Civil Society, or the Public Sphere?

I am ready to come clean with my worry about these two terms, “civil society” and “the public sphere.”  My political theorists friends (trained in political science departments) act and talk as if the difference between the two is patently obvious.  I just nod, a bit hesitant to admit that I don’t quite get it. Many others use the terms interchangeably to denote a NONGOVERNMENTAL arena.  Okay, yeah, I get that

Between the state and the mass of individuals there is this other, nongovernmental realm.  Hegel aside, let’s suffice it to say that by the late 20th century people were returning to the idea of civil society to point out the political importance of the nongovernmental arena of associations such as labor unions, civic clubs, higher ed, churches, bowling leagues, choral societies, garden clubs, you name it.  Some theorists included the market; others didn’t.  (This seems to me to be a huge question that didn’t get enough attention.)

At the same time, or really earlier, with Habermas’s publication of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the term public sphere came into vogue. Habermas’s book was originally published in the 70s, if memory serves me (this is a blog so I don’t feel compelled to look it up just now). It was translated into English in the early 1990s, just when the term civil society was hitting it big.

Both terms seemed to hit the zeitgeist in the same way.  But there were some key differences. Various arenas of civil society may, at any given moment, be attending to things political, or not.  But the public sphere seems to be defined as an arena that is all about political matters.

Moreover, civil society is a demarcation of entities, asssociations, not activities. But “the public sphere” is something else. In the popular imaginary, the public sphere may be a space waiting in the wings upon which people can enter and attend to things political. But in Habermas’s conception it was something else altogether. He described it (in Steven Seidman’s 1989 volume) as the space that arises whenever two or more people come together to talk about matters of common concern.

In this sense, the public sphere is not a space but an occurence. It’s not an entity; it is a phenomenon. It is the effect of two, three, or more people coming together to figure out what to do on matters of common concern.

Where civil society seems to map formal and perhaps informal associations, the public sphere maps activities. We have here the difference between substance and process ontology. In philosophy, substance ontology focuses on the essence of things, which it generally sees as having essences and properties, with things being relatively static or at least continuous over time. It might move from a focus on a thing to its relations between things, but in general it attends to the thing itself. Process ontology doesn’t see things as fixed or having essences. It sees beings as matters of being, as phenomena. The desk upon which my hands rest isn’t a table so much as it is some matter TABLING.  Likewise, we could say that the public isn’t an entity but a phemonenon of people in relation taking up matters of common concern.  One day they might do that, and we call them a public, and another they don’t, and we don’t call them much of anything.

I still think that civil society is a useful notion, but I don’t think it should ever stand in for the more robust and specific conception of the public sphere. Perhaps we should attend to how, in a particular moment, under certain kinds of conditions, entities of civil society, and even those not seen as qualified members therein, morph into the public sphere.

if we think of the public sphere as a process and a phenomenon, as an effect of political engagement among people who may not in any way be “authorized’ to act, we can see it as a really poweful and potentially transgressive space for politics. The idea of civil society might contain that, but only the idea of the public sphere makes this manifest.

Random Summer Thoughts

1. It’s odd that no one paid attention to the adjective “wise” in Sotomayor’s comment, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion.” If “wise” means anything, then all she said was a tautology.

2. It’s good that some companies are making a profit, but obscene that they’ll be handing out huge bonuses.

3. The Wall Street Journal increasingly looks like USA Today.

4. The steadiest ritual in my life, for more than 20 years, is morning with the New York Times and a cup of French roast coffee and this makes life very good indeed.  I don’t think it would be the same with an online version.

5. The social effects of Facebook have yet to be seen.

6. Twitter is the anti-Facebook.  Where Facebook is about creating a tight circle of friends, however big, Twitter is all about broadcast with a big disconnect between who one follows and who follows you.

7. It’s not as hot this summer as it was last summer, but then again I don’t live in Texas anymore.

8. Did California ever repeal Proposition 13?  Now would be a good time.

9. We want Sen. Franken to be funny, not boring.

10. And that’s the way it is, so far, in some measures, this summer of 2009.

11. Rest in peace, Walter Cronkite.

Analytic & Continental Philosophy

Yesterday the Australian philosopher Paul Patton was featured on Australia’s Philosopher’s Zone radio program. First, let’s give a huge round of applause to Australia for having a radio program devoted to philosophy.


I’ve met Paul Patton a few times and I have always been impressed.  The main point he makes here is that the analytic / continental division in philosophy is part and parcel of the larger division in intellectual circles between science and the humanities. Patton notes that as a higher ed administrator in a research university he has come up against the perplexity of scientists who wonder just what new knowledge the humanities are discovering.  At the same time, Patton makes an impressive case that the humanities’ sort are much more engaged in the real world problems of actual peoples, especially those who have been marginalized, like the Australian aboriginal people.

Patton also notes a difference between analytic and continental philosphers over what is taken as given and taken for granted.  Analytic philosophers often take rights as given, and then they worry — quite rightly — over how such rights ought to be distributed.  [Edit: should read how goods should be distributed on the basis of these rights, not rights distributed.] Continentals worry about how such rights might, or might not, emerge at all, especially in contexts where “the other” is barely recognized as worthy of recognition.

I have been working between these traditions, mostly from the continental side but also mostly trying to engage the issues that analytic political philosophers care about more than continental philosophers seem to do.  This always gives me a sense of vertigo or imbalance. Currently I am finishing up an article on democratic “epistemology” though I feel like I am hardly getting off the ground because I can hardly recognize what epistemology, in the usual sense, has to do with democratic deliberation. I have to constantly do a self-check: am I on Neptune or are these other folks on Neptune?  Fortunately I have had lots of experience on planet earth with people actually engaged in democratic life so that I can pause and say to myself: I have something to say here.

In the end, the analytic / continental divide is best checked by  lived experience — not a seminar in modal logic.