University News

"The Public Sphere of Past and Present, and the Place of the Liberal Arts"
Edward J. Woell

September 1, 2016

Good evening everyone and thank you for coming. Before I begin I want to take this moment to express my heartfelt gratitude to some individuals who made possible what I will say tonight. I first thank all my colleagues in the College of Arts of Sciences. The past year has been difficult for the university as a whole, but no college more so than our own. In the midst of such crisis I have drawn inspiration from many colleagues who, in ways often unseen and unremarkable, dare to value, uphold, and defend a liberal-arts education. Moreover, I thank my partner, Lisa Kernek, and our eight-year-old daughter, Julia, for three things. The first is for giving me the time and space to think deeply about tonight’s topic, especially whenever it led to neglect in my duties as father and spouse. The second is for showing me what binds all people together, a common humanity, through the life that we share. And the third is for helping me to realize that the greatest human liberation is a love transcending life itself. Moi, je suis à vous [I myself am yours].


Let me start with a short story.

At 7:30 in the morning on July 24, 1749, a 35-year-old writer named Denis Diderot awoke to a knock on his door on the rue de la Vieille Estrapade in Paris. When he opened the door two police officers entered the townhouse, arrested the writer, and ransacked his study before forcing him into a horse-drawn coach waiting outside. Diderot had fallen victim to a lettre de cachet, a warrant allowing the King of France or a high-ranking minister to arrest anyone in the kingdom without need of reason, charges, or any other legal due process. Despite the writer having produced only a few scandalous pamphlets, his work had angered a well-connected Catholic pastor who coaxed the minister of state censorship to issue the order.

The police led Diderot about three miles outside of Paris’s city walls to the Château de Vincennes. In that fourteenth-century fortress the prisoner was confined to a solitary cell and given only bread, water, and two candles per day—the latter so that he might dispel his chamber’s total darkness. His time in the cell was only broken up by interrogations, at which the writer confessed nothing. But since Diderot was inured to constant company, the stark loneliness he felt in that cell drove him to the breaking point. Less than three weeks after his arrival, he asked for pen and paper so he could admit writing the pamphlets in question. He blamed his offensive prose on what he called “moments of intemperance” that had long since left him, and stated regret for failing to submit his work to official censors.

No matter its insincerity, Diderot’s self-incrimination had the desired effect. He was freed from his solitary cell and led to a larger area in the château with better living quarters, which he nonetheless could not leave under threat of life imprisonment. For their part, the police had no doubt their prisoner had written the scandalous pamphlets; what they really wanted from him, and what they got, was a promise: he vowed never to publish anything again without first submitting it to the censors. Beginning that day and for the rest of his life, Diderot wrote under a pall; every word he composed—including some that belied his 1749 promise—held the potential of returning him to a lonesome terror, all because a piece of paper in a minister’s desk could be used against him at any moment. He spent three more months in the Château de Vincennes before he was freed to pursue what seemed like a very constricted writing career. 1

For a number of reasons, however, Diderot got lucky after his release. Despite his struggles that summer, and another brief detention in 1757, he became a key figure in the movement that today we call the Enlightenment. After his confinement he assumed the role of chief editor for the most pivotal and successful body of literature in eighteenth-century Europe: the Encyclopédie, a twenty-eight-volume collection of Enlightenment thought whose 75,000 entries were published over a twenty-year span. Printed in many different languages, the work came out in manifold editions and was successfully sold throughout the world—even as some volumes were banned in several countries, including France. The historian Robert Darnton observed that “[a]s a physical object and as a vehicle of thought, the Encyclopédie synthesized a thousand sciences, arts, and crafts; it represented the Enlightenment, body and soul.” 2

So why start with this story? Diderot’s arrest, detention, and confession are front and center for what I will discuss tonight, in part because they raise two questions about the public sphere and the liberal arts. First, given how those who took up the liberal arts knew they could face harsh punishment if they released uncensored writing into the public sphere, why did a figure like Diderot choose to do it? And second, since most intellectuals were powerless and mired in a world of harmless ideas, why did authorities deem a writer like Diderot so dangerous that he had to be arrested, interrogated, and threatened with prison, loss of livelihood, social exclusion, and even madness?

Though for the moment I will refrain from answering these questions, we should know that doing so will shed light on the link between the public sphere and the liberal arts, as well as outside forces that affected the link in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Positing answers will also support the main point of my talk tonight, which is that leaders in the liberal arts epitomized a crucial quality of the public sphere: a resistance to entrenched power. Aside from providing a context that will make sense of this statement and explain its significance, I intend to show how such a point has implications for the present—especially for those of us who support or constitute the College of Arts and Sciences. Among other things, my point will invite us to think about where the liberal arts now stand, how that place is vital to our public sphere, and what we can do to insure that a space for democracy survives for years to come.

