Habermas’s Concept of the Public Sphere and the New Feminist Agenda

By María Pía LaraAugust 11, 2019

Habermas’s Concept of the Public Sphere and the New Feminist Agenda
JÜRGEN HABERMAS’S OPUS is extensive, and his influence has been widespread. He has been a generator of ideas and concepts that have transformed our understanding of philosophy, politics, and law, but no concept is more attached to his name than that of the public sphere. Like the discursive ethics upon which it is founded, Habermas’s notion of the public sphere remains a powerful tool in global struggles for political and social justice.

An important point in Hannah Arendt’s theory of public debate inspired Habermas’s initial project of developing the normative category of the public sphere. Arendt wrote mainly about the Greek public sphere, the polis, though she also examined Kant’s idea of publicity. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962, translated into English in 1989), however, Habermas investigated the emergence of a more democratic “bourgeois public sphere” in the modern world, which he described as a public arena not just for political elites, but for a more wide-ranging democratic debate, not to mention the contestation of all forms of privilege. Habermas’s notion of the public sphere is the enemy of dogmatic ideologies. The normative concept of “publicity,” borrowed partly from Kant and Arendt, was the cornerstone of his analysis. It held that the public sphere should be open to all citizens regardless of status; it claimed that the public sphere should be a realm of transparency and accountability. Whereas liberal theories of justice often excluded women and other marginalized groups, the normative concept of publicity allowed them to demand entry into, and representation within, the public sphere.

Habermas relied on Kant’s work “Perpetual Peace” (1795), which also attracted the attention of Arendt because it addressed the problem of secrecy and lying in public life. Kant had argued that these “evil” actions would inevitably lead to abuse in the forms of privilege and exceptionalism, wielded by individuals who wanted to hide things from public scrutiny. Such scrutiny, Kant observed, constituted a right: the right to demand transparency and accountability from the state. Apart from Machiavelli, Kant was one of the few political philosophers who had addressed the public consequences of secrecy, openness, and disclosure as forms of political agency.

Taking up Kant’s insight in the 20th century, Arendt claimed that the good citizen was the person who upheld moral values related to justice. The “evil” citizen, by contrast, was “not the man who wills evil” or “a devil” as understood in “the usual sense.” He was, rather, “the one who makes an exception for himself,” the one who was “secretly inclined to exempt” himself from responsibility and accountability. The important word here is secretly. Such an individual “would obviously stand against the common interest” even while pretending otherwise (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 1982, p.17). Kant, who was interested in questions concerning the relation between political life and justice, suggested that the way to avoid this kind of illegal social and political behavior — by both citizens and the state itself — was to insist that no one is above the law or immune from due process.

Building upon Arendt’s work, Habermas sought to bring Kant’s original ideas about secrecy and visibility in line with his conceptualization of the bourgeois public sphere, which he treated as both a historical category and a normative idea. As an historical phenomenon, the public sphere played a central role in establishing social and political rights in France, England, and Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. Habermas claimed that the new habits of the bourgeois public — such as reading and gathering to discuss the emergence of novels and literature — allowed people to exercise self-reflexivity, to acquire a critical perspective that soon became political. From there emerged the conception of modern subjectivity.

As a normative concept, the public sphere was a tool that could be used to fight against both exclusion and any lack of accountability on the part of the state. The idea of the public sphere could also be mobilized in the fight for inclusion by marginalized members of society. The concept could also be used to contest prevailing norms, cultures, and institutions. In this regard, Habermas’s notion of the public sphere had a double impact: it strengthened the process of building up public opinion and it enabled agents to become public advocates for groups that had previously been “invisible” or previously “excluded” from public view and debate.

Still, some problems remained. Was there only one public sphere? Were there other counter-publics who could or should question the larger, more dominant one? Was Habermas’s normative ideal actually open to all? These problems emerged just as soon as the powerful, normative concept of the public sphere Habermas had coined became a vehicle for political action, for questioning norms and institutions.

Feminists and other critics produced a vast literature on the public sphere, which energized the concept, making it generative of new ideas. Habermas followed these debates. In his later work, whenever the concept of the public sphere was thematized, it became clear that he had developed it into a larger space where justice could be conceptualized via new ways of amplifying and disclosing hitherto unseen dimensions of exclusion.

Habermas’s notion of the public sphere evolved in tandem with his ideas about legal change. For him, the institution of law became a site of tension between the discourses of facticity and validity — that is, between the realms of everyday experience, on the one hand, and the normative dimension of what ought to be different, on the other.

The idea of justice as a struggle for public visibility proved enormously helpful for feminists and minority groups. The normative category of publicity helped set the stage for radical social and political transformation, especially in societies where women’s demands for equal rights and equal protection as citizens had been denied or ignored for centuries.

