Abstract: Conventional histories of the twentieth century had a propensity to idealize the seminal role played by the Enlightenment in ushering in the modernity. Their impact on communication scholarship was reflected in Habermas’s seminal work that practically put historical equation between the main achievements of the English Enlightenment and the rise of the public sphere, defined as a venue fostering public opinion by means of rational debate. Yet, the same eighteenth-century London coffeehouses that were idealized by Habermas as prototypes of democratic civic institutions are described by historical sources also as places of scandal and depravation, infested with deception and the manipulation of information. Daniel Defoe - merchant, journalist, and author of countless political pamphlets and literary novels - is a one such exclusively positioned observers whose writings and personal life fully expose the ubiquitous dialectic tension between forces emphasizing the democratic potential of the emerging public sphere in London, and relentless efforts for its commodification. Indeed, Defoe’s testimony challenges the very notion of its bourgeois nature. In conclusion, this essay attempts to demonstrate that the key concepts of the public sphere such as public opinion, consensus, and deliberative process predate the Enlightenment era. They had already been discussed in Renaissance Venice, albeit within strikingly opposite normative framework. As a normative ideal, they became definitely adopted by mainstream society in mid-seventeenth century England.


Keywords:  Jürgen Habermas; Enlightenment; public sphere; public opinion; London; coffeehouses; Daniel Defoe; spin; persuasion.



Figure 1: The author of the Public Sphere theory, Jürgen Habermas (born 1929), is a German sociologist and philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School.

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In his famous 1784 answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment ?’, Immanuel Kant described it as “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point” (1959, p. 87). Yet, added the philosopher, if someone had to ask him whether the Western world was already living in an “enlightened age,” his answer would have been a categorical “no” (p. 90). Kant understood the Enlightenment as a historical process through which humankind can prove to itself that it is capable of creating a society demystified and stripped off of all irrationality, relying on the sole power of its own reason (p. 85).

About a century-and-a half later two other German philosophers assessed the heritage of the Enlightenment era. Adorno and Horkheimer in their 1947 Dialectic of the Enlightenment came to the disquieting conclusion that the entire Enlightenment project was at the very best a missed opportunity, at the worst it resulted in a disaster triumphant, a new type of barbarism. They claimed that the Kantian sapere aude - the audacity of knowing - backfired on humanity which, instead of achieving liberation through knowledge, had now to bear even more powerful yoke of self-imposed tyranny in the form of rationalism void of morality (1972, pp. xi and 3).

It was paradoxically Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s own apprentice Jürgen Habermas (Fig. 1) who, in the early 1960s, attempted to rehabilitate the centerpiece of the entire idea of Western modernity - the Enlightenment project. Habermas’ thesis The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989) stood out “for its unflinching defense of enlightenment rationality” and was widely received as a critical response to Dialectic of Enlightenment, especially in regards to the political pessimism permeating Adorno’s writings in the post-War period (Honneth et al., 1992, p. ix; Hohendahl, 1992, p. 99). While most of those who studied the Enlightenment before him focused on the revolution of ideas and lofty philosophical disputations which it produced, Habermas was able to construct a tangible socio-historical argument directly addressing the communicative practices which were at the core of Western democracy and in one great stroke of genius explained its past, present, and potentially even the future (Kors & Korshin, 1987, p. 2).  It would be a futile attempt to reconstruct the entire dynamics of the academic debate which erupted chiefly after Habermas’ thesis was translated and published in English in 1989. At first it inspired mainly Habermas’ supporters, but as time went by and some of the pillars on which the original thesis stood started to shake under the pressure of revisionist scholarship, it rallied mainly the camp of the opponents. The author himself finally admitted that his original design of a grand theory of the public sphere was beyond salvation (see Habermas, 1992, p. 421).

Fig. 2: A Plaque Commemorating Pasqua Rosee's Coffeehouse in St. Michael's Alley in the City of London.

