Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

7.3: The Exchange of Ideas in the Public Sphere

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    -ny9bj0-0 hwsygj page-content" tabindex="0">

    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Explain the role of the public sphere as a place for debate and dissent
    • Identify the role of public and private forms of expression in the Enlightenment
    • Discuss the role of universities in fostering public debate

    As the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment continued over the course of the eighteenth century, new ideas about religion, political power, and the human condition proliferated alongside a growing revolutionary spirit. Helping to spread these ideas was the emergence of the public sphere, spaces beyond the home and under the control of neither the church nor the state, such as coffeehouses and taverns where people could engage in free and open intellectual exchange, without fear of retribution.

    Before the late seventeenth century, public forums had been relatively uncommon in Europe outside England. But in the urban centers of the Islamic world and the trade centers of East Asia, informal spaces for conversation and political discussion, such as the many Turkish coffeehouses and the Confucian academies in Korea, were prominent features of social life. As international trade and cultural exchange increased between Europe and its Eastern neighbors during the Enlightenment, these autonomous secular spaces had a profound influence on the development of the public sphere in Europe.

    Public Debate and Dissent

    In the medieval period in Europe, opportunities for social encounters and the exchange of ideas had generally been limited to the domestic sphere of private households, or to spaces in which monarchical or church authority could quash dissent or criticism. Over the course of Europe’s seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, public spaces became a pervasive feature of its intellectual culture for the first time.

    Coffeehouses, which became a staple of European cities by the end of the eighteenth century, had long been centers of intellectual exchange and informal socialization in cities of the Islamic world after the practice of roasting coffee beans and making them into a drink began in Yemen in the 1400s. After its subsequent adoption in Arabia, coffee drinking spread to Egypt, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. By the mid-sixteenth century, coffeehouses had become a fixture of social life in many communities of the Islamic world, where people could participate in a wide variety of conversations. Istanbul’s cosmopolitan district of Tahtakale, where merchants, artisans, sailors, tradespeople, and travelers congregated, was an especially fitting site for the development of such establishments. After the first cafés there gained a wide following, portable coffee stalls and neighborhood coffeehouses became popular throughout the Ottoman Empire (Figure 7.7).

    People are inside a high-ceilinged room. Some people sit along the windows. Other stand about conversing. Someone brews coffee by a counter. There is a fountain in the center of the room.
    Figure 7.7 A Coffeehouse in Istanbul. Late eighteenth-century coffeehouses in the Islamic world, like the Istanbul establishment in this image from architect Antoine Ignace Melling’s classic 1819 visual record of the city, served as inspiration for the cafés of Enlightenment Europe’s new public sphere. (credit: “Depiction of an Ottoman Coffeehouse” by Antoine-Ignace Melling in Routledge/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    In Europe, the first coffeehouse based on the Turkish model opened in the cosmopolitan port city of Venice in 1645. Coffee shops became especially popular in England after the first one appeared in London in 1652. By 1708, London had more than five hundred, and their appeal continued to soar. The first cafés opened in Paris in the 1670s and in cities such as Vienna, Hamburg, and Frankfurt by the end of the century. Although some monarchs, particularly Charles II of England, attempted to suppress coffeehouses on the grounds that they promoted dissent and anti-royalist sentiment, such efforts generally faced so much opposition that they fell flat. Because coffeehouses existed as public spaces under private ownership in the midst of a growing commercial economy, in most cases, monarchs and other state authorities had little control over them.

    Coffeehouses occasionally acquired a reputation as centers of dissent and subversion, but they were not inherently anti-royalist in character. Rather, they became politicized spaces in which all manner of political debates and opinions were discussed. For those living on subsistence levels or at the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy, most days were consumed with work or labor, and finding leisure to visit coffeehouses was virtually impossible. But although not everyone had this luxury, such establishments provided a means of informal education for many. For the price of a cup of coffee, patrons, who were predominantly male, could engage in the rapid circulation of ideas and information that also facilitated the flourishing print culture of the era. For those who could not read or buy books, coffeehouse conversations thus allowed active participation in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment.