I. Habermas and His Public Sphere

To grasp the full import of Diderot’s troubles in 1749 and their relevance to the liberal arts and public space, we first have to know what the term, public sphere, means in a scholarly sense. Much of what we understand about this realm is owed to the German scholar Jürgen Habermas and a book he first published in 1962, whose title in English is The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. In a just a few years the book became one of the most widely debated works on social and political theory within West Germany. Even so, his study was not translated into French until 1978, and the English version did not appear until 1989, meaning that Habermas’s influence on scholars stretched over three decades. In this seminal work the public sphere was defined, at its simplest, as a physical space in eighteenth-century Europe beyond the reach of coercive institutions where people engaged in dialogue and deliberation.

Why did this space suddenly emerge when it did? According to Habermas, two long-term, structural developments led to its rise: the centralization of power by the state and the growth of capitalism. He held that when states began to consolidate power they claimed their sovereignty through denoting public space, said to be under their control, from private space, a realm belonging to subjects. The state’s creation of a public space became the physical basis for the sphere, even though it was never the state’s intention to create an independent realm. At the same time, some were gaining more freedom and self-awareness through the forces of merchant capitalism. As the marketplace became an autonomous space subject to its own laws, Habermas argued, it created a sense of independence among those engaged in it, specifically bourgeois (upper middle-class) men and their families. Though states created the physical space for the public sphere, Habermas saw the realm itself rising from the private space of the bourgeois family in light of how it protected its members from major political and social institutions.

Over time, what appeared first in bourgeois families began to surface in new sites of sociability. Eighteenth-century elites gathered together to exchange ideas and engage in practices over which long-standing institutions had little control. Such dialogue quickly multiplied because of not only increased literacy but also a flood of new media, most notably newspapers, journals, and epistolary novels. Even non-elites sought out spaces and opportunities whereby they could discuss what they had gleaned from the new media. As a result, reading societies and lending libraries were started, expansive theaters and opera houses opened, salons—that is, elaborate discussion parties held for and by elites—grew in number and refinement, and coffeehouses and cafés quickly sprang up. Most sites arose first in the major capitals of western and central Europe: London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Vienna. In addition, by 1700 both France and England had established scientific academies that published journals and held meetings for their privileged and learned members. And in second half of the eighteenth century a new civic fraternity, freemasonry, spread throughout western and central Europe, with its lodges becoming new social hubs for the well-to-do.

Though these sites of sociability were distinct from one another, they tended to foster a singular discourse among patrons. And almost all of the talk centered on subjects integral to our College: science, mathematics, philosophy, politics, history, economics, society, religion, and literature. The liberal arts therefore assumed more than just a minor role within the public sphere. All of our disciplines were pervasive in this realm because they made up the very substance of dialogue.

Such were the physical space and discursive subjects that defined the public sphere, but the new realm entailed more than these, according to Habermas. It also became home to a set of norms guiding what went on in its space. One basic norm was that the dictates of reason—not a patron’s identity or status—were to be the sole arbiter in public debate. The idea was stunning for the time because it implied that public space observed not only the equality of all within it but even more profoundly, a human universalism. Moreover, it placed reason at the center of all dialogue and deliberation taking place within the realm. Another key norm was that nothing should be immune from criticism; anything could be scrutinized, including religious beliefs, political and social institutions, and even privileges enjoyed by elites. In other words, the realm fostered the freedoms of speech, thought, and conscience. Still a third major norm was that the public sphere must remain exactly that: public. Publicity and open access were deemed indispensable to the realm: also a revolutionary idea at the time given how much politics and culture were shrouded in secrecy or mystery. Based on these norms, it was further assumed that people could deliberate on public affairs, thus creating a new political force that we call public opinion, and in the process make government more rational and receptive to their needs and desires.

In effect, Habermas showed how the key norms governing the public sphere—equality and inclusion, reasoned dialogue and deliberation, free expression, and transparency—formed the footing for modern democracy. Think about it. How is it possible to have a democratic government without recognizing “one person, one vote,” without allowing people a chance to discuss, debate, and decide what state policy should be, without informing citizens about what their government is doing? These norms, which too often we take for granted today, came together for the first time in the public space of the eighteenth century. And yet as Habermas also conceded, the realm often failed to live up to its democratic promise since the poor, uneducated, or otherwise marginalized had little opportunity to engage in this space.

Nevertheless, when Habermas’s work is placed in its own historical context what stands out is not his admission of the public sphere’s limits. Rather, it is the degree of optimism reflected in his vision of the realm’s democratic potential. At a time when European scholars were working in the shadow of the genocide and mass ruin of World War II, in turn spawning deep doubt about humanity, Habermas dared to show how a free and democratic world came into being. Still, he could not help but be influenced by the pessimism of his time, and this too can be seen in how he viewed his subject. For almost as soon as the sphere appeared, according to Habermas, it was already breaking down.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the public sphere was only a shadow of what it had been one hundred years earlier. Habermas cited several reasons why. First, he believed that early industry increased the gap between rich and poor, resulting in the latter being deprived of the schooling needed to use reason in public space. This tarnished the sphere’s standing because it called into question the realm’s universalistic claims. Second, as the state grew in power and size the boundaries between public and private eroded—meaning that the state gained more control over society, leading to the loss of the latter’s autonomy. And third, the forces of advertising, public relations, and mass consumerism took over the public sphere, growing ever more dominant through mass media. While the realm still existed after 1800, Habermas argued, it had lost its democratic edge and was much smaller in scale and influence. Even so, to this day Habermas holds out hope that the emergent public sphere can be a model for democratic societies in the present and future.

II. Moving Beyond Habermas

As persuasive as Habermas’s conception of the public sphere has been to several generations of scholars, since the 1960s much historical research conducted on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe has undermined pivotal claims and vital portions of his argument. For example, his sense of chronology about the public sphere has wilted under scrutiny. Whereas he initially claimed the eighteenth century as the realm’s starting point, subsequent research has located its origins in England as early as the middle of the seventeenth century. Even more troubling, however, is Habermas’s emphasis on the bourgeois nature of the sphere, which is based on a Marxist understanding of class now seen by most scholars as ill-fitting for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.

Habermas has also been criticized for his lack of gender analysis. Some feminist scholars, for instance, have seen the public sphere as intrinsically masculine and consequently liable for perpetuating not universalism, but rather gender discrimination. This resulted in public space allegedly becoming a domain solely for men and the private sphere a space only for women. Yet not all scholars of gender agree with this critique and its theory of “separate spheres.” 3 Dena Goodman, for one, has faulted Habermas for ignoring the gendered dimensions of the sphere, but mostly by neglecting how critical women were within it. Goodman described a public space—particularly as found in French salons—where women who led these gatherings played the vital role of regulating dialogue and assuring the use of reason within a context of civility. It was only after the heyday of salons, according to Goodman, when women were increasingly pushed out of public space. She saw their exodus as leading to not only the loss of the sphere’s universalism but also a disregard for reason and growing reliance on political violence, the culmination for which supposedly was the French Revolution. 4

Although Goodman’s points are compelling, my criticism of Habermas arises from other concerns. But let me first explain why I mostly agree with his analysis. One of the most valuable features of his work is its capacity for ambiguity, complexity, and nuance. The space he described was neither wholly liberating nor inherently repressive. It was never completely patriarchal yet hardly a bastion of feminism either. It reflects healthy doses of optimism and pessimism, both of which Habermas judiciously applied to his subject. His interpretation is appealing, therefore, because it complicates a past too often seen as black and white. In addition, the ambiguities of public space in that era look very similar to those we see in our own time which alas, just like three hundred years ago, is undergoing an information revolution.

Nonetheless, my criticism of this scholarship is substantive, and it returns us to the short story about Diderot. From my perspective, what Habermas overlooked is two-fold. First, he left little room for human agency in the rise and expansion of public space. While the role of state building and capitalism cannot be disputed, Habermas emphasized these to the point of ignoring how intellectuals like Diderot had to decide when and how to submit their work to the public, and in the process weigh the consequences for doing so. By giving human agency its due in the story of the public sphere, we can recover a more authentic past yet also gain insight of how those in the liberal arts abetted the rise of the sphere and did much to sustain it. Second, Habermas said too little about the context for the public sphere, especially given how the realm’s norms often clashed with opposing norms upholding social and political power. And here, too, is another area where leaders in the liberal arts loomed large. For as we saw in Diderot’s case, intellectuals who exposed their ideas in this realm were often blocked or harassed by authorities seeking to control the flow of information, or by bastions of power that interpreted their work as dangerous. Given these salient omissions, Habermas’s work is mostly silent on the two questions I first raised about the short story in 1749, and which I repeat here: why were Diderot and his ilk so reckless in how they took to the public sphere, and why were authorities so punitive in their response?

