The public sphere and rhetorical criticism: a cautionary tale.

Author:Gross, Alan G.

How is it possible groups of ordinary people-groups as small as clubs and as large as nations-make sure that their governance is the product of a collective will that is anchored in the lifeworld, the world of our everyday experience enacted against a background of tacit knowledge, knowledge we assume rather than examine? That is Habermas's abiding concern. This presupposes the prior question: How is that collective will itself to be formed? An heir of the Enlightenment, Habermas answers the second question by insisting that collective will be the product of rational debate in which the only force is the force of the better argument. In "Further Reflections on the Public Sphere," he defends his early work in all its essentials:

In spite of the objections raised, I continue to stay with the intention that guided the study as a whole. The mass democracies constituted as social-welfare states, as far as their normative self-interpretation is concerned, can claim to continue the principles of the liberal constitutional state only as long as they seriously try to live up to the mandate of a public sphere that fulfills political functions. (Habermas, 1992a, p. 441)

Its continuing relevance to Habermas and to us makes it imperative that the public sphere be properly construed as centered on rational debate, and that its history emphasize its unfortunate turn away from rational debate toward impression management and violence, a trend that undermines the democratically constituted state. This imperative is especially important since some rhetorical critics, having been coopted by a trend they should deplore, have championed a public sphere in which rationality is sidelined in favor of alien components that undermine its force. Other critics have failed in a different way. Because they do not see that historical changes in the nature of the public sphere have made rational debate on significant public issues difficult or impossible, they mistake the effect of these changes for their cause.

Cara Finnegan and Jiyeon Kang (2004) undermine communicative rationality by incorporating visual representations into Habermas's public sphere. They can only do so by ignoring the distinction between aesthetic experience, whose truth values are merely analogous to those linked to validity claims, and discourse about art, whose truth values directly imply validity claims. It is only the latter that occur under the aegis of communicative rationality, whether in...

To continue reading