    Whereas coffeehouses were generally spaces in which people of all social backgrounds and statuses could mingle, salons in eighteenth-century France tended to cater to the intellectual endeavors of a more privileged sector of society. Situated in the homes of wealthy aristocrats, salons were informal gatherings of writers, philosophers, and in theory anyone else who wished to participate. In practice, however, only those with adequate wealth, leisure time, and social connections tended to do so, since attendance usually depended upon receiving an invitation from the salon’s host.

    Salons met on designated days and were typically hosted and managed by women, offering an important opportunity for them to take leadership roles in the cultural sphere. Hosts such as Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse, and Suzanne Necker not only decided who could attend their salons, but they also managed the inclusive and back-and-forth nature of the conversations (Figure 7.8). Despite the prevailing sentiment among male philosophers that women were not as rational as men, elite women were nevertheless instrumental as benefactors and patrons of the salons, which served as essential venues for the exchange of Enlightenment ideas. Salons eventually evolved into hubs of literary discussion that fostered a culture of polite sociability and cohesion among aristocrats and propertied elites.

    A crowd of people sit around a richly decorated room. There are multiple paintings on the walls and a colorful carpet. The men are all dressed in knee breeches and ornate coats. The women all wear long dresses.
    Figure 7.8 A Paris Salon. Lecture de la tragédie “L’orphelin de la Chine” de Voltaire dans le salon de Madame Geoffrin, a nineteenth-century oil painting by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, imagines the Paris salon of Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, one of the most celebrated salon hosts of the French Enlightenment, in 1755. The guests are listening to a reading of a newly published play by Voltaire. (credit: “Reading of Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine” by Château de Malmaison/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Link to Learning

    Project Gutenberg presents The Women of the French Salons by Amelia Gere Mason. This text provides a detailed analysis of the roles played by women in the French salons of the Enlightenment. Chapters 1 and 8, in particular, provide useful overviews of the salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively.

    The Republic of Letters

    Conversation and debate in the public sphere were inseparable from the flourishing print culture of the Enlightenment era. Literacy rates, which hovered around 30 percent for men and 14 percent for women in late-seventeenth-century French cities, had increased to 48 percent for men and 27 percent for women by the mid-eighteenth century. These rising rates led to an explosion of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and political cartoons. The spread of printed materials not only standardized spelling and systems of knowledge, but it also enabled news, opinion, poetry, political philosophy, scientific texts, and information of all kinds to reach a much wider audience than the spoken word alone. The Republic of Letters was a long-distance community of writers who corresponded with each other across Europe and the Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sending handwritten letters and published materials of every kind that provided a crucial international exchange and transmission of ideas. The Republic of Letters was a society whose citizens, rather than living in the same geographic area, like the citizens of a political republic, were united by ideas spread through print. No matter where in Europe or the Atlantic world they lived, all literate people could belong to the Republic of Letters. They engaged with one another on terms of intellectual equality and freely exchanged ideas, just like citizens of a political republic who were, theoretically, free and equal.

    Among the luminaries were prominent philosophers and political leaders, including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Catherine the Great. Given that those who participated in the Republic of Letters hailed from many different countries and spoke many different languages, much of their writing either was in Latin, then the universal language of scholarship in multilingual Europe, or required access to proficient translators. This obstacle made it difficult for the majority of people to participate directly in the print culture of the Enlightenment.

    The Past Meets the Present

    Spreading Ideas in the Past and Present

    The emergence of the public sphere in the Enlightenment has had a long-standing influence on the exchange of ideas in the modern world. In his influential 1962 treatise The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas identified the development of the free and open exchange of ideas as a product of the eighteenth century. According to Habermas, this development was the result of the “feudal foundations of power” (that is, Europe’s medieval legacy of centralized monarchical rule and the institutional power of Christianity) being supplanted by the development of a capitalist economy and the emergence of spaces for the free and open exchange of ideas beyond the control of the state or the church. Habermas asserted that between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, economic activities that had formerly been part of the domestic space of the household increasingly became associated with spaces of exchange, such as markets and coffeehouses that functioned independently of government authority.

    • How have modern means of communication, particularly social media, changed the way ideas and information are spread?
    • What is considered “public” today, and how do modern conceptions of “public” differ from those of the Enlightenment era?