In light of a void left by Habermas, let me now try to answer the questions. As for why Diderot and others took the risk of illegally submitting their work to the public sphere, we must first understand that getting arrested for writing uncensored material was far from a certainty. On the one hand, there was a myriad of ways to circumvent the censors, including simply not penning one’s name to a manuscript, and many times the obfuscation worked. On the other hand, Old-Regime justice was highly arbitrary—all the more so when a lettre de cachet was involved—meaning who might be prosecuted for the crime was anyone’s guess. But these matters aside, the decisions among leaders in the liberal arts to evade censors mostly spoke to their ardent belief in the public sphere. Otherwise put, their adherence to the realm’s norms like free speech and transparency often superseded their fidelity to the law.

Along these lines, however, I see Habermas as having overlooked a fundamentally crucial quality of the public sphere: a resistance to entrenched power. This least understood and most forgotten attribute of the sphere, especially prevalent among leaders in the liberal arts, is implicit in all the norms described by Habermas because such norms often violated countervailing norms that upheld power. Evading the censors is nonetheless far from the only expression of this resistance; explicit forms of it appear as “right of revolution” or “right of resistance” provisions in key documents of the period, including John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the United States’ Declaration of Independence, numerous U.S. state constitutions, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen for both 1789 and 1793. In fact, the 1793 version of the French Declaration calls resistance to oppression “the most sacred of duties” for citizens. 5 But why did this quality matter to the public sphere? When intellectuals resisted authority by avoiding censors, they nurtured the sphere in two ways. As we know from studies of banned literature at this time, few things sold better than works perceived as forbidden fruit. Yet even if the cheeky literature failed to reach the public, controversies involving authors and authorities over censorship generated as much dialogue in the sphere as the illegal material itself. 6

Identifying a resistance to entrenched power is useful because it allows us to fathom the diverse motives of liberal-arts leaders as they engaged in the public sphere. It permits us to realize that bypassing the censors was the most notorious way intellectuals proved their public-sphere bona fides to everyone within this realm; they did it, in other words, to establish their devotion to the cause. But this is not all. Many felt compelled to declare truth within the public sphere, arguably for the sake of truth itself. Or to use the worn-out cliché of our time, they sought to speak truth to power and saw the public sphere as one of the few forums where this could be done. In addition, leaders in the liberal arts embraced a responsibility to show others in the realm how to employ knowledge and reason so patrons could emancipate themselves. Intellectuals thus assumed the role of public-sphere teachers, but in the process realized authorities would censor the most provocative parts of their curriculum.

Evidence of intellectuals resisting entrenched power is just as obvious when probing the authorities’ response to such individuals. Officials who went after figures like Diderot realized how leaders in the liberal arts defied power so effectively that they had to be nipped in the bud. They saw that when intellectuals extolled the key norms of the public sphere—equality, inclusion, reason, free expression, and transparency—such a transgression inherently undermined official power. We must realize, after all, how social, political, and cultural authority at the time often rested on the pillars of exclusivity and privilege, irrational custom and belief, conformity in thinking, and mystifying opacity. When liberal-arts leaders accused the powerful of everything the public sphere supposedly was not, therefore, they likely had a point. Moreover, authorities knew how public space could be a launch pad for revealing embarrassing truths about their exercise of power, and if those truths were to come out it would hurt their stature. In other words, they saw the danger of what Edward Snowden later did in 2013, and recognized the ability of liberal-arts leaders to use public space in this way. Furthermore, authorities were well attuned to how popular leaders in the liberal arts were within the public sphere; most intellectuals were the rock stars of their age, which is why many in the public sphere sought to emulate them. High-ranking officials accordingly wanted to make examples of these troublemakers in order to deter others from mounting the same challenges.

III. Resistance Epitomized: Voltaire

Diderot, of course, was far from the only one from the liberal arts who epitomized resisting authority and inspired others in the public sphere to do the same. Many individuals took a similar path: Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, Charles-Louis Secondat de Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria, Margaret Cavendish, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Nicolas de Condorcet, Moses Mendelssohn, Jeanne-Julie-Eléanore de Lespinasse, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Mary Wollstonecraft, and David Hume. Each one resisted different kinds of power, and each in his or her own way. But I would like to focus on one person in particular who shows well what resistance actually looked like. He was François-Marie Arouet, but we know him better by his adopted name: Voltaire.

