July 13, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Publicness and Öffentlichkeit – some linguistic musings

A_Reading_in_the_Salon_of_Mme_Geoffrin,_1755_SmallSince Roman times, the word ‘public’ has been deeply embedded in the English language, from republic to publican to public convenience; but it still causes problems, as we have discovered several times on the pages of this blog. ‘Public’ has multiple meanings; it is a staple of academic inquiry; but it is not a word widely used by ‘the public’, ‘the general public’, in the ‘public sphere’ or by ‘members of the public’.

And still, we are governed by it or rather we govern through it. The state is, ostensibly, there to execute the will of the public or to act in the public interest or to preserve the public good; matters of state can be swayed by public opinion, heads of state and ministers of the state are mostly former members of public schools, public consent is sought when reshaping public services, and so on….


In the context of Science and Technology Studies the word ‘public’ looms large, from the public understanding of science to public dialogues about scientific advances or controversies to, more recently, observing the ‘creation of publics’ or how science is ‘made public’, and so on. In the last few mentions of the word public, an ‘s’ has crept in. STS scholars have created a plural for the word public, just as they have for the word knowledge, in order to highlight that the public is not a homogeneous mass. That little ‘s’ causes problems however, as then the question may be asked: If there are publics, what is a public in the singular? It also opens up opportunities though, as scholars have begun to study different types of public, to establish various typologies of publics and so on.


I have been observing these developments and debates for a while and vaguely contributed to them. However, until today, when discussing the matter of plural publics with a German friend, it had never occurred to me to think about this topic in German. I asked myself: What’s the German word for public and could there be a plural? In German the generic word for (the) ‘public’ would be ‘die Öffentlichkeit’. Discussing something in public would be doing so ‘in der Öffentlichkeit’ and so on.

What is remarkable about the German word is its etymological openness or transparency. Öffentlichkeit directly invokes the German word ‘offen’ (open) or ‘öffnen’ (to open) or öffentlich (public). The word has its roots in Old High German for opening up something, rather than in Latin words linked to ‘people’. This means that the words Öffentlichkeit and public not only have different etymologies, they are also embedded in different networks of meaning and culture, politics and philosophy.

Publics and Publika

According to a German website, the word Öffentlichkeit first made its way into the German public sphere at the beginning of 18th century in the context of the enlightenment, of public debates taking place in salons and coffee houses, of the emergence of the freedom of speech, and so on, and gradually became a staple of political science and the social sciences. The word can refer to a network of (political) actors and networks of communication (and much more of course), some of which can make up a Publikum or public (also translatable as audience; theatre audience, cinema audience and so on).

Interestingly, in 2013, the Duden, which is the German arbiter of all things relating to the German language, included the plural form of Publikum, namely Publika, in the dictionary (with the note: rare). The attestations of Publika that brought this plural to the Duden’s attention seem to stem from uses in the mass media rather than the social sciences. So, Publika doesn’t seem to be an equivalent of publics. And I am not sure whether it is used in academic circles.

Publics and philosophy

Öffentlichkeit became a matter of German philosophical, political and sociological thinking, particularly in the 20th century with the classical works of Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit or The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 1962) and Niklas Luhmann (Spiegeltheorie und konstruierte Öffentlichkeit – mirror theory and constructed public) in particular. More recently, in 2012, Volker Gerhard published a book in this tradition, entitled Öffentlichkeit. Die politische Form des Bewusstseins (Public life [?]: The political form of consciousness). He posits four principles of Öffentlichkeit, namely participation, representation, constitution and publicness, with the latter enabling individuals and institutions to interact and shape each other.

The seminal texts by Habermas and many others were of course translated into English and influenced the way that English speaking scholars began to think about the public sphere, the public, publicness and, eventually, publics. These German works also began to interact with classical English texts on publics, the public sphere and publicness by John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, for example – but that is another story.

Such works influenced political and sociological thinking worldwide and also, I suppose, informed thinking about the relation between science and society, both in Germany and Anglophone countries. However, I would like to know more about how STS scholars have dealt with this type of literature.

Wissenschaft and Öffentlichkeit

Despite the linguistic, philosophical and cultural differences discussed above, there are nowadays whole research programmes supported for example by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German science foundation) that deal with exactly the same issues that Anglophone STS scholars deal with, such as Wissenschaft in der Öffentlichkeit (science in public) Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit (science and public), Wissenschaft für die Öffentlichkeit (science for the public) and so on. Although using different words, German and English STS scholars investigate quite similar topics.

Publics and Öffentlichkeiten

However, one thing that, as far as I know, would not be possible in German, but one can never be sure, is to pluralise Öffentlichkeit and turn it into Öffentlichkeiten! What does this mean for STS? Would a German debate about ‘making science public’ or ‘creating publics’ or varieties of publics look different to an English debate about such topics? Do German STS scholars talk about Arten der Öffentlichkeit or do they use the English word ‘publics’? I’d love to know. I also wonder whether the use of such radically different words, carrying quite distinctive cultural and philosophical baggage, influences the way that English and German scholars think about ‘making science public’ or making science öffentlich….

Image: Reading in the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, 1755


Posted in Politicspublic participationpublics