    Despite the pervasive influence of print culture, the direct impact of Enlightenment texts among the general public was limited by relatively low literacy rates among the artisans, peasants, and tradespeople of the era. Literacy rates were climbing rapidly among members of the urban elite, particularly wealthy merchants and aristocrats, but they remained well below 20 percent for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy, especially in rural areas. Although the Enlightenment embraced, in theory, some democratic principles about the exchange of knowledge, in practice, participation in that exchange was limited to those with adequate wealth and leisure time. Books were prohibitively expensive and remained well out of the reach of all but the wealthiest members of society. Even cheaply printed pamphlets represented a significant expense for most eighteenth-century laborers and peasants. By the second half of the eighteenth century, lending libraries had emerged to expand the reading public’s access to printed materials, but only select academics and government officials were permitted to borrow books. By the end of the century, however, reading clubs whose members paid an annual fee for access to books and periodicals began to expand the size of the reading public and increase levels of literacy among the middle class.

    Academies, Universities, and Intellectuals

    The salons, print shops, and coffeehouses of the public sphere existed alongside more formal educational institutions and academies that also contributed to the intellectual culture of the era. Universities and scientific societies played significant roles in advancing experimental science and philosophy, but they were far less accessible to the reading public than coffeehouses and even salons. Women, for example, attended salons, but they did not attend universities and generally did not belong to scientific societies. Likewise, working-class men, who could sometimes be found frequenting coffeehouses, had no access to universities or scientific societies. These institutions also tended to be somewhat conservative in outlook, given their religious foundations and traditional emphasis on a theologically based curriculum. Even as the curriculum of universities became less based on religion in the eighteenth century, they still largely fell under the wing of state and royal authorities rather than being autonomous.

    Unlike modern research universities, those in the early modern era existed to train students—exclusively male and economically privileged—for careers in the civil service or to practice one of three professions: medicine, law, or theology. The curriculum was generally designed to uphold tradition rather than innovate. Nevertheless, being affiliated with prestigious universities like Oxford, Bologna, and Paris carried power and prestige that enabled academics to make connections with wealthy patrons in court and aristocratic circles. These connections, in turn, could be exploited to finance more innovative research and scholarship in settings outside the universities.

    Scientific research thus generally took place in private laboratories with the assistance of a variety of academies and scientific societies. Their dependence on the economic support and protection of monarchs and princes meant that these institutions maintained ties to the state and lacked the full autonomy of the public sphere. One of the first was the Royal Society of London, which first met on November 28, 1660, and was formally chartered and recognized by King Charles II shortly thereafter (Figure 7.9). Francis Bacon’s development of the scientific method was considered the inspiration for the society’s founding. His emphasis on perfecting experimental techniques became a central focus of its principles and continued to influence scientists like Isaac Newton for many years after its founding. Newton was one of the group’s most celebrated members. The machine-like view of the universe he developed, and the laws of planetary motion and gravity upholding it, were in turn a source of inspiration to French philosophers like Voltaire, who saw Newton’s work as evidence of a rational universe.

    This image shows a bust on top of a platform. Two men sit on each side. An angel is behind the bust and holds a trumpet and places a wreath on the bust.
    Figure 7.9 The Royal Society of London. John Evelyn’s 1667 frontispiece for Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society, showing a bust of Charles II. On the right is Francis Bacon, and on the left is mathematician William Brouncker, Second Viscount and the first president of the Royal Society. (credit: “A History of the Royal Society, by Thomas Sprat (frontispiece)” by “Airunp”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Like the Royal Society of London, the Academy of Sciences in France operated with the support and protection of royalty, in this case Louis XIV, who founded it in 1666. Unlike its English counterpart, however, the French academy was well funded and tightly controlled by its royal patron, who sponsored scientists and their work with monetary allowances and pensions.

    Because of their connections to the court, members of scientific societies and academies were a small elite, but they also participated in public forums and salons of the Enlightenment and represented the beginning of scientific professionalization in the eighteenth century. Due to their connections with the salons, some scientific societies provided opportunities for women to engage in the practice of science. Although they were barred from university admission and formal membership in royal academies in England and France, some noble and aristocratic women, such as Maria Winkelmann of Germany and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in England, not only served as patrons of science but also actively participated in scientific research.

    Link to Learning

    An overview of Margaret Cavendish’s life and intellectual contributions is presented in “Women in Science: Margaret Cavendish” by English Heritage.

    This page titled 7.3: The Exchange of Ideas in the Public Sphere is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax.

    • Was this article helpful?