Born in Paris in 1694 to a magistrate and mother of the upper middle class, Voltaire showed much intellectual promise as a young man at a boarding school run by Jesuits. Some evidence suggests he was sexually abused by priests at the school, a crime easier to commit and get away with then than it is today. He wrote his first successful play when he was twenty-four, but around the same age was also imprisoned for writing a poem implying the regent of France was committing incest with his daughter. Such an offense was not unusual for him; he retained a compulsion for shocking the high and mighty his whole life. One day in 1726, following a night when Voltaire had insulted a high noble at a Paris theater, four of the noble’s lackeys tracked him down and badly beat him with a stick. Afterward he went to the police to seek justice for the assault, only to learn that privilege had placed the noble beyond the common law’s reach: legally there was nothing Voltaire could do. Bent on meting out personal revenge, he spectacularly failed when authorities discovered his plan and imprisoned him in the Bastille. And like Diderot many years later, he was released from prison only after he had made a promise, which in this case involved his exile from France. From that point until the last months of his life in 1778, he lived in places far from Paris, including foreign countries and the French provinces, to make sure he was a safe distance from royal arrest.

Voltaire has all the marks of a liberal-arts leader adhering to the central norms of public space, yet he also showed a resistance to authority: so much so he was not above attacking public-sphere norms themselves. Many mistakenly think Arouet created the moniker, “de Voltaire” because it gave him an appearance of nobility and thus allowed him to hob-nob with the titled elite. But in fact he hated the hereditary nobility, at one point calling it “a monstrous insult to the human race because it assumes that some men are created with purer blood than the rest.” He took the name, “Voltaire,” mostly to show defiance and extreme self-confidence, as if to say his genius made him better than any titled noble.

As he grew older, however, his bravado gradually gave way to compassion—especially for those who fell victim to prejudice and intolerance. At one point he famously explained, “I write in order to act.” Otherwise put, his writing became a means for his social and political engagement. Even his most conventional literary works include references to the burning issues of his era. Though a Catholic, he saved his greatest criticism for his own church’s leaders, whom he saw as rife with hypocrisy, ambition, greed, and bigotry. His resistance was best evidenced in how he doggedly defended French Protestants, who had few civil rights before 1787. [28] He was so sensitive to religious intolerance in his own country that he reportedly took ill every August 24, the day when in 1572 vengeful Catholics slaughtered tens of thousands of Protestant men, women, and children throughout France.

Voltaire also was a liberal-arts leader whom eighteenth-century authorities feared. He knew well enough to stay away from Paris because he had so many enemies in the halls of power. He excelled at speaking truth to authority, which he conveyed through razor-sharp wit and hilarious but poignant satire. He heaped endless ridicule on religious and political officials, usually in ways immensely enjoyable to others in the public sphere. In addition, his many plays, essays, and histories were didactic in how they taught every person—but especially individuals with power—to look after those whom society preferred to ignore or sweep under the rug. 7 If it were not for the resistance to authority Voltaire exemplified throughout his life, it is hard to conceive how the public sphere would have become as large and significant as it did.

By citing Voltaire as an epitome of resistance, in no way am I excusing his faults—and yes, he had plenty. Nor am I claiming that every seventeenth- and eighteenth-century intellectual followed such a demanding path. On the contrary, many of his fellow literati disagreed with Voltaire and said so in the public sphere. Even more significant, some liberal-arts leaders stood at the crossroads of entrenched power and public space and chose not to resist at all. For example, Immanuel Kant argued in his 1784 celebrated essay, “What is Enlightenment?” for a human emancipation attainable without contesting those in power. Kant made the case by distinguishing the private use of reason, whereby one always obeyed superiors when in the line of duty, from the public use of reason, which enabled one to criticize officials when in the public sphere. Though Kant might be seen as advancing emancipation in his own way, unlike Diderot and Voltaire he made a conscious choice to comply with authority. 8 Kant therefore tends to be the exception mostly proving the rule, but he nonetheless underscores my observation that choices made by leaders in the liberal arts mattered to the public sphere, as well as Habermas’s point about this realm abounding with ambiguity.

IV. The Public Sphere and the Liberal Arts Today

The limits of my lecture tonight prevent me from doing full justice to the original public sphere, but I hope I have provided enough perspective so we can make better sense of this realm today. Numerous questions remain in the wake of what I have explained, and many of them invite us to unite the past, present, and future. To cite one example, what exactly constitutes public space in our own time, and how does it differ from what Habermas and I have outlined for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Furthermore, what might be said about the link between the public sphere and the liberal arts today and how can we who care so dearly about democracy assure the sphere’s future survival?

