Enlightenment and Community: Lessing, Abbt, Herder and the Quest for a German Public

Enlightenment and Community: Lessing, Abbt, Herder and the Quest for a German Public

Enlightenment and Community: Lessing, Abbt, Herder and the Quest for a German Public

Enlightenment and Community: Lessing, Abbt, Herder and the Quest for a German Public

Synopsis

Argues that the Enlightenment project was more than the misguided turning towards instrument rationality that some hold it to be. The author examines three north-central German Enlightenment writers and finds in them a genuine communitarian search for the construction of a German public sphere. After placing the writers in the general social, political, and literary contexts of their time, he looks at the different approaches (literary, political, and philosophical) the author applied to their goal.

Excerpt

The notions of "the public," "publicity," and "public opinion" are key concepts in Western social and political discourse. These terms tend to have a dual character, indicating both the presence of some kind of human community and the processes by which ideas, opinions, concerns, and information are represented within that community. the word "public" -- noun or adjective -- is of central importance. As a noun, denoting a body of citizens, it is employed as a crucial point of reference in the evaluation of policy -- that is, what is the public's position on the matter? As an adjective it invokes root processes of modern Western political culture having to do with openness, accessibility, and transparency. and yet there is more -- the range of meanings and usages of such a fundamental term is necessarily broad.

Derivations of the term "public" have informed socio-political discourse from the period of high Roman culture to the present. It is a protean term that has lived diverse lives yet maintained enough of an identifiable character to be recognizable, in its various manifestations, to us today. Contemporary understandings of the term began to take shape during the eighteenth century, helping to lay the foundation for emerging concepts of citizenship and democratic culture generally. It was at this time reconstituted from its ancient juridical and humanist roots and contested in the service of a changing socio-political order, an order marked not least by the rise of middling classes. European Enlightenment culture was thus a fundamental locus for the emergence and conceptualization of what has come to be called the modern public sphere.

The ideological construct of a modern public sphere in Europe was, in the words of Anthony La Vopa, "a characteristic product of the . . .

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