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The Opinion System

Impasses of the Public Sphere from Hobbes to Habermas

Kirk Wetters

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

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Preface: The Opinion Machine

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pp. vii-xvi

‘‘Tankstelle’’ (Filling Station), the first aphorism of Walter Benjamin’s One- Way Street, highlights the changed role of opinion in modern societies through a structuring opposition between conviction (Überzeugung) and opinion (Meinung).1 Starting with the latter: the closing sentences of this...

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Introduction and Overview

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pp. 1-15

The epigraph to Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy as 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...

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Excursus I: Fama and Fatum in Virgil's Aeneid

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pp. 16-23

Fama, a Latin translation of the Greek doxa, carries many of the same meanings: fama is 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...

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One: Manifestations of the Public Sphere in Christoph Martin Wieland

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pp. 24-60

At the turn of the nineteenth century there was no word and no idea that was more awe-inspiring than the word opinion. 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...

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Excursus 2: Nomos, Gnomae (The Council of War)

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pp. 61-69

As a starting point for his etymological analyses of the German word Meinung (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...

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Two: Representation and Opinion (Koselleck, Habermas, Derrida)

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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...

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Excursus 3: Politics and Belief ( The Parable of the Sower)

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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...

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Three: The Opinion System and the Re-Formation of the Individual (Hobbes, Locke, Mendelssohn, Fichte, and Goethe)

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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...

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Excursus 4: Polystrophon Gnoman (Findar and Hölderin)

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pp. 179-187

Pindar’s fragment 169, the source of the nomos basileus (discussed in the context of Herodotus), has been always an object of much discussion and interpretation, most recently and prominently in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer.1 My reading of Herodotus’ conception may complement existing readings...

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Four: Lichtenberg’s ‘‘Opinions-System’’ (Meinungen-System)

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pp. 188-238

Only after his death in 1799 did Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher (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...

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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...


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pp. 247-272


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pp. 273-284


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pp. 285-292

E-ISBN-13: 9780823248247
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823229888
Print-ISBN-10: 0823229882

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2008