By participating in political debates and taking advantage of the power of agency, feminists and other excluded groups entered public life through the front door, not the back. Even so, they were not always seen as welcome “guests.” The different historical stages of feminist struggles have demonstrated that even the most liberal theorists who espoused progressive ideas had constructed their own justifications for excluding women and nonwhite people as political actors from the public sphere. The struggle for public legitimacy on the part of women thus entailed a much deeper understanding of the complicated relationship between power and violence, and how these related to secrecy. Finally, history had brought women to the point when they could stop being invisible.

Against the hidden methods by which the bourgeois culture had shut its doors to females, preventing them from becoming equal citizens, an entirely new approach was needed. Historical reconstructions were required, along with genealogical studies, post-colonial theories, and diverse ways of exploring the legacies of exclusion that had been deployed against women well into the 20th century. Habermas’s idea of the public sphere helped to show how modes of “exclusion” were the tools that enabled male domination. White men had structured a kind of rationality that made their particular perspective appear as if it were the universal form of inclusion and representation.

Feminists have questioned the private/public distinctions, which often hide and protect the privileges of men. The first task that fell to women as activists and theorists was to dismantle the privileges that white men often thought of as their rightful inheritance, constructed in the domain of social contract theory-invisibility.

It is noteworthy that Habermas never based his political theories on the model of the social contract. His conception of active citizenship was more closely related to a constitutional view of participatory democracy. He believed it was more progressive to think about the conception of social justice as coming from the claims of those who were excluded. His project has always been about social inclusion: no contract is needed if the public sphere can forge new conceptions of justice through public debate. Actors’ claims of exclusion can broaden our narrower perspectives about justice. It was Habermas’s powerful new way of breaking with social-contract theories that allowed the normative dimensions of the public sphere to gain strength over the years.

As the decades of fighting against unequal legal and political status have passed, women have discovered that not all male privileges have been dismantled. Invisibility, secrecy, and a lack of accountability are still privileges of white men in the post-bourgeois contemporary public sphere. Indeed, Kant’s insights have come back to haunt us.

While capitalism has used liberal theories to make some positive changes on behalf of women, these have been always self-serving. It remains unclear how much they actually improve the daily lives of the majority of women. Men who want to escape legal and moral accountability still exert domination over women in the workplace, in political life, and in the domain of private relationships.

This is the reason why women today are still living with a sense that, despite their political successes, they have not achieved enough. They still must show how the notion of secrecy contradicts the normative claims of transparency and accountability in the public sphere. Feminism needs to reassert the need to think critically about the extent to which public opinion can be manipulated, how “facts” are distorted, and why women are so often the ones who are considered liars. Such critical concerns have been deeply embedded into Habermas’s normative conception of the public sphere, which is why it has reemerged with new potential and promise in recent years.

When we consider women’s recent accounts of sexual violence, exploitation, and the abuse they have experienced at the hands of husbands, boyfriends, and bosses, what remains constant are the strategies of the men (especially the powerful ones) to protect male-dominated institutions that are used to destroy their victims’ credibility. Women are “liars.” Women “provoked” their own abusers. Women wanted to be raped or assaulted. The men were entitled to it. These rationalizations are not new, of course. In fact, they date from the beginning of patriarchal-capitalist structures. White men have “justified” their domination of women on the grounds that women were not their equals but their property. And the techniques men have constructed to keep their abusive behavior secret have helped to exempt them from public scrutiny. These are the hidden reasons why men’s privileges have remained intact.

Women have learned why violence, invisibility, and secrecy have gone together so well and for so long. But now something is starting to change: women are understanding that their individual stories are not as unique as they once thought. Sexual violence and abuse, often endured in secret, have been the shared experience of many women around the globe. They have been a common denominator in the private and public life of societies, in the workplace, in the home, where women must often ignore how men still treat them as little more than sexual objects, must accept that men always earn more for the same job, and must agree to hide that information from the public. Such are the secrets of privilege. All of this while privileged working women hire less privileged ones to do the reproductive work of care in their households, with lower salaries, because women are needed in the market and those who work on the informal site of the social life are in need of a job.

Men have gotten away with every kind of sexual abuse and discrimination imaginable without having to face legal (or even public) accountability. It took a group of women to tell their stories and put them in the public sphere for all women to understand that those accounts were also their stories. The impact of the global reaction to the feeling of being violated, debased, degraded, and discredited or disbelieved has fostered the rebirth of a feminist agenda.

