Essay on Public and Private

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The distinction between public and private life has been a useful tool for charting long-term social change and comparing societies. In classical Greece the equivalent distinction was between participation in the (public) life of the polis and the management of one’s (private) household, where the political life was higher and more self-sufficient (Aristotle) than the meeting of material needs; privacy here implies privation, falling short of a fully human life. This ideal of the polis has hovered over social and political thought ever since. But it began to fade with the emergence of modern industrial society. For if in feudal society political power is the source of wealth, mature industrial society makes possible the pursuit of wealth without recourse to politics, and the putting of self-interest before the public good. Politics in the form of the modern state then becomes either a framework for the pursuit of individual self-interest (liberalism) or a mechanism for the maximization of collective wealth (in modern welfare states or under socialism). In either case politics becomes a means with which something else can be achieved.

A sustained assault on this development is found in the writings of Arendt, Oakeshott, and Wolin. Against this judgment stands the claim, popular with eighteenth-century political economy, that it is precisely the pursuit of private gain in commercial society which opens individuals to the variousness of human affairs and indirectly fosters the moral sentiments consistent with public virtue.

If classicist political theory equates public/private with politics/economics and laments the triumph of privacy, then sociology, social history, and philosophy introduce new distributions. In sociology, the pursuit of individual self-interest brings with it a more complex division of labor, the growth of new forms of refinement, and new marks of social distinction. Privacy begins to be equated not with the household economy but with the family as a source of individual labor. This individualization is fostered by a new organization of domestic space, and also by the growth of the city, with its possibilities of distance, reserve, and secrecy (Simmel); this is grafted on to already-existing ideas about the inwardness of the self found in Protestantism. Public/private implies external/internal to the self.

The tradition of philosophy which begins with Kant provides another sense of public and private. The fusion of eighteenth-century rationalism with German pietism led Kant to the ”deontological” view of the self, in which individuals have the capacity to abstract from all of their determinate social and political relations. The fruit of such abstraction is not introspection or brooding, but the discovery of the individual’s capacity for reason and judgment; at their most inward and private, individuals discover the moral law, a principle of duty which is the same for all. Individuals are also equipped with the capacity to make use of their unaided, autonomous reason in public. ”Public” here is not the same as politics in the classical sense, but implies a republic of letters located between the private sphere and that of government and administration. For Habermas, the twentieth century sees the loss of the public sphere in this sense, as a result of the interpenetration of state and society under welfare regimes and political democracy. A series of partial publics dominated by large bureaucracies emerges, overlain with a thin veneer of publicity in the form of ”public opinion,” to be mobilized for demagogic as well as democratic purposes.

Alongside the idea of a loss of the public-as-polis, and of the public-as-republic-of-letters, lies a third theme: the loss of civility, that is, of civil behavior between strangers. Phrases such as the culture of narcissism, the triumph of the therapeutic (Rieff 1966) or the fall of public man (Sennett 1977) imply a triumph of individualism so complete that public questions are seen in private terms, the world is seen as a mirror of the self, and those forms of collectivity that do arise are forms of community based upon the private principle of resemblance-to-self rather than the public principle of communal purpose.

Curiously enough, in the 1960s this plea for civility, and for a distinction between private and public matters, ran up against the feminist slogan ”the personal is political”. Here, the neglect of power mechanisms in the sphere of personal relations is a major lacuna in modern thought; and the very tradition at whose heart is the polis, or the public sphere, is pervaded by masculinist reason. This viewpoint has had a significant effect, both on public and private life, and on scholarship.


  1. Habermas, J. (1982) [1962] The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  2. Rieff, P. (1966) The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Chatto & Windus, London.
  3. Sennett, R. (1977) The Fall ofPublic Man. Faber, London.

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