We should begin by conceding how scarce and frail the public sphere is today, especially from a global perspective. We know this, in part, from statistics showing how—despite the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued in 1948—public-sphere norms are thoroughly ignored throughout the world. According to Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 Annual Report, over the past year at least 122 states allowed torture or ill treatment of persons within their borders. The same report counted up to 113 governments arbitrarily restricting various freedoms of expression, which remain essential to public space. A.I. also cited 61 states for jailing prisoners of conscience, who often dare to exercise their rights in a public way. And by A.I.’s tally at least 156 human-rights defenders, who are prone to enter public space to reveal or decry oppression, died in detention or were killed. 9 Moreover, the New York Times recently reported that since 1992, 1,195 journalists have been killed for their reporting. It also found that prosecutions were pursued in only 13 percent of these cases—meaning those who seek to inform the public are often murdered with impunity. 10 Collectively this suggests little room for a public sphere in most countries, in part because states have an overwhelming capacity to control media and police the public. Such disturbing statistics also imply that Diderot’s inhumane treatment in 1749 is in no way a thing of the past; employing torture and denying basic human rights are as much in front of us as in the rear-view mirror.

But is anything different in the so-called developed world, where more democratic societies are found? True, a nation like the Unites States allows more free expression and heeds basic rights—albeit clearly more for some than for others. Over the past fifteen years, the development of the internet and new technologies like the smart phone have suggested to many in the democratic world the dawn of a new era in which transparency and unprecedented access to knowledge will transform the public sphere and finally allow it to realize its full democratic potential. Some of the sentiment was evident on the cover of the magazine, the Economist, from July of 2011. As you see, the Economist’s editors claimed new technologies were transforming a passive reading audience into an active one, thereby effecting a return to the good old days of the coffeehouse. In this illustration, note how one client asks another if he would like to become his friend on “Visagebook.” Another remarks on what he saw on “Thoutube,” while someone else mentions how Tom Paine has taken to Twitter. A video screen hanging off a wall announces “news breaketh” while a sign in the back publicizes a new cake recipe available on Marie-Antoinette’s blog. 11 Some technology observers, moreover, have compared Wikileaks whistleblowers Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning to the courageous leaders in the liberal arts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 12 Wikipedia, to take the argument even further, purports to be doing everything Diderot’s Encylopédie set out to do, but only better. 13

While technology has no doubt changed how we imbibe and digest media, a healthy dose of Habermas’s pessimism permits us to put these novelties in proper perspective. Despite favorable comparisons between the public sphere’s golden age and the present, distinct differences between their two realms remain clear, as does the persistence of the same old problems. A crucial discrepancy exists, after all, between cyberspace and physical space. As much as the internet and mobile technologies help us interact with people from around the world, studies show how our devices actually deter us from developing face-to-face relationships more than they encourage it. Furthermore, we know that web-related and mobile-phone technologies are mostly designed and used to help us find what we want on the web—including like-minded people and sites confirming what we already believe, which often have little to do with what we need to know. 14

Other obstacles abound as well. Even if full access to endless data is possible, it serves little use if one either lacks the training to handle such information or simply cannot distinguish reliable facts from falsehoods. No doubt similar issues like these arose in the emergent public sphere, but in the realm today the new technology seems to instill an excess of overconfidence and self-deceit; many see themselves as experts merely by having instant access to endless information. Most troubling, however, is the continuity of what prevented many from engaging and being heard in the early public sphere. The gross socio-economic inequalities found today in both developed and developing nations, especially in terms of education and technological infrastructure, assure a prohibition on the public use of reason for wide swaths of the general population.

In spite of this, we can speak of the public sphere’s existence in the United States even if most people have only a vague understanding of what it is. In this vein, though, the biggest flaw in our view of America’s public sphere is not an inability to define it or a failure to recognize how critical it is for democracy. Rather, it is an enormous misperception of the sphere’s size and strength. Even in a wealthy and democratic society, with a government guaranteeing free expression, one can make the case for America’s public sphere being smaller and more anemic than the one in western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. How can this be?

