The Opinion System: Impasses of the Public Sphere from Hobbes to Habermas

The Opinion System: Impasses of the Public Sphere from Hobbes to Habermas

Kirk Wetters
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 256
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    The Opinion System: Impasses of the Public Sphere from Hobbes to Habermas
    Book Description:

    This book revises the concept of the public sphere by examining opinion as a foundational concept of modernity. Indispensable to ideas like public opinionand freedom of opinion,opinion-though sometimes held in dubious repute-here assumes a central position in modern philosophy, literature, sociology, and political theory, while being the object of extremely contradictory valuations. Kirk Wetters focuses on interpretative shifts begun in the Enlightenment and cemented by the French Revolution to restore the concept of opinionto a central role in our understanding of the political public sphere. Locke's law of opinion,underwritten by the ancient conceptions of nomos and fama, proved to be inconsistent with the modern ideal of a rational political order. The contemporary dynamics of this problem have been worked out by Jrgen Habermas and Reinhart Koselleck: for Habermas the private law of opinion can be brought under the rational control of public discourse and procedural form, whereas Koselleck views modernity as the period in which irrational potentials were unleashed by a political-conceptual language that only intensified and accelerated the upheavals of history. Modernity risked making opinions into the idols of collective representations, sacrificing opinion to ideology and individualism to totalitarianism. Drawing on an intriguing range of thinkers, some not widely known to American readers today, Kirk Wetters argues that this transformation, though irreversible, is resisted by literary language, which opposes the rigid formalism that compels individuals to identify with their opinions. Rather than forcing thought to bind itself to stable opinions, modern literary forms seek to suspend this moment of closure and representation, so that held opinions do not bring all deliberative processes to a standstill.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4824-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xviii)
  4. Introduction and Overview
    (pp. 1-15)

    The epigraph to Laurence Sterne’sLife and Opinions of Tristram Shandyas well as to Herder’s philosophy of history, Epictetus’ innocent observation may also be a battle cry of radical relativism. The things themselves, the epigraph says, their order, natural order, or total lack of order, are not problematic as such. What is problematic is every human belief, every attempt to fix a particular order of things and assert it dogmatically, once and for all, astheorder of things. The distinction between things and human representations of them—representations that sediment intodogmata—does not itself represent an alternative...

    (pp. 16-23)

    Fama, a Latin translation of the Greekdoxa, carries many of the same meanings:famais popular opinion based on commonly held beliefs; it is the reputation or esteem—the fame—in which a thing or a person is held; it is also rumor and gossip. All of these possible significances include the idea of a tacit but potentially false or irrational consensus;famaappears in this sense as an equivalent of what Locke called the “law of opinion” or the “law of fashion.” The idea offamaproduces an imaginary and amorphous but still normatively and conformatively structured public....

  6. ONE Manifestations of the Public Sphere in Christoph Martin Wieland
    (pp. 24-60)

    At the turn of the nineteenth century there was no word and no idea that was more awe-inspiring than the wordopinion. Wieland’s words dramatically reflect this, but it should also be noted that they are not his own; he puts them in the mouth of a character in a dialogue. These words are not a declaration of Wieland’s own opinion, but are presented as a critically inflected echo of others’ words.¹

    The first recorded appearance of the termpublic opinionin the Revolutionary context is attributed to Jacques Necker, who described it in 1784 as an “invisible power,” which...

    (pp. 61-69)

    As a starting point for his etymological analyses of the German wordMeinung(opinion), Jost Trier takes Herodotus, the father of history, as the father of opinion.¹ For Trier, the most important context for the concept of opinion is not the competition of ideas in a public sphere, nor does his conception have any obvious connection to afamathat tenuously founds “truth” through rumor and reputation. Instead Trier envisions opinion as part of political decision-making and, more particularly, in the context of the scene of council. Mostly interested in the etymology of opinion, Trier does not directly address the...

  8. TWO Representation and Opinion (Koselleck, Habermas, Derrida)
    (pp. 70-114)

    The long-term fallout of the revolutionary advent of public opinion, especially with regard to what is loosely called “the arts,” is nowhere more evident than in what is equally loosely called “modernism” (here exemplarily of the Viennese variety). The painter and novelist Albert Paris Gütersloh, a pupil of Gustav Klimt, grew up in the center of this movement, but he belonged to its second generation; a step removed from Klimt, the father-figure, he was especially sensitive to the aging of modern art. As a latecomer in a short-lived movement, the tendencies of which made it susceptible to fall on the...

    (pp. 115-122)

    One of the oldest and most influential models for the function of opinion—and, in comparison to Virgil or Herodotus, highly programmatic—comes from the Christian gospels. The parable of the sower appears in much the same form in Mark, Luke, and Matthew, where it presents not only a germinal theory of opinion, it does so in the context of much broader claims about revelation and dissemination, communication and politics. The gospels’ model of dissemination, which does not assert the ability of reason and truth to simply supersede superstition and error on the basis of reasoned discourse, is crucial to...

  10. THREE The Opinion System and the Re-Formation of the Individual (Hobbes, Locke, Mendelssohn, Fichte, and Goethe)
    (pp. 123-178)

    Before the French Revolution, an “opinion-system”—as Lichtenberg called it, and later Fichte, though in a different sense—had been developing in Europe for at least a century. The practical model for the system came from England, where this new “system” was generally viewed—perhaps even more so by those on the continent—as a positive contribution to the intellectual life of nations. The basis of the system was a cosmopolitan milieu, which extended the interest of the reading public to events transpiring beyond the sphere of their own everyday interests and concerns. Despite the enthusiastic participation in the discourses...

    (pp. 179-187)

    Pindar’s fragment 169, the source of thenomos basileus(discussed in the context of Herodotus), has been always an object of much discussion and interpretation, most recently and prominently in Giorgio Agamben’sHomo Sacer.¹ My reading of Herodotus’ conception may complement existing readings, including Agamben’s, but at present I want to address another Pindar fragment of nearly equal fame, which pertains to the concept of opinion in the sense ofgnomae(also discussed the Herodotus Excursus). This other Pindar fragment is cited in Book I of Plato’sRepublic, its only known source.² Plato quotes Pindar in a discussion of old...

  12. FOUR Lichtenberg’s “Opinions-System” (Meinungen-System)
    (pp. 188-238)

    Only after his death in 1799 did Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’sSudelbücher(Waste Books)¹ enter the public sphere by way of posthumous publications. Among the extremely wide-ranging topics addressed in these private notebooks, Lichtenberg often writes about an “opinions-system” (Meinungen-System), by which he means the individuals’ methods for reaching and retaining conclusions based on experience. This mode of data collection, more than coincidentally related to the form of the waste books themselves, is conceived as at least latently scientific in its structure—if not actively experimental—and is thus also implicitly anti-normative because the experiences to be tabulated and the ways...

    (pp. 239-246)

    The following is less a comprehensive conclusion than a short list of principal findings; they represent desiderata—sketches for future work—more than results.

    Perhaps the most significant and unexpected insight to emerge in the course of writing this book was the specific parallelism or structural analogy of public and private opinion. Both are, to follow Reinhart Koselleck’s formalization (analyzed in chapter 2), collective singulars. In the case of public opinion, this may not be surprising, but Lichtenberg’s analysis of the “I,” theego cogitothat thinks “I think” (in chapter 4), comparably defines the wordIas a verbally...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 247-272)
    (pp. 273-284)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 285-292)