Women have finally reached a point where the different feminist movements have become a truly global public sphere. For the first time in centuries, women see other women sharing and comparing their stories of what was once unspoken and considered shameful. With the emergence of movements such as #MeToo, Time’s Up, Not One Less, and other massive protest organizations, feminist theorists and activists have come to realize that Kant’s concerns about secrecy and publicity find strong support in Habermas’s own normative category of the public sphere.

“Not One More” is an activist, feminist movement that has found a new term to describe violence against women, even murder: “femicide.” The term was coined by Diane Russel in 1976 and was widely adopted when the Mexican anthropologist Marcela Lagarde used it to describe the massive murders and rape of women in Tijuana beginning in the 1990s. Femicide is a crime committed by men specifically, and they should be punished for it in the same severe way that, in the United States, individuals who commit hate crimes against LGBTQ persons and members of certain racial, religious, and other “protected” groups are.

In this climate, producing a new agenda around these recent protest movements entails a radical transformation of public debate and discourse about publicity and social justice. We need to construct a new feminist imaginary. The work has already begun. Consider how many feminist theorists — among them, Nancy Fraser, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, Mary Beard, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and even Catherine Rottenberg — have written new feminist manifestos or critical perspectives about a new kind of agenda. The secrecy surrounding women’s domination as sexual beings and worker-slaves is now in plain sight.

Wherever journalism and scholarship has begun to do serious work, to check up on the facts, to do the research and gather witnesses and testimonies to disclose systematic abuse by men (such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Les Moonves), the normative potential of the public sphere that Habermas envisaged reemerges. Here there are no “alternative facts,” only better interpretations with less distorted ways of presenting data about the crimes perpetrated by individuals whose only goal is exempting themselves from blame or responsibility. The risk lies in the threats and name-calling that women are facing at this critical moment. (It is no accident that many men on the reactionary right have started to call us “feminazis.”) Kant’s understanding of how secrecy enabled privileged men to engage in “evil” behavior has shown us how secrecy continues to be used as a tool against women today. There are plenty of terrible contemporary examples to fill up the front pages of newspapers around the world.

For example, in 2016 in Pamplona, Spain, jurists tried a group of young men known as La Manada, “The Wolfpack,” whose rape of a young woman had been captured on tape. Because the woman did not show “signs of fighting back” or actively resisting her attackers (though she screamed), the court ruled that the violence she suffered did not meet the requirements under the Spanish Penal Code for “sexual assault” or rape. Thus the court ruled that only “sexual abuse” occurred — a crime punishable by a much lesser penalty.

Linda Martín Alcoff has written an extraordinary book — Rape and Resistance (2018) — about the difficulties of dealing with rape and sexual abuse. The book helps women address some of the problems that frequently arise in public debate on these subjects, specifically the lack of conceptual precision around rape and the obscure ways in which rape is interpreted by the law and even by “public opinion.”

Journalists are also helping us to escape the regime of secrecy. Those of us who have followed the multitude of stories reported in the Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other similar serious publications around the world, have realized that exposing secrecy, checking facts, and breaking the stories is now the only way out for those who have suffered from abuse and sexual violence. Those victims, who until now have kept quiet for fear of being vilified as liars or otherwise humiliated — just as the president of the United States mocked Christine Blasey Ford’s account of the attack she suffered from Brett Kavanaugh — are now speaking out, in public. As with Kavanaugh, like Clarence Thomas before him, the women who had agreed to testify became objects of hatred, vulgar jokes, and bad publicity. They even went into hiding for fear of their lives. Nevertheless, both Thomas and Kavanaugh were confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court.

But a new, counter-hegemonic critical scrutiny is gaining momentum. It has the goal of redirecting public opinion against male privilege and the pervasive male strategies of marring the credibility of women who have suffered sexual violence. A new feminist activism is fighting against secrecy in the contemporary public sphere.

A moment of reckoning is now at hand. Exposing abuses, giving them visibility in the public sphere, lifting the veil of secrecy — these outcomes are at the core of Habermas’s normative conception, which is precisely why this year, as Habermas marks his 90th birthday, we should recognize and celebrate how his idea of the public sphere continues to be relevant, disclosing more and more depth and complexity as time has passed. It holds the key to forging a more critical public awareness about sexual violence and discrimination against women. Rich or poor; young or old; no matter what they do or how they look, women have a right to be protected against those men whose goal (secret or not) has always been to exempt themselves from accountability.


María Pía Lara’s latest book, The Feminist Social Imaginary: A New Topography of Space, is set to be published by Northwestern University Press.

LARB Contributor

María Pía Lara’s latest book, The Feminist Social Imaginary: A New Topography of Space, is set to be published by Northwestern University Press. She is also working on a new project called “How to do Politics with Concepts,” of which two essays have already been published in Thesis Eleven and Philosophy and Social Criticism.


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