)

Critical Theory is interdisciplinary and uniquely experimental in character ...always concerned

with not merely, how things were but how they might be or should be (Bronner, 2011, p. 1).

By the end of the post-World War II era, Habermas was becoming an innovative thinker and leader at the Institute of Social Research. Habermas turned his energy toward understanding and theorizing how wage-labor and dominate classes were structured and functioned, by studying their formation and persistence throughout the Nineteenth Century (Bronner, 2011). He theorized that the wage-labor class was exploited by the dominate class. He recognized that this relentless arrangement afforded the dominate class power over the economic and psychological well-being of the wage-labor class, which trained this class to become reactionary, rather than functioning from "rational domains of action," for personal betterment (Habermas, 1984, p. 318). Therefore, Habermas theorized that if the wage-labor class withheld cooperation in lieu of better working conditions and remuneration for their skills, the dominate class would lose some of its reactionary-power, and the wage-labor class would be empowered, with autonomy and personal decision-making opportunities, which Habermas considered a component of functionalist reason (Ibid, p. 319). He presented this theory-essay to the Korcula Summer School in Yugoslavia, as a lecture in 1968 (Habermas, 1968). Revolutionizing Capitalistic states through social and institutional transformation became a major thrust of his work from the 1960's through the present. During this same period, Habermas studied the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century and developed the concept of the Public Sphere (Culture Studies Reader [CSR], 2011).

What is the Public Sphere?

In his first publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962), Jurgen Habermas revealed his descriptive interpretation of the Theory of the Public Sphere:
"... the public sphere is a virtual or imaginary community, which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space" (Habermas, 1989, p. 176). In its ideal form, "...the public sphere is made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state" (Ibid).
Soules (2013) speculates that Habermas' main premise for the controversial text was to investigate the position of public attitude " the practice of representative government in Western Europe" (para 2). Nevertheless, the relevance of the public sphere has played out on the stages of historical events for thousands of years.

The public sphere is the components of the social aspects of individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. It is a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment" (Hauser, 1998, p. 86).

Habermas distinguishes between the private sphere residing in a lifeworld of private affairs (i.e. family) with the state (government institutions) supposedly functioning as the representative body of the private sphere. His inquiry of the harmony, or lack thereof, between the two was based on historical events and literature from the Middle Ages through the Twentieth Century. Theses centuries-old examples provide confirmation that the voices and opinions of the masses belonging to the private sphere were quieted by their inability to assemble, receive information, debate or discuss issues of the state, economy, or politics, which affected their lifeworld existence. The perpetual ignorance of the private sphere permitted bureaucratic systems, to manipulate and control the private spheres under their domain (Soules, 2013).

Habermas later refers to the private sphere, as civil society. There was a dominate class within the civil society, known as Bourgeois. Habermas described Bourgeois, as middle-class, materialistic, businesspersons, occupied with advancing commercial enterprises. At the other end of civil society, were the Proletariats, who belonged to the waged-labor force (i.e., working-class). The Bourgeois were educated and possessed influence with the state through profit-making and commerce dealings. More often than not, though, the middle-class segment of the civil society, were perpetrators of unfair wages and treatments of the working-class (Bohman & Rehg, 2013).

Habermas proposed that the most practical plan of action to stimulate a democratic system was a public sphere, where all factions of civil society could congregate and discuss issues of mutual interest and concern, and articulate these interests or concerns to the state system. Today, this public sphere model is carried out on a much larger scale by way of conventions, town hall meetings, conferences, and the like, not only locally, but also nationally, and globally, as well. Further, Habermas posited that communication was the essence of a society, and that voluntary acts of communication would afford civil society a visible means to deal with social and political problems via rational-debate. Therefore, he posits that the civil society has the power, to autonomously bring forth democratic change through the public sphere forum, which manifests in the United States, as rallies, conventions, and the vote (Habermas, 1989).

The Contemporary Public Spheres and the Internet

"The focus on democracy as the location for cooperative, practical and transformative activity continues today in the work of Jürgen Habermas, as does the attempt to determine the nature and limits of “real democracy” in complex, pluralistic, and globalizing societies" (Bohman, 2013, para 5).

In the Eighteenth Century, when coffee houses, public salons, and literary societies were at their peak in Western Europe, belonging to the public sphere meant joining other members of the civic society, in a physical locale. The purpose of the assemblage was to rationally deliberate issues and concerns, that were worthy of the states attention, in order to initiate significant changes in the social and political climates of the era. Over time, the opinions of the public sphere resulted in new ideas and processes:

Ø Parliamentary government (as a hinge between public opinion and administration)
Ø Laws protecting free speech and public rights to information
Ø Universal suffrage and universal education (Levine, 2012).