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Yet Habermas’ idea was paradoxically one of those rare contributions to social knowledge which, thanks to the relentless efforts of its critics, continues to drive an enormous amount of new research. With the hindsight of almost a half a century one may say that the ultimate historical importance of his contribution to social analysis dwells in the creation of a new ontological category of the public sphere. The author defined it very vaguely as something which “comes to being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” Its ultimate goal is to produce public opinion that Habermas described as “the task of criticism and control which a public body of citizens,” leaving behind their private interests, “practices vis-à-vis the ruling structure organized in the form of state” (1980, p. 198). In formulating the category of the public sphere, Habermas met the terms of the methodological imperative formulated by Marx (1973, p. 100) that any kind of social inquiry should start from the simplest determinations - general and abstract relations, or the smallest common denominators, characteristic of the systems of complex social structures and relations.  His broadly delineated public sphere is, from the outset, ingenious in the way that it spills across the boundaries of artificially created disciplinary divisions within the social sciences, arts, and humanities. It brings together scholars investigating practically any aspect of social life and as such, it may be a perfect answer to Braudel’s quest for a complex and contextualized social history (1980, p. 25). At the same time, the notion of structural transformation, which the author used in the title, implies the need to see social change through the prism of an ever-evolving process. Or even better, as a set of mutually constitutive abstract processes - mainly those which are traditionally attributed to the advent of modernity such as individuation, commodification, rationalization, spatiation, abstraction or alienation - all acting upon one another in various stages of formation, resulting in unpredictable mutual synergies (cf. Mosco, 1996, p. 8; Ollman, 2003, pp. 13-14; Ogborn, 1998, pp. 20-21). Such processes imply deep structural changes which are slow by definition. To capture them the scholar needs to step back in order to get the feeling of what Braudel saw as the dynamics of the longue durée (1980, pp. 27-31).

Paying due tribute to Habermas, it is time to point out that the ultimate flaw of his thesis was in his epistemological approach. Its whole argument was not guided by empirical findings relying strictly on primary sources. Instead, it was driven by an ex ante formulated hypothesis supported by secondary academic literature (cf. Zaret, 2000, pp. 4-5; Downie, 2003, p. 2). Carried astray by this methodological handicap, his study discovered what it was aimed at discovering from the outset: it echoed the (at the time) dominant paradigm with its strong emphasis on the central role of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period in ushering in modernity (Calhoun, 1992, p. 4; Friedman, 1981, p. 111). The central role of the bourgeoisie in this process may have paradoxically reflected Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s own nostalgia for “the great bourgeois art” which, as they claimed, “as a separate sphere was always possible only in the bourgeois society” (1972, pp. 126 and 156).

Why Focus on London?

Jürgen Habermas (Fig. 1) selected Great Britain as a ‘model case’ for his study. London coffeehouses serve as the backdrop for private individuals who assemble in the public body which almost immediately laid claim on the early periodical press, only recently freed of censorship (cf. Habermas, 1989, pp. 57-61). Yet in answering the question How useful to the eighteenth-century English studies is the paradigm of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’?, Downie (2003) comes to a conclusion which is rather dismissive of the entire Habermasian model. He argues that the author twisted important historical developments to support his thesis. The very notion of the public sphere which was bourgeois in its nature is completely misplaced because English society continued to be dominated by the aristocracy up until the late 1700s (p. 1). But eighteenth-century London, as a key to our understanding of the advent of modernity, continues to be the research focus of even those who took harsh revisionist positions against the original Habermasian thesis (Zaret, 2000, pp. 6-7; cf. Melton, 2001; Ogborn, 1998; Downie, 2003).

In the ensuing paragraphs, I would like to make my own justification for the study of the public sphere in eighteenth-century London. Consequently, I would like to offer the reader an opportunity to peek into Habermasian coffeehouses and observe the dynamics of London social life, mainly through the writings of Daniel Defoe. I further argue that to interpret the empirical material collected in London, one needs to see English society from a holistic perspective - not just in the sense of looking inwards at different alternative publics and counter-publics as many of Habermas’ critics do, but even more importantly in the context of the social experiences of other important commercial and political centers of the Western world (cf. Zaret, 2000, p. 11).

It was Braudel who for his monumental study of Western civilization and capitalism devised the classic sequence of dominant cities - i.e. Bruges, Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, and beyond (1982-84, vol. 3, pp. 27-34). We can reasonably assert that such places held, for a limited period and in mutual succession, a hegemonic power-grip over the entire supranational Western civilization and as such “refer to the system as a whole at different stages of its development” (Arrighi, 1994, p. xi ). If we follow this advice we may discover that the key subcategory of the public sphere - public opinion - was as a concept already discussed in Renaissance Italy - mainly at the level of reflexive practice, but implicitly also as a philosophical category. Yet, as Pirenne (1909; 1915; 1925/1956) suggested, the real roots of Western democracy must be searched for in the experience of the High Medieval period with its re-discovery of the Aristotelian rational argumentation and dialectic, its merchant urban communities with their bodies of civic government and independent judiciary systems. These were, according to Pirenne, the real training grounds of modern democracies.