Recall that for Habermas, the public sphere was physical space beyond the reach of coercive institutions. While in many countries today the public sphere’s weakness is owed to the state’s crushing power, in nations like our own the force severely constraining the sphere belongs to multinational corporations. If you harbor any doubt about how much corporate power subverts seemingly free and open public space in America, you are simply not paying attention. 15 For what does it say about our public sphere when a major candidate for president this year received over two billion dollars in free media from news corporations, which by their own admission covered him more than other candidates because it was better for their bottom line? 16 Furthermore, how can we have a fair and reasoned dialogue in public space about a troubling issue like gun violence when our media outlets and political representatives reek from the stench of receiving millions of dollars from the firearms industry and its powerful lobby? 17 And even more vexing, how can a society make informed policy decisions when our public space is easily taken over by public-relations coups, including a thirty-year campaign of misinformation funded by fossil-fuel corporations that has deeply confused Americans about the causes of anthropogenic climate change? 18 These are just a few ways in which the unparalleled power of corporations has deeply compromised a supposedly autonomous public sphere. And if any air within our sphere eludes corporate power, it often gets sucked up by colossal consumerism—which ultimately benefits big companies as well.

But of course corporate might does not stop there. It has permeated every institution in so-called free and democratic societies. Not even the state is immune to its influence, nor for that matter are institutions depending on the state for their existence—including one called Western Illinois University. The most obvious sign of such influence is how the ideology legitimizing the unprecedented might of corporations, neoliberalism, is seen as part of the natural order—like the sun rising in the east. At its core, neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations and reduces everything down to one value: marketable wealth. The intrinsic worth of anything is its market price, so that a person’s worth equates to how much wealth one can generate. Neoliberalism also seeks to define citizens as consumers, thereby making the marketplace the only valid arbiter of our national life. 19 Based on this ideology, education has but one purpose: to produce those who can produce wealth. Neoliberalism and its fixation on the marketplace explain quite well why undergraduate majors in vocational fields like business, communications, education, health, and law enforcement have vastly increased in number over the past thirty years, while those in the liberal arts—including even the so-called STEM-related fields of physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy—have plummeted.

As William Deresiewicz pointed out in a Harper’s Magazine article aptly titled, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold its Soul to the Market,” neoliberalism has been ruinous to almost all the disciplines in the liberal arts. Yet he adeptly added that “[i]t is not the humanities per se that are under attack. It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.” Any field within the academy pursuing knowledge as an end in itself now stands in existential peril thanks to neoliberalism. In fact, most colleges have already given up on the skills of deep thinking and theoretical learning because these mean so little in the marketplace. And if we are fully honest about it, we must admit that student and parent demands are driving this trend as much as the expectations of administrators. 20

Why is dissecting neoliberalism relevant in a lecture about the public sphere and the liberal arts? Recall that part of what enabled the sphere to flourish in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were intellectuals exercising a resistance to entrenched power. They stood up to authority and had the audacity to challenge those who wielded it. So where is that resistance today? If truth be told, it seldom surfaces in the academy—whether at this institution or others. More common instead is a capitulation whereby the liberal arts’ core meaning and distinctive role are hollowed out, thus allowing the neoliberal agenda to advance on an unimpeded path. Neoliberalism has become so dominant precisely because it portrays individuals as helpless in the face of supposedly unalterable economic forces. But this is what we must remember: power functioned in eerily similar ways in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Monarchies, churches, and nobilities had unrivaled and undisputed authority. For ages they reigned supreme. Until, that is, they didn’t. The resistance intellectuals epitomized in public space was a key catalyst for the sea change, and no reason exists for why such defiance cannot play the same role once more.


So I want to conclude tonight by proposing how we who uphold the liberal arts can recover a resistance to entrenched power—which in turn would help expand our public sphere and reestablish some of its integrity. Or to use an analogy that better fits this lecture, we need to find a place for the liberal arts where we can be a little less like Kant and a little more like Diderot and Voltaire. We might start with the recognition that engaging in the public sphere and nurturing it as did our predecessors constitute a choice that each one of us must make. One reason why public higher education finds itself in such desperate straits today is that many within the academy chose to vacate the public sphere over the past thirty years. Now we are paying the price. Our current attempts to reenter the sphere may prove too little and too late, but we should still try to imitate Voltaire and Diderot by using our knowledge and talent to make a difference within the realm.