These same processes are achieved today, globally via a digital age and the advent of the Internet. However, unlike ages gone by, the Internet affords voluntary members of a multiplicity of public spheres to communicate regarding similar issues and concerns. In the last century, the public sphere was identified in singular form, by use of the term the. Presently, the public sphere is identified in plural form, by the plural term spheres (Stalder, 2008).

Elhaloui (2009) in his discussion of contemporary public spheres lists a number of Internet applications available for global communication with other members of civic societies. These applications include (but are not limited to) blogs, wikis, YouTube, Google Docs, videoconferencing, and other forums to name a few. Stalder (2008) points out that the rapid growth and innovations produced by Internet applications and tools available indicate the inherent desire of human beings to dynamically exchange information, ideas, and concerns with one another, regardless of physical distance and time. Secondly, the Internet provides the cyberspace public spheres with the means to communicate in real time or across time and space asynchronously, which supplies opportunities of endless information gathering and sharing (Ibid).

Blogs (weblogs) and wikis create public spheres that permit substantial opportunities to gather and exchange information and knowledge, which for some global citizens is not available in their respective region of the globe. Typical blogs, for example, merge text and images surrounding a particular topic, for which ongoing conversations (via text) are logged and viewable by anyone with an Internet connection. These blogs consist of a variety of topics, from personal diaries to highly technical and sophisticated subject matter. Blogs, like other Internet applications, supply the viewer with links to other blogs, Websites, wikis, etc that hold supplementary knowledge sharing and further opportunities to join in those debates and discussions. Hence, the idea of the multiplicity of public spheres via the Internet (Desai, 2013).

Kenix (2008) adds non-profit organizations to the inventory of applicable cyberspace public spheres, in terms of furthering social and political deliberation toward a globalized democracy. Moreover, she advocates for scholars and researchers to examine the potential outcomes toward worldwide democracy, when Internet content is presented in a format that makes reliable information regarding the status of global social and political issues available. Kenix proposes that when global public spheres are aware of the issues, they will participate in deliberations and actions that will change of the face of the world's future (Ibid).

Closing Thoughts

Over the last seven centuries, the public sphere has utilized every opportunity presented, from meetings at local coffee houses to cyberspace blogs, to rationally deliberate and discuss the major issues of social and political problems. These rational debates inform and influence decision-making processes that affect the individual lifeworld, national and international laws, and the well-being of the global community. Habermas has lived to experience the impact of his Public Sphere Theory movement for more than eighty years. This study indicates that the movement will continue to augment the lifeworlds of individuals, communities, and nations throughout the current millennium via cyberspace and beyond.


Agger, B. (1977). Dialectical sensibility I: Critical Theory, Scientism and Empiricism. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 1(1), 3-68. Retrieved from

Bohman, J. & Rehg, W. (2013). Jürgen Habermas. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Bronner, S. E. (2011). Critical theory: A very short introduction. NY: Oxford University.
Cultural Studies Reader (CSR). (2011). Jurgen Habermas' Public Sphere explained. Retrieved from

Desai, G. G. (Ed.). (2013). The virtual transformation of the public sphere: Knowledge, politics, identity (critical interventions in theory and praxis). New Delhi, India: Routledge Inia.

Finlayson, G. (2005). Habermas: A very short introduction. NY: Oxford University.
Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action, Volume 2: Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Habermas, J. (1968). Disappearing ideology: Some conditions for revolutionizing late Capitalist societies. Ideology & Power, 15(1-3), 16-26. Retrieved from

Hauser, G. A. (1998). Vernacular dialogue and the rhetoricality of public opinion. Communication Monographs, 65(2), 83-107. doi: 10.1080/03637759809376439

Kenix, L. (2008). The Internet as a tool for democracy? A survey of non-profit Internet decision-makers and Web users. First Monday, 13(7). doi:10.5210/fm.v13i7.2124

Levine, P. (2012). Habermas and Critical Theory (a primer). Retrieved from

Stalder, F. (2008). Bourgeois anarchism and authoritarian democracies. First Monday, 13(7). doi:10.5210/fm.v13i7.2077

Soules, M. (2013). Jurgen Habermas and the Public Sphere. Retrieved from