In modern usage, public is both an adjective (public interest, public opinion) and a noun (the public). As a noun, it suggests the judging and debating social collective. As an adjective, it marks its object as a matter of common concern and judgment of this collectivity. Both meanings derive from practices of citizen sovereignty or self-rule that arose in the eighteenth century. In the medieval and classical periods, the public did not refer to commonality but rather was associated with leaders (elites, lords) and displays of assembly (the agora) or power (feudal lords) (Habermas 1989). The notion of a public realm of social life, or the public sphere, in which average citizens might debate and critique political matters and state decisions, and also social matters, was part of a shift from absolutism to democratic governance (Koselleck 1988). Jürgen Habermas’s narrative of the evolution of the public sphere is useful here, as a distillation of liberal theory and institutional invocations of publicity and the public sphere. He argues that a political norm of publicity as something like a citizen’s right to know arose in the eighteenth century. People came to expect information about policy and other state decisions to be made...

This essay may be found on page 153 of the printed volume.

Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay