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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. This is a good distinction. One question I want to ask the conflaters is: does a Presidential speech happen in the public sphere? Does a legislative action, like a filibuster or an amendment? Do Supreme Court decisions happen in the public sphere? If so, then how can the public sphere be the same as the non-governmental civil society that provides the normative backdrop of those actions? If not, then how do we ever access those activities, how do we ever transform deliberation and values into state action? Is it only through voting? Ugh.

    Nice post.

  2. I agree that the distinction between civil society and the public sphere is useful and important, although it probably needs to be historicized. “Civil society” projects a fairly static social model, whereas the “public sphere” incorporates a dynamic, critical element, an awareness of change.

    I’m curious about your thoughts regarding the current health-care “Town Hall” fiasco: what does it tell us about the prospects for deliberative politics, civil discourse or a robust public sphere? The advent of YouTube seems to have turned almost every streetcorner encounter into a moral melodrama and occasion for confrontation. The pressure of spectacle seems to stress, if not to undermine, the very postures and habits of deliberation.

  3. Habermas’ public sphere book — 1962 in German.Of course CW Mills too had something about publics in his Power Elite book of 1956. As yo probably know, these dates are often important to understand the ideas in their context.

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