The Public/Private Distinction

excerpt from;
Democracy and Public Space - The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance by John R. Parkinson
Part I. The Theory of Democratic Public Space pp 49-71
Oxford University Press Inc., New York

The Public/Private Distinction

The Public/Private Distinction
There is no such thing as the public/private distinction, or, at any rate, it is a deep
mistake to think that there is a single substantive distinction here that can be
made to do any real philosophical or political work. When one begins to look at it
carefully, the purported distinction between public and private begins to dissolve
into a number of issues that have relatively little to do with one another. … To
repeat this as a methodological point: it is not the case that we must or should
adopt a two-step procedure, first getting clear about the public/private distinction,
49assuming all the while that there is a single distinction to be made, and then,
having discovered where the line falls between public and private, going on to ask
what we can do with that distinction, what attitude we should adopt toward it,
what implications making the distinction correctly might have for politics. Rather,
first we must ask what this purported distinction is for, that is, why we want to
make it at all. To answer this question will bring us back to some relatively
concrete context of human action, probably human political action, and it is
only the context of connecting the issue of the public and private to that antecedent
potential context of political action that the distinction will make any sense.
(Geuss, 2001: 106–7, original emphasis)
The public/private distinction has been a cornerstone of liberal politics and
liberal democratic theory. The traditional distinction is between a private
sphere of activity that is the ‘locus of initiative’ in which free individuals
make autonomous decisions, and a public sphere ‘where the rules of association
are defined and the problems to which it gives rise are resolved’ (Baechler,
1980: 269). Thus, the public/private split is taken to be constitutive of democracy
itself: it creates normative room for citizens to exercise individual autonomy
free from interference by others, and a public sphere in which conflicts
between the results of those autonomous decisions can be resolved, or at least
discussed. Precisely where the boundary between public and private should
lie, though, is a matter of intense debate. For example, a major strand of
feminist political thought has shown how the liberal insistence on privacy
can be used to hide the political dimensions of domestic arrangements, which
led some to want to push the boundary of legitimate public concern well
towards the private end of the scale. In the context of debates about fertility,
however, the trend has been somewhat reversed, with many writers arguing
instead for strict limits on the degree to which the public can encroach on
women’s decisions about their bodies (Cohen, 1996).
What Raymond Geuss does, summarized in the quote above, is to point out
that in part such conflicts arise because the concepts ‘public’ and ‘private’ are
not things one can draw a sharp line between, but instead depend very much
on the particular purposes and values that we have in mind when wanting to
make the distinction, and that those purposes and values are the things we
should be focusing on, not attempting to foreclose debate by appeal to the
categories public and private. Geuss makes particular use of Dewey’s definition
of the public as being ‘all those who are affected by the indirect consequences
of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have these
consequences systematically cared for’ (Dewey, 1924: 12). Geuss (2001: 84)
argues that this is relative in four senses:
… first, it depends on the level of social knowledge of the possible consequences
of acts. Second, it depends on what we allow or disallow to count as ‘consequences’
of action. Third, it also depends on the value judgments of the members
Democracy and Public Space
50of the society and thus on their views and decisions about what consequences
‘need’ to be controlled. Finally, it depends on an initial decision about who is
considered to be ‘directly concerned.’
Thus, for Geuss, any appeal not to interfere with something because it is
private is tautological: it ‘says that we should not interfere because that is
the kind of thing we think we ought not to interfere with’ (2001: 84). The
same formulation clearly applies to claims that something is public: we should
interfere with this other thing because it is the kind of thing we think we
ought to interfere with. To repeat, appeals to the publicity or privacy of
something are actually appeals to other values that are bundled up in the
labels ‘public’ and ‘private’.
We can discern four broad categories of things that people commonly
appeal to under the guise of public and private. Drawing on the rather diverse
resources of Dewey (1924), Arendt (1958), Waldron (1988), and Geuss (2001),
we can include in the ‘public’ bundle the following ideas:
1. Freely accessible places where ‘everything that happens can be observed
by anyone’, where strangers are encountered whether one wants to or
not, because everyone has free right of entry (Geuss, 2001: 52). This is a
concept very similar to Arendt’s first sense of ‘public’ (1958: 50). These
are places where the spotlight of ‘publicity’ shines, and so might not just be
public squares and market places, but political debating chambers where
the right of physical access is limited but informational access is not.
2. The things that concern, affect, or are for the benefit of everyone,
Arendt’s second sense of ‘public’ (1958: 52). This realm includes
‘common goods’ (Hardin, 1968), goods like clean air and water, public
transport, and so on; as well as more particular concerns like crime or the
raising of children that vary in their content over time and space,
depending on the current state of a particular society’s value
judgements and discursive battles.
3. The people or groups that have responsibility for that realm covered in
(2), which might include rulers, or ‘public figures’, or might be defined
more broadly to mean all of us: ‘the public’ as a noun, not an adjective.
4. Things which are owned by the state or the people in (3) and paid for out
of collective resources like taxes: government buildings, national parks in
most countries, military bases and equipment, and so on.
In the private bundle, we can include the following:
1. Places that are not freely accessible, and have controllers who limit access
to or use of that space.
2. Things that primarily concern individuals and not collectives, following
Dewey’s formulation.
Theorizing Public Space
513. The people who primarily deal with such items; or rather, following the
