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The Public Sphere of Past and Present

Rich Egger
Ed Woell will give the annual Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture at WIU.

This week I am honored to give the fourteenth annual John Hallwas Lecture on the Liberal Arts, which is sponsored by WIU’s College of Arts and Sciences. My talk, titled, “The Public Sphere of Past and Present, and the Place of the Liberal Arts,” will answer basic questions about the public sphere, including what it first was, what it is today, and why its long relationship with the liberal arts matters.

I want to take this chance not only to invite you, the Tri-states listeners, to the lecture but also to give you a small preview of what I will discuss.

Much of what we know about the public sphere is owed to a German scholar named Jürgen Habermas. Over fifty years ago Habermas published a book locating the start of the public sphere in eighteenth-century Europe. He argued that this initial sphere was marked by three things.

First, it was a physical space where people gathered to debate and deliberate on matters without interference from institutions like governments or churches. As new media like newspapers began to appear, spaces where people could discuss what they had read soon followed. These included reading societies, lending libraries, theaters, opera houses, coffeehouses, and cafés.

Second, the sphere was home to a discourse about many subjects, but especially those taken up by disciplines composing the liberal arts: science, mathematics, philosophy, politics, history, economics, society, religion, and literature.

And third, the sphere functioned according to a set of norms spelling out how everyone within it should act. Among such norms were the recognition of equality among all within the sphere, the use of reason in dialogue, the freedom of expression, and the observance of transparency.

In essence, Habermas showed how the public sphere of the eighteenth century was a critical juncture where democracy as we understand it today first emerged. Nonetheless, he also realized that a truly democratic public sphere was very difficult to maintain, and thus as soon as this realm appeared it started to break down. Even so, Habermas concluded that remnants of the first public sphere have persisted to the present.

Although Habermas himself is well into his eighties his work seems as relevant as ever, in part because we are now in the midst of an information revolution resembling the one that spawned the first public sphere.

As for what remains of the public sphere today, internet and mobile technologies now allow us to connect with one another in more ways than ever. But Habermas and other scholars are reluctant to see these innovations as improvements over eighteenth-century public space.

Why? For one thing, cyberspace is not the same as physical space, and the frequent social connections we make online or with our smart phones tend to be shallow and fleeting.

An even larger problem, however, is that in many countries multinational corporations encroach on what is thought of as free and open public space, thereby influencing crucial political decisions.

To cite one example in our own nation, in the midst of this year's presidential primaries and caucuses the New York Times reported that Donald Trump had received two billion dollars in free media coverage, whereas his fellow Republican and Democratic candidates received only a small fraction of the same. This points to a likelihood that media coverage—particularly as provided by large news outlets drawing huge audiences like Fox News—had a decisive role in the selection of a presidential candidate for one of this country’s two major political parties. [1]

That this corporate power looms so large is precisely why the public sphere still needs the liberal arts. As I will make clear in the lecture, when the public sphere was at its eighteenth-century zenith those who led the liberal arts were among the staunchest defenders of this realm—especially whenever it was menaced by the absolute power of governments or state-backed religions. Accordingly, today we need leaders in the liberal arts to step forward and protect free and open public space from the onslaught of multinational corporations, whose power is so pervasive that it is even felt at a public institution like Western Illinois University.

My lecture will have more to say about the public sphere of past and present. But the subject matter would make a lot more sense if—in keeping with what a public sphere is—I have an audience willing to discuss, debate, and deliberate on what is put before it. Please join me, therefore, not only to learn about a public sphere but to become part of one as well. 

Edward J. Woell is a professor of history at Western Illinois University and this year’s lecturer for the John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture.

The lecture will be presented at the WIU campus in the Quad Cities on Wednesday,3:00 p.m. in Rooms 103 and 104 of Riverfront Hall, and the WIU campus in Macomb on Thursday, 7:00 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the University Union.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.

[1] Nicholas Confessore and Karen Yourish, “$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump,” New York Times, 15 March 2016, 2016/03/16/upshot/measuring-donald-trumps-mammoth-advantage-in-free-media.html, accessed 25 July 2016.