nau | english | rothfork | teaching | Taylor
Philosophical Arguments (1995)
Notes, Questions & Answers & #13: "The Public Sphere"
This essay continues investigating topics identified in #11, which offered 4 very large or inclusive discourse communities:
1. "What is a public sphere?" 259.
This can be answered from the perspective of each of the four discourse communities, but T.'s answer moves in the direction of the community of art/fashion/style/self-definition. "The public sphere is a central feature of modern society. So much so that, even where it is in fact suppressed or manipulated, it has to be faked. Modern despotic societies have generally felt compelled to go through the motions. Editorials appear in the [censored] party newspapers, purporting to express the opinions of the writers . . . demonstrations are organized. All this takes place as if a genuine process" of public expression was at work, 259. Consider the analogues in the other 3 realms. In law, claims by Marxists of proletariat justice. In religion, of God/Allah's will in Iran, Afghanistan, Rome. In money/consumerism of nonconvertible currency.
2. Each of the above 4 examples is characterized by the fact that it is a "monological" expression announced (by loudspeaker, no doubt) from the head office (i.e., top-down) to the rest of us who are expected to follow orders & not ask questions. In contrast, how does T. define "public opinion"?
You answer this one (1).
3. Identify some of the requirements necessary to produce public opinion.
4. T. follows Rousseau to offer a formula for social contractual democracy. Identify its elements.
5. T. claims that the Rousseau-ian public sphere he defines is fundamentally different from what goes on in the discourse community of law/politics. How so?
Authority resides in two incommensurable places. In the Rousseau-ian model, mere popular opinion constitutes sovereignty (meaning there is nothing more authoritative). I say mere because "it was not defined as the will of God or the law of Nature," 265. As defined above, the General Will requires public, critical argumentation. But when that is done, the General Will can only claim to be popular opinion. In contrast, authority in the law/politics discourse community is codified in rules, regulations & professional standards. People do not directly speak to us. Court justices put on wigs & black robes & speak down to us from elevated court benches. Mr. Congressman and Ms. Senator tell us the law. And if we don't like it we are advised to work within the system to elect someone else or to seek legal council. The historical rise of public opinion outside the walls of a clearly demarcated institution "was seen as forming a society outside the state," 266.
6. Consider Plato's assessment of democratic government. He thought it was the grumble & caprice of the mob. By definition it lacks theoretical pith & direction. Why should anyone listen to mere public opinion? By what authority? If the discussion is religious, I can pretty quickly trace the authority to some claim of self-evidency or ultimacy. If the discussion is fiscal & economic, we know how to authoritatively measure the claims. In the discussion is legal, we know where the authority resides. But when people are expressing mere opinions, where is the authority? What, if anything, obligates you to listen or consider their claims?
You answer this one (2).
7. If the authority for the public sphere is pragmatic & consequently rejects all transcendental claims, doesn't this produce anarchy? The question comes up again, why should anyone feel obliged to listen to anyone else?
The answer/s are fairly long-winded because they must be pragmatic. Moreover, T. is not assured (& as a pragmatist cannot be assured) that the Rousseau-ian social formula will continue to work. He lists dangers to the public sphere:
8. Looking at 277, how do communities of law) & the public sphere relate in American theory? Does the public sphere entirely replace law; or should it? Is law inimical to the public sphere, such that we really believe that lawyers & politicians are unprincipled parasites?
"But democracy is not just like the public sphere," 277. The two communities overlap & are mutually dependent. "In a modern democratic polity, the boundary between political system & public sphere has to be maximally porous," 280. The sovereign authority for #1 is located in #4. But to achieve the goals/ends articulated in the public sphere requires the technical means possessed by #1. (This mutuality is interestingly paralleled in Herbert Marcuse's thinking between the mutually dependent societies of aesthetic dreamers & technical institutions of business and engineering.) T. is very clear about the priority: "A flourishing public sphere [in which normative judgments are made] is essential to democracy," 278. A perfectly oiled legal machinery (community #1) cannot produce democracy. Perfect law & order produce a fascist state, not a democracy.
On to #12: "The Politics of Recognition"