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In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (henceforth STPS), his earliest major work, Habermas established as a central theme—upon which he would later expand—the centrality of reason in contrast to will in both the public sphere and the legitimation of the state. He prized the expression of conflict in opinion on matters of the general interest but denounced conflict in the pursuit of self-interest. He left open the question of to what degree a polity the size of a nation-state could in fact have a general interest. If large polities are unlikely to have a general interest in most instances, Habermas’s stance in favor of reason directed to the general interest rather than will is limited in its import. In STPS, Habermas recognized explicitly that what he carefully characterized, even in his subtitle, as only a category of “bourgeois” society had the serious deficiency of including only property-owning males. He used the early eighteenth-century coffee houses, which excluded women and the working class, to exemplify a relative openness of access and nullification of status that could generate ideals of discourse applicable beyond the historical limitations of those particular institutions. No analytic problem arises from this exercise. The problems arise in the content of the ideals themselves. I argue here that Habermas’s ideals in this early work—commitment to reason exercised on matters of the general interest but rejecting the “haggling” out of compromises among particular conflicting interests—cannot meet the requirements of democratic political legitimacy for any real and desirable polity, which must encompass both common and conflicting interests. This article first explores in some depth Habermas’s commitment, based on classical and nineteenth-century liberal theory, both to reason in contrast to will and, congruently, to conflicting opinions over the general interest in contrast to conflicting interests. It then points out that for his world in 1962 he could not conjure up many instances of a general interest. Since that time, accordingly, he has slowly moved from the synthesis of classical, liberal, Kantian, and Marxist standpoints from which he began and has come to take seriously the problem of legitimating the democratic processes relevant to conflicting interests. Like the rest of us, he has had only limited success in articulating the appropriate relationship between a democratic mindset and procedures addressed to the common interest and those addressed to conflicting interests. The article concludes by stressing the centrality to democratic legitimacy of respecting conflicts among self-regarding material interests and setting for the future the task of parsing out the appropriate normative and practical relationships between a politics aimed at forging a common good and a politics aimed at legitimately pursuing and negotiating conflicting self-interests.


Mansbridge, Jane. "Conflict and Commonality in Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere." Political Theory 40.6 (December 2012): 789-801.