The era of London’s hegemony over the Western thought roughly corresponds with what historians labeled as the long eighteenth century, a term which is often used interchangeably with the English Enlightenment (cf. Clark, 2000, p. x; Porter, 2000, p. xvii). It was the period in which English society enjoyed an indisputable economic, political, cultural, and military supremacy in the West. Merchants, artists and philosophers were coming to London to study the peculiarities of the English system in order to discover the secrets of its success, trying to ‘borrow’ some of the knowhow and implement it at home (cf. Voltaire, 1947, p. 54).  In 1711, Joseph Addison confessed in a London coffeehouse newsletter that there was no place in the town which he so much loved to frequent as the Royal Exchange. “It gives me a secret satisfaction, and in some measure, gratifies my vanity, as I am an Englishman, to see so rich an assembly of countrymen and foreigners consulting together upon the private business of mankind, and making this metropolis a kind of Emporium for the whole earth” (in Addison & Steele, 1852, p. 82).

Daniel Defoe, London Merchant and Writer

Figure 3: Daniel Defoe’s portrait on the frontispiece of satire entitled Jure Divino (1706) - a poem designed to mock the idea of divine-right monarchy.

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Daniel Defoe (c. 1659-1731) was one of the key protagonists of London’s public life whose lifespan corresponds with the early period of the English Enlightenment (Fig. 3). Defoe was a poster child of Marx’s man who “makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth” (2007, p. 13). His complex personality is riddled with internal contradictions. His all but straight-forward life-journey makes him an almost perfect metaphor for the ambiguity and confusion on whose wave modernity rode.  And his humble pedigree can help us to shed more light on those who became the protagonists of the Habermasian bourgeois public sphere (cf. Downie, 2003, pp. 11-12).

Born as Daniel Foe in a poor neighborhood outside of London’s Cripplegate, the aspiring merchant, failed brick manufacturer and later in life a famous writer and secret government spy gradually changed his name first to the more reverent De Foe and finally to Defoe (Defoe, 1955, p. 17; cf. Bastian, 1981).  As a merchant and early industrialist, Defoe was a failure, yet he was very proud of the role that tradesmen, this nascent class of urban aristocracy, played in English society. “This being the case in England, and our trade being so vastly great, it is no wonder that the tradesmen in England fill the lists of our nobility and gentry,” he claimed. And the comparison to aristocracy was not just a metaphor. Defoe observed the prosperous English tradesmen “coming every day to the herald’s office, to search for the coats-of-arms of their ancestors, in order to paint them upon their coaches, and engrave them upon their plate, embroider them upon their furniture, or carve them upon the pediments of their new houses.” Contrary to the customs prevailing at that time in most of the other European feudal countries where the traditional landed aristocracy did not mingle with the merchant class, in England “the gentlemen of the best families marry tradesmen’s daughters, and put their younger sons as apprentices to tradesmen” (1726, vol. 1, pp. 310-311; cf. De Saussure, 1995, p. 133).  Just as the new ruling classes in post-communist Europe are a blend of old apparatchiks, former secret spies and some new blood which was ready to seize the window of opportunity to slip among the elites, the emerging London bourgeoisie was from the beginning an amalgamation of the old aristocratic establishment and new social elements. “Marchauntes, they becoime lordes and lordes bleth, marchaundyte,” an anonymous London poet observed already in 1550 (p. 4).

The Habermasian Utopia

The periodical press in England started booming shortly after the Licensing Act lapsed in 1695 and was not renewed. “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days, to spread rumors and reports of things,” wrote Defoe in the opening paragraphs of his memoirs of the plague year of 1665. “But such things as those were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them were handed about by word of mouth only” (1722, pp. 1-2). A typical Englishman, regardless of class, was known for an insatiable appetite for news. According to Ward, he was “a great news monger, and all public reports must occur to his knowledge, for his business lies most in coffee houses, and the greatest of his diversion is in reading the newspapers” (1703, p. 186). Consequently, a typical coffeehouse boasted foreign and domestic journals covering a wide array of international issues important to merchants, but also “papers of morality and party disputes” (Macky, 1714, p. 109). Even groups of poor London shoeblacks would be customarily seen to purchase a farthing paper together and one or two of them who were literate would read the news out loud to their fellows gathered around the table in a coffeehouse (De Saussure, 1995, p. 101). Defoe’s own journal, A Weekly Review of the Affairs of France, was reportedly read by many cobblers and porters (Downie, 1979, p. 6). The author himself claimed that “you will find very few coffee-houses in this opulent City, without an illiterate mechanic, commenting upon the most material occurrences, and judging the actions of the greatest councils of Europe” (1951, p. 17). An amused Swiss visitor to London conferred that he could indeed often see an Englishman “taking a treaty of peace more to heart than he does his own affairs” (De Saussure, 1995, p. 101).

