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How useful to eighteenth-century English studies is the paradigm of the 'bourgeois public sphere'?

By Alan (J. A.) Downie

Abstract

Although Habermas conceives the bourgeois public sphere as theoretically inclusive, specific groups were clearly excluded from participation in eighteenth-century Britain. Assumptions about certain economic and social developments crucial to Habermas’s thesis, such as the increase in literacy, the growth of the reading public, the rise of a free press, and the up-turn in manufacturing and industry, are based on outdated secondary sources. This allows him both to antedate and to postdate key events by up to a century. Habermas’s unreconstructed Marxist interpretation of English history requires a bourgeois revolution to have taken place in the seventeenth century in which the old feudal order was swept away and replaced by capitalism. Yet the industrial bourgeoisie did not emerge by 1700, and English society continued to be dominated by the aristocracy. One of the most attractive features of Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere for literary critics and cultural historians is its insistence that critical debate in the public sphere took place without regard for rank, wealth or status. If, however, the notion that hierarchy was suspended in the period is unfounded, and Habermas’s paradigm of the bourgeois public sphere is conceptual rather than actual, its usefulness to students of the period must be debatable

Topics: Q321
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing
OAI identifier: oai:eprints.gold.ac.uk:3724
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