Can We Still Refer to the Public Sphere

The notion of the public sphere can be used in a very general as well as common-sense manner, as, for instance, a synonym for the processes of public view or for the news media themselves. In its more ambitious appearance, however, as it was developed by Jürgen Habermas (1993), the public sphere ought to be understood as an analytic class, a conceptual device which, while pointing to a definite social occurrence can also help us in analyzing and researching the experience. So why should we listen to a philosopher, even one so distinguished as Richard Rorty, who still believes in a democratic role for journalism— at least, why should we listen in any frame of mind other than one of ironic knowingness about the fate of philosophy in the real world? (Hall, 1982) I think that contemporary liberal society already contains the institutions for its own improvement, Rorty wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Indeed, my hunch is that Western social and political thought may have had the last conceptual revolution it needs. s private lives alone and preventing suffering while discoveries about who is being made to suffer can be left to the workings of a free press, free universities, and enlightened public opinion. t we dismiss in an especially derisive tone of ironic knowingness any such vision of intellectual history at its end? That is because a world in which democracy is fully realized is a world constituted and maintained by a particular language—a language that enables its citizens to articulate their loathing of injustice as well as their love of liberty. Anything, including both suffering and freedom, can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being re-described. Thus the ultimate ironist lives with the terrible realization that, whenever language hostile to justice or liberty is spoken by the adversaries of democratic values, no ultimate philosophical weapon—no knowledge of what is fundamentally real and no vision of what is truly human—is available to the defenders of democratic values.