In 1711 two of the most prominent early British journalists, Addison and Steele, founded The Spectator, a special coffeehouse journal whose mission was to imitate Socrates who “brought philosophy down from heaven, to inhabit among men.” Addison claimed that similarly their ambition was to bring philosophy “out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and in coffee-houses” (in Addison & Steele, 1852, p. 15). Steele in one of his editorials explained in detail the daily rhythm of the coffeehouse with its changing clientele. From six in the morning when the men “who rise early for no other purpose but to publish their laziness” started to read their newspapers and discuss politics, through quarter of eight at which time they were interrupted by the students of law dressed for Westminster, then the first well-to-do customers appeared “in their night-gowns to saunter away their time.” When the day drew on, they gave place to men of business. Their entertainments, emphasized the author, are “derived rather from reason than imagination.” A typical coffeehouse was open till midnight and as such became “the place of rendezvous to all that live near it.” Steele concluded that as such, London coffeehouses became “little communities which we express by the word neighborhood” (pp. 58-59).

The earliest known coffeehouses were licensed in London in the 1650s (Fig. 2) and in 1714 Macky counted “by modest computation” about 8,000 of them (p. 30). This was surely an inflated number but it reflected their ubiquity in the city’s urban texture (cf. Ellis, 2004; Hatton, 1708, p. 30). Foreigners often noted that it was the peculiar institution of a coffeehouse which made London so different from any other European city. Those who wished to find a gentleman commonly asked not whether he lived in Fleet Street or Chancery Lane, but whether he frequented the Grecian or the Rainbow (Macaulay, 2006, p. 361).

The Less Utopian Reality of the London Coffeehouse

From the empirical evidence gathered above the reader may indeed get an idea that there once was an ideal universe of London coffeehouses in which everybody had access to public debates centered around rational arguments, where nothing was immune to criticism and every participant had free access to information unadulterated neither by political nor by commercial interest. Yet there is a much less flattering image of this world captured in the writings of Daniel Defoe (Fig 2). “The tea-table among the ladies, and the coffee-house among the men, seem to be places of new invention for a depravation of our manners and morals, places devoted to scandal,” cautioned the writer (1726, vol. 1, p. 188). What made Defoe so hostile towards an institution which Habermas saw as one of the catalysts of modern democracy? Well, even during their ‘golden age’ period of 1680-1730 (cf. Habermas, 1989, pp. 32), coffeehouses were not utopian islands but genuine social worlds susceptible to all human propensities and pitfalls. Those who met in their precincts were real people who were not able to leave behind their private interests when participating in public debate. And finally those who mediated such discussion through early London newspapers customarily had their own fish to fry. Overall, London coffeehouses and their newspapers were everything but the ideal image painted by Habermas in his seminal opus. Yet to understand Defoe’s scorn, we need to first know more about the author himself.

Shortly after his marriage in 1684, Defoe opened a small trading business next to Lythe’s coffeehouse in Freemen’s Yard adjacent to the Royal Exchange. His own experience transpired later in the portrait of an ideal merchant who could have sat as a model to Max Weber for The Protestant Ethic (1958). Defoes’ merchant was a global citizen, who, sitting in his counting house, could have at once conversed with whole world through business correspondence and private intelligence letters. “This and travel make a true-bred merchant the most intelligent man in the world, and consequently the most capable, when urged by necessity, to contrive new ways to live” (1702, pp. 7-8). The universe of Defoe’s merchants revolved or around their counting houses, the Royal Exchange and company halls, all places which offer “suitable occasions to discourse with their fellow tradesmen, meeting them in the way of their business, and improving their spare hours together” (1727, vol. 1, p. 45).


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Juraj Kittler, Ph.D. - St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

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Elizabeth Yenchko

About the Author

I am an associate professor at St. Lawrence University where I have a double appointment in the Performance and Communication Arts as well as in the English departments. My doctorate in mass communication is reflected in the courses I teach for the PCA Department. As a former radio reporter and newspaper editor I teach journalism classes in the English Department. After all, my main research interest - democracy and the public sphere - ties everything nicely together.

My research focuses on a series of leading cities whose historical experience prepared the ground for our current global village. I study public communication in classical Athens, republican Rome, Renaissance Venice, early modern London, republican Philadelphia and Paris. I analyze contemporary communication technologies as well as different historical ‘technological revolutions’ while focusing on their impact on the overall social order.

Stephen Fry's Keys to the City (2014)