distinction made in the previous chapter, the roles that people play
when they are so dealing, referring to the common distinction between
politicians’ ‘private’ commercial and family interests and their ‘public’
roles managing collective resources and concerns.
4. Things and places that are individually owned, including things that are
cognitively ‘our own’, like our thoughts, goals, emotions, spirituality,
preferences, and so on.
There are several points to note here. First, it is important to separate out
items 1 and 4 on both lists. At first glance, the ownership criterion may not
appear to be separate at all. For some theorists, the right to limit access flows
from ownership of a particular space or thing, so that ownership defines
whether something is public or not (Pennock, 1980). This may seem to be
obviously the case when it comes to some kinds of property – my home, my
briefcase (Christman, 1994: 6) – but not so obvious when it comes to others. In
Britain, for example, National Parks are made up of privately owned parcels of
land, but people have the right to wander across that land uninvited and with
remarkably few restrictions. A few years ago, I heard a representative of English
Heritage bewailing the loss of open access to ‘public space’ that occurs every
time a church, privately owned by the Church of England, is sold and converted
into a home or flats (BBC, 2005): village churches especially are usually
unlocked and accessible by anyone, whether they are confirmed members of
the church or not. Equally, there are buildings and spaces that are public in the
sense that they are owned by the state and consume common resources, but to
which there are more limited rights of entry: national parks in most other
countries, military facilities, the offices of government departments, and even
This only seems confusing when we fetishize ‘public’ and ‘private’ and treat
them as single concepts. In the briefcase and home example, what is really at
stake is not privacy per se, but protecting individual autonomy, individuals’
projects, thoughts, desires, and predilections from interference by other people,
again because we think that these are things that other people should not
interfere with. In the military case, what is really at stake is the value of secrecy
when it comes to the instruments of national security, and while we might
want the military to be subordinate to elected leaders and accountable for
their actions and inactions, that does not mean that we need to insist on full
public accessibility – to do so, it is often argued, would be to undermine their
effectiveness. So again, the public/private distinction is not really doing any
work here: other values are at stake.
The ownership dimension can also be misleading because it divides goods
into separate packages that can be assigned to some particular individual
Democracy and Public Space
52Waldron, 1988: 38–41). However, some kinds of good are not separable: they
cannot be subdivided without destroying them, and involve and affect many
people without distinction. One obvious example is clean air: parcelling up
ownership of the airspace above separate territories on the ground is common
practice in terms of things like air traffic control, but is problematic when it
comes to industrial air pollution when emissions from privately owned
chimneys come to affect not only the lives of people near the plants
concerned, but people thousands of miles away. This is one of the issues
that have caused so many problems for the United Nations’ various climate
change protocols, with the competing demands of some industries and
countries to be able to pollute ‘their’ air coming up against the demands of
others to reduce global emissions as part of a fight against distant environmental
impacts and global warming. As will be seen shortly, some kinds of
space are best characterized in this ‘public good’ fashion, under heading two
above, and not as publicly owned goods under heading four.
The second major point to note is that item 2 on the public list might seem
to put things unjustifiably in terms of human use. Here, I am thinking of green
theories of value in which the natural world has intrinsic value, not instrumental
value solely in terms of its utility for humans (Goodin, 1992). To the
extent that humans have a role on some versions of these theories, it should
be restricted to a duty of guardianship, not a right of exploitation. That might
well be true, but it strikes me that this is one of those contexts in which Geuss
would exclaim, ‘Exactly!’ The right debate to have is not whether the natural
world is ‘public’, but whether it has innate value that should be respected by
humans or whether it is merely a resource for our use or some combination of
the two, and thus how humans should treat it. The public/private label forecloses
that debate.
Third, there are many things that do not seem to fit neatly into either
bundle. For example, think of cultural practices of ethnic minorities that
primarily concern their collective but not the whole society, assuming for a
moment that those living inside the boundaries of a given state are the
relevant people to include in the ‘whole’ society. Think of debates over the
wearing of headscarves in France, or the denial of speaking rights to women at
many Maori formal occasions in New Zealand, or First Nations whaling along
the north-west coast of the United States and Canada. This suggests that the
way I have characterized the bundles above is too dichotomous, too ‘all or
nothing’ in character, and that there are intermediate collectivities between
everyone and the individual that might include family, clan, caste, ethnicity,
and so on. Solving this problem is partly the point of Arendt’s triple distinction
between private, social, and public. Again, however, appealing to the
public–private distinction, or a private–social–public distinction, is to foreclose
more useful debate on the values that are actually central to such cases,
Theorizing Public Space
53uch as how majorities should treat cultural minorities, indigenous and otherwise,
living in the boundaries of given states.
Fourth and finally, as Geuss is at pains to point out, the bundles are not
internally consistent: things that appear public on one criterion can be private
on another. However, I am going to postpone discussion of this point for a
moment because I want to illustrate it with examples from public space. The
important conclusion for now is this: a general discussion of public and
private gets us only a short way, and to go further we need to contextualize
more. Therefore, it is now time to ‘spatialize’ the discussion, to see if we
can distinguish what ‘public space’ might be, and I start by taking the four
categories of public above and applying them to space.


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