The changing meaning of “public”

Habermas describes the use of mankind, world and public in the seventeenth century

Content analysis: Habermas often discusses the rise of various conceptions of the public.

While reading Habermas’s The structural transformation of the public sphere I came across two instances where he mentions that there was a change in the use of the word public in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Using google’s ngram, I created these graphs to confirm his assessments. For instance, Habermas states:

The history of words preserved traces of this momentous shift. In Great Britain, from the middle of the seventeenth century on, there was talk of “public,” whereas until then “world” or “mankind” was usual. (Habermas 25)

Google’s ngram is a bit buggy before 1700 and smooths out around 1800 (due to the number of texts they have from those respective times). In either case it is interesting to notice the sharp rise of public around 1750.

Public opinion, general opinion

Public opinion vs general opinion

In Great Britain “public opinion” arose at about the same time; the expression “general opinion,” however, had been in use long before (Habermas 25).

Public people

ngram: spirit of the people

From the early part of eighteenth century on, it became usual to distinguish what was then called “the sense of the people” from the official election results. The average results of the county elections were taken to provide an approximate measure of the former. The “sense of the people,” “the common voice,” “the general cry of the people,” and finally “the public spirit” denoted from this time onward an entity to which the opposition could appeal (Habermas 64)

Common sense, public opinion

ngram: bon sens

In France the corresponding word occurred already around the middle of the century; but at that time its meaning still barely differed from opinion. Opinion publique was the term for the opinion of the people supported by tradition and bon sens [common sense]–whether Rousseau, as a critic of culture, appealed to its naturalness, or the Encyclopedists tried to dissolve it through a critique of ideology.

ngram: common sense

Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. MIT Press.

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