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  • The Prudential Public Sphere
  • David Randall

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas makes the claim that the unprecedented public use of critical reason was an essential constituent of the early modern European (bourgeois) public sphere (1991, 27-28, 105-6, and more generally 1-117). Narrating the history of the particular concept of critical reason that animated the public sphere, Habermas locates its origin in the practical reason (phronesis) of Aristotle but argues that Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas More had drastically transformed the concept when they substituted for phronesis a practical reason based instead on techne (1973, 42, 50-51). Machiavelli's role was central in this transformation, for he "reduces the practical knowledge of politics to technical skill. . . . [F]or him the skill of acquiring and preserving power does indeed result from a transferring of workmanlike techne to a domain of praxis till then reserved for phronesis" (1973, 59-60). Thomas Hobbes had followed up on this redefinition of the mode of practical reason by reconceiving of politics as a science, wherein the use of scientific reason (episteme) could provide the prerequisite knowledge that allowed for—indeed, required, as politics now followed a scientized natural law—the sure application of techne's practical reason (1973, 61-67). In the century following Hobbes, the philosophical tradition that included John Locke, the Physiocrats, and Jean-Jacques [End Page 205] Rousseau developed the role of public opinion as the medium from which emerged the epistemic knowledge of natural law that preceded and justified an enlightened techne of practical reason (1973, 76-78; 1991, 89-102). This enlightened practical reason culminated in Immanuel Kant's conception of rational-critical debate concerning political matters, which articulated the self-understanding and the nature of the public sphere (1991, 102-17, esp. 107-8). This public, theoretically universal use of critical reason was the exercise of episteme that provided the sure foundation for the public sphere's praxis of political techne.

Habermas's historical narrative divorces the critical reason of the public sphere from the practical reason—the prudence—of classic political philosophy. Indeed, accepting Vico's contention that scientific reason's inability to provide a sure guide for praxis made it an insufficient replacement for prudence, Habermas later develops the concepts of communicative rationality and communicative action explicitly to supply a modern substitute for prudence that could connect reason and practice (1996, 1-9). 1 In his historical narrative of the development of practical reason in early modern Europe as a form of techne, in his description of the public sphere, and in his theory of communicative action, Habermas presumes that Machiavelli had dealt a fatal blow to the tradition of classic prudence, leaving the various forms of techne, scientific reason, and communicative reason perforce to struggle to inherit the place and function of their deceased forbear.

Yet Habermas's intellectual narrative, the essential presupposition to his political theory, is inaccurate. It is not correct to say that Machiavelli substituted techne for phronesis; rather, he retained the prudential mode of reason while shearing from it the classic association of prudence with an external standard of virtue. This amoral, Machiavellian prudence not only survived in the following centuries but also developed into the concepts of raison d'etat and interest, the latter of which permeated the thought of the Enlightenment. The scientific reason of Hobbes and the critical reason of Kant were not only the successors of classic prudence but also the anxious competitors of the intellectually vibrant tradition of early modern prudence. 2 Habermas's narrative highlights a lone tradition on a high road from Hobbes to Kant, but there was in fact an ongoing debate between scientific reason and prudence, in which the ever-greater claims for scientific reason registered not the weakness of prudence but its strength.

This revised narrative of the history of critical reason and prudence in early modern Europe has considerable theoretical implications. On the one hand, it suggests that the early modern public sphere should be conceived [End Page 206] as constituted in part or in whole by prudence and interest rather than by Kantian reason—with all that this implies both for Habermas's public...


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