Second, precisely because the United States has so little tradition for it—as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed—we must find ways to foster true, interpersonal dialogue among all citizens in which we explore something a little more profound than Kim Kardashian’s latest selfie. More to the point, the dialogue could consider not only the public sphere and its democratic qualities but also why these remain in doubt. Within such a discussion, we might think through the effects neoliberal ideology has on a free, open, and self-governing society, to say nothing of what it means for a troubled humanity and a deeply distressed planet. Our discourse might invite deliberation, moreover, about what the purpose of public education in this nation should be. If, for example, one proposed that education is strictly meant to produce producers for the marketplace, perhaps one of us could point out the consequences of this goal: namely, ever more numbers of uninformed and irrational Americans unable to take up the duties of democratic citizenship. Merely having such a conversation, in any case, would bear witness to how democracy entails a lot more than just casting a vote every two or four years; it would teach us that true democratic culture involves all the qualities of the public sphere: equality, inclusion, reasoned dialogue and deliberation, free expression, transparency, and not the least, a resistance to any entrenched power thwarting the public sphere’s democratic promise.

And finally, instead of always being on the defensive about the value of the liberal arts, it is high time that we take the struggle to the wardens of neoliberalism. Let us step forward and dare to comment on the emperor’s new clothes. In practical terms, this means when someone in authority describes a state university as an “educational enterprise,” we must take to the public sphere—without fear for the adverse consequences of doing so—and argue that when you portray public education as a business venture, you are denying its founding purpose of building a democracy. When you cast students as customers at an institution seeking to become the academic version of “Kwik-E-Mart,” you are dismissing these students’ potential to renew and enrich a national life that extends well beyond the marketplace. When you expect curriculum to consist of one sexy marketing ploy after another, you are distracting students from what should be their foremost focus at a public university, which is our republic’s common good. And when you view professors as hucksters peddling knowledge as if it were a cheeseburger, you are deriding not only the sanctity of learning but also faculty efforts at helping our nation form a more perfect union. Would such a rejoinder make a difference? Not to anyone with entrenched power. But after uttering these words we could turn to the public and simply say, “This is what a real public sphere looks like.” And we could say to ourselves, “This is how we stay true to the liberal arts.” Thank you.


1Philipp Blom, Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, the Book That Changed the Course of History (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 51-66.

2Robert Darnton, “The Encyclopédie Wars of Pre-Revolutionary France,” The American Historical Review 78, No. 5 (Dec,. 1973), 1337; Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: a Publishing History of the Encyclopédie (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1979).

3Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989); James Van Horn Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1-15.

4Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

5James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Micah Alpaugh, “The Right of Resistance to Oppression: Protest and Authority in the French Revolutionary World,” French Historical Studies 39, no. 3 (August 2016), 567-598; “Right of Revolution,” Wikipedia, revolution, accessed 25 July 2016.

6Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996); Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015).

7Daniel Gordon, “Introduction: The Paradoxes of Voltaire,” in François-Marie Arouet, Candide: Or Optimism, trans. Daniel Gordon (Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 1999), 1-15.

8Otfried Höffe, Immanuel Kant, trans, Marshall Farrier (Albany: State University Press, 1994).

9“Amnesty International 2015-2016 Annual Report,” , accessed 25 July 2016.

10Anjali Singhvi, “When Journalists Are Killed, Prosecutions Are Rare,” New York Times, 21 June 2016, journalists-killed-prosecutions-rare.html, accessed 25 July 2016.

11“Bulletins from the Future,” The Economist, 7 July 2011,, accessed 25 July 2016.

12Harrry Halpin, “What is Enlightenment?: Google, Wikileaks, and the Reorganization of the World,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 November 2014,, accessed 25 July 2016; Julian Assange, When Google Met Wikileaks (New York: OR Books, 2014).

13Nathanial Tkacz, Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Thomas Leitch, Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority and Liberal Education in the Digital Age (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

14Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011); Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015).

15For an interesting examination of the current media, see Nick Tabor and Jeff Wise, “The Case against the Media. By the Media,” New York Magazine, 15 July 2016,, accessed 25 July 2016.

16Nicholas Confessore and Karen Yourish, “$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump, New York Times, 15 March 2016,, accessed 25 July 2016.

17Chris Amico and Sarah Childress, “How Loaded Is the Gun Lobby?,” Frontline, 6 January 2015,, accessed 25 July 2016.

18Oliver Milman, “Oil Industry Knew of ‘Serious’ Climate Concerns over 45 Years Ago,” The Guardian, 13 April 2016, /2016/apr/13/ climate-change-oil-industry-environment-warning-1968, accessed 25 July 2016; Bill McKibben, “What Exxon Knew about Climate Change,” The New Yorker, 18 September 2015,, accessed 25 July 2016.

19George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism—The Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems,” The Guardian, 15 April 2016, apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot, accessed 25 July 2016.

20William Dereisewicz, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold its Soul to the Market,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2015,, accessed 25 July 2016.