Coffee Talk and The Emergence of The Public Sphere

Posted: June 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

Addison and Steele

Addison Steele Tatler Spectator

Designed to be light in tone but heavy in influence, essays published in two 18th-century publications THE TATLER and THE SPECTATOR examined everything from conduct and morals to philosophy, politics, science, and literature. These selections from the two papers illuminate the lives and thoughts of the intelligentsia of 18th-century England and France.

Tatler was founded in 1709 by Richard Steele, who used the nom de plume “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire”. This is the first known such consistently adopted journalistic persona, which adapted to the first person, as it were, the 17th-century genre of “characters” [cf. Vico and Commedia dell’Arte], as first established in English by Sir Thomas Overbury and then expanded by Lord Shaftesbury’s Characteristics (1711). Steele’s idea was to publish the news and gossip heard in London coffeehouses, hence the title, and seemingly, from the opening paragraph, to leave the subject of politics to the newspapers, while presenting Whiggish views and correcting middle-class manners, while instructing “these Gentlemen, for the most part being Persons of strong Zeal, and weak Intellects…what to think.” To assure complete coverage of local gossip, a reporter was placed in each of the city’s popular coffeehouses, or at least such were the datelines: accounts of manners and mores were datelined from White’s; literary notes from Will’s; notes of antiquarian interest were dated from the Grecian Coffee House; and news items from St. James’s Coffee House.


The stated goal of The Spectator was “to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality…to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses” (No. 10). It recommended that its readers “consider it part of the tea-equipage” (No. 10) and not leave the house without reading it in the morning. One of its functions was to provide readers with educated, topical talking points, and advice in how to carry on conversations and social interactions in a polite manner. In keeping with the values of Enlightenment philosophies of their time, the authors of The Spectator promoted family, marriage, and courtesy.

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The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was Jürgen Habermas‘s first major work. It also satisfied the rigorous requirements for a professorship in Germany; in this system, independent scholarly research, usually resulting in a published book, must be submitted, and defended before an academic committee; this process is known as Habilitationsschrift or habilitation. The work was overseen by the political scientist Wolfgang Abendroth, to whom Habermas dedicated it.

Habermas has been lauded as the “preeminent leftist philosopher of his generation” and his “rationalist system of social thought” has been described as “the most elaborate and methodical in the contemporary world.” He is a strong proponent of reason and democracy. He is a strong critic of totalitarianism and has been described as being critical of the “contortions of structuralists.”

The book describes the development of a bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as its subsequent decline. The first transition occurred in England, France, the United States, and Germany over the course of 150 years or so from the late seventeenth century. England led the way in the early nineteenth century, with Germany following in the late nineteenth century. Habermas tries to explain the growth and decline of the public sphere by relating political, social, cultural and philosophical developments to each other in a multi-disciplinary approach. Initially, there were monarchical and feudal societies which made no distinction between state and society or between public and private, and which had organized themselves politically around symbolic representation and status. These feudal societies were transformed into a bourgeois liberal constitutional order which distinguished between the public and private realms; further, within the private realm, there was a bourgeois public sphere for rational-critical political debate which formed a new phenomenon called public opinion. Spearheading this shift was the growth of a literary public sphere in which the bourgeoisie learned to critically reflect upon itself and its role in society.


Erasmus Prize 2013 Awarded to Jürgen Habermas

The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has awarded the Erasmus Prize 2013 to the German scholar Jürgen Habermas (1929). The theme of the Erasmus Prize this year is ‘the future of democracy’. For over 50 years, Jürgen Habermas has been one of the leading thinkers in the fields of sociology, philosophy and politics. Central in his thinking is democracy and the commitment of the citizens. He is sharp and critical in his political analysis, but at the same time optimistic about the future of a democratic Europe. He beliefs in the debate, in ratio as the source of politics and in the equality of man.


Jürgen Habermas was awarded with the Holberg International Memorial Prize in 2005.


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