John Keane | Elements of a radical theory of public life: From Tönnies to Habermas and beyond
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Elements of a radical theory of public life: From Tönnies to Habermas and beyond

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John Keane. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory/Revue canadienne de theorie sociale et politique, Vol.6, No.3, (Fall/Automne,1982).

Public opinion…deserves to be as much respected as despised
– Hegel

Since the Bolshevik Revolution, all emancipatory political thinking has been concerned with the subject of public life. Initiated by Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of the earliest phase of that revolution, this tradition of autonomous political thinking is of considerable relevance to any deepened understanding of the growth of public spheres under late capitalist conditions. At least, this is the argument of the following essay, which can also be read as a tentative and by no means exhaustive survey of this tradition’s achievements and failures.

It should be emphasised that the starting point of this survey is immanent. It seeks to avoid “mere moralizing” (as Hegel called it) by thinking with and against several important twentieth-century contributors to a theory of autonomous public life. The argument begins with ‘Ponnies’ path-breaking critique of public opinion. The narrative then broadens into an examination of Dewey’s attempt to retrieve and radicalise the old liberal bourgeois principle of publicity. Dewey’s defence of the principle of “free and systematic communication” is seen to be especially important, inasmuch as it foregrounds themes of vital importance to more recent critiques of late capitalism-especially to those of Jurgen Habermas .

During the past several decades, it is argued, Habermas has made the most interesting and ambitious contributions to a radical theory of public life. These contributions are analysed and evaluated in some detail. It is proposed that his recent preoccupation with a theory of universal pragmatics is less than fully consistent with itself. Weakened by several internal difficulties, and therefore unable to realise its guiding political intentions and implications, this theoretical project is marked by political retreats. Habermas’ advocacy of new forms of public life, it is argued, is contradicted by the abstract-formal mode of reconstructive argumentation which has more and more come to guide his inquiries. The theoretical project of defending the principle of autonomous public life, the remaining third of the essay concludes, must accordingly move beyond the antinomies and formalisms of Habermas’ otherwise important arguments. This project must seek to internalise a range of substantive theoretical and political questions, several of which are briefly analysed.

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