Habermas and cafés as social space

So nice to read about German sociologist Jürgen Habermas in the NewYorker after studying him 20 years ago in Uni.

Loved the angle of the article around cafés as social spaces and how they led to the Enlightenment (as opposed to our Starbucks era of bubbles). 

Democracy was not made in the streets but among the saucers.

It wasn’t that the conversations in the café were necessarily intellectually productive; it was that the practice of free exchange itself—the ability to interact on equal terms with someone not of your clan or club—generated social habits of self-expression that abetted the appetite for self-government.

The cafés “are the meeting place of the like-minded,” a journalist wrote in the early years of Berlin’s café culture.

In Vienna, the café city par excellence, the Jewish cafégoer wanted to seem not Austrian but, instead, a sophisticated cosmopolitan.


From a café owner point of view, with repeat business worth much more to a small enterprise than new business, given the stability of “recurring revenue”, […] the café can’t become too exclusive a club and remain profitable. This may be why the adjective regularly applied to the café is “grand,” or why so many cafés in Europe were exceptionally large spaces, even if, to judge by contemporary drawings and photographs, they were seldom close to being fully occupied.

One of the historical functions of coffee was to not be alcohol. European cultures that had always drunk beer instead of unsafe water were liberated from their own stupor by the rise of caffeinated brews.

In the Habermasian vision of the café as an arena of civil society, and of civil society as the foundation of enlightened societies, the café may have been a foundation, but it could never be a fortress.

In the classic cafés the point was to interact with your fellows, the point of spending a day working in a Starbucks, or in its cuter and more local-seeming rivals, is never to interact with your fellows. 

We aren’t sharing space in a modern coffee shop; we’re simply renting it.

As I love daydream or people watching when I sit in a café alone, I loved the conclusion of the article about that feeling of nearness: 

the sense of being able to carve out an identity among other identities, of being potentially private in a public space and casually public even while lost in private reveries.