The Enlightenment and the Bourgeois Public Sphere (Through the Eyes of a London Merchant-Writer)

Juraj Kittler


Conventional histories of the twentieth century had a propensity to idealize the seminal role played by the Enlightenment in ushering in modernity. Their impact on communication scholarship was reflected in Habermas's seminal work, which equated the main achievements of the English Enlightenment and the rise of the public sphere, defined as a venue fostering public opinion by means of rational debate. Yet, the same eighteenth-century London coffeehouses that were idealized by Habermas as prototypes of democratic civic institutions are described by historical sources also as places of scandal and depravity, infested with deception and the manipulation of information. Daniel Defoe – merchant, journalist, and author of countless political pamphlets and literary novels – is one such exclusively positioned observer whose writings and personal life fully expose the ubiquitous dialectic tension between forces emphasizing the democratic potential of the emerging public sphere in London, and relentless efforts for its commodification. Indeed, Defoe's testimony challenges the very notion of its bourgeois nature. In conclusion, this essay attempts to demonstrate that the key concepts of the public sphere such as public opinion, consensus, and deliberative process predate the Enlightenment era. They had already been discussed in Renaissance Venice, albeit within a strikingly ...

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