The Dichotomy of the Private and the Public

Michael Nagenborg

This papers has been presented at the workshop Privacy and Surveillance Technology - Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Feb 10-11, 2006) at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Bielefeld. English translation by Mirko Wittwar.

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It is not an easy task to speak about "privacy" from an inter-cultural perspective, as

1) the concept of privacy can be considered a part or product of western culture.

At least, the concept of privacy seems to be closely connected to 18th century liberal thinking, and also traces of Christian thinking can be discovered. This does not mean that other cultures have no ideas of that what we call "privacy". However, we should be aware of the fact that our idea of privacy is rooted in western thinking.

2) Even within western culture it is not at all clear how "privacy" could be defined and why we should appreciate it.

In the German discourse on information ethics e.g. the question if "privacy" could be translated by "Privatheit" or "Privatsphäre" is definitely unanswered for the time being (Kuhlen 2004, Nagenborg 2005). And obviously it is problematic to demand from us to appreciate something for which it is unclear what it really is - even if many authors agree with the statement that "privacy" can be considered a value, at least for the western cultures.

In my opinion, difficulties of defining "privacy" result a. o. from the fact that often there is trying to find a short and precise definition of "privacy" as such. On the one hand, I am convinced that "privacy" cannot be reduced to a simple formula, on the other hand I think that we make this task unnessecarily difficult if we do not at the same time consider that what is not private. Thus, my topic is called the dichotomy of privacy and publicy.

Now, Anthony Geuss in his book "Public Goods, Private Goods" (2003) tried to show that the differentiation between private and publc is not appropriate for philosophy, as there is no substantial differentiation between that what we call "private" or "public". In his opinion, it is wrong to answer the question "why should we not interfere with this?" by "because it is private". Much more, he says, at first there should be asking the question of why we want to distinguish privat from public in this or that case. In this respect I do not want to contradict Geuss. The statement "we should not interfere with something, because we believe it to be private" , however, is not always tautological, as Geuss claims, if we take "we" in "we believe" seriously: not the individual decides about what is private, but we believe something to be private. This is also what I mean when considering privacy a part of our culture.

But what does "culture" mean and what does "intercultural" mean? The first part of my lecture shall be devoted to this question.

In the second part I will describe an example of separating private from public in the western culture. I thus do not intend to present a complete theory of the western culture of "privacy". But I hope to be able to show that we are definitely able to speak of "privacy" from an inter-cultural perspective.

For What Do We Need a Concept of Culture? 

This question was asked by Dirk Baecker in his book "Wozu Kultur" (3rd edition, 2003). His answer is:

We need a concept of culture only if we are in contact to other cultures, to be able to state differences between cultures.

Every culture is inter-cultural in so far as it defines itself by being different from other cultures. As in European history the modern concept of culture has been a concept of self-reflexion, it is not surprising that we must assume that the conept of culture is itself a product of western cultures, and that those which we describe as "other cultures" do not even need to have a concept of culture.

In order to explain this definition, I like to offer a short overview of the concept of culture in European history in the following. By help of this I want to differentiate between ancient, early-modern, modern, and post-modern concepts of culture.

The characteristic of early-modern concepts of culture is to define "culture" as being different from "nature". This orientation towards "nature" is given up by the modern understanding of culture. In Britain during the 19th century, e.g. in T. S. Elliot, we find an idea of culture which understands it to be opposite to "civilization" and "modern society" , while in Germany at the same time "culture" and "society" were thought to be opposite to the "individual". Thus, it is e.g. not unimportant that the founders of culture studies, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, developed their wide understanding of culture by critically discussing the British concept of culture of the 19th century (Winter 1999, Jung 1999).

Let us thus shortly state: even in Europe during the 19th century there were different ways of understanding culture, and today´s variety of concepts of culture is also due to the fact that certain concepts of culture have been developed to make them different from other concepts of culture.

When answering the question "what is culture good for?", Dirk Baecker at first reaches back to the early-modern understanding of culture, whose development he dates to the middle of the 17th century.

The concept of culture was used to explain different ways of life of people whose behaviour, although being accepted to be "human", were different from one´s own habits. That what was common for everybody could be explained by man belonging to "nature". The differences, on the other hand, were explained by belonging to a certain "culture".

In the reverse sense it is also true that we expect the members of our own culture to behave in a certain way in certain situations. In so far, also a certain expectation regarding the behaviour of members of one´s own culture belongs to the modern concept of culture.

One characteristic of the (early-)modern concept of culture is that "culture" is understood to be an independent entity, while in antiquity there is always speaking of the "culture of something". With the example of agri cultura, this "something" is the land which must be cultivated by man to let something grow which man needs. But despite all which man is able to care for by his cultivating there is something more - e.g. nature - without which there will be no growth.

The loss of the genitive of culture, the loss of this "of something", in modern times can be explained by "culture" becoming a concept of society´s self-reflexion. Man does not longer understand himself to be a part of nature but to be different from nature, due to his culture. "Thus, "culture" becomes a feature of modern man, even if some - like e.g. Rousseau - doubt that "culture" must always be prefered to "nature".

The idea, however, that there are people who are happier because they have not been corrupted by "culture" - the idea of the "noble savage" - is not without problem in one respect: if the early-modern understanding served also for accepting humans as humans, even if ways of life were different, now the idea is brought up that there are humans having less culture or no culture at all. During the age of colonialism this idea is to have terrible consequences. Now, the non-existence of culture or the supposed superiority of one´s own culture serves for justifying violence against members of supposedly less developed cultures.

In my opinion, post-modern criticism of the modern concept of culture is triggered off most of all by the fact that "culture" has seldomly been used (and still is not) in a descriptive way but mostly in an assessing way. "Culture" is not used to explain the difference between cultures but also to claim differences which often were constituted and kept up by violence. All "the terms ... which we use to ... describe a foreign or our own culture ..." does it say in Baecker while following Jaques Derrida are "...terms infected by violence ..."

Also the idea that certain groups of people (e.g. a race) are supposed to have a certain kind of culture, or that a culture which is considered a particularly valuable culture depends on the existence of a certain race as its bearer, can lead to violent excess.

Because of this, Baecker suggests to say good bye to the demand for "inter-cultural competence", as the prefix "inter" always emphasizes that differentiation between different cultures which inter-cultural dialogue pretends to overcome. In his opinion, instead of insisting in differences between "cultures" it is necessary to get rid of expectations towards ourselves and others which we have due to belonging to a certain culture.

For the time being, however, in my opinion maintaining an inter-cultural perspective seems to be helpful at least in so far as the concept of culture reminds us to the fact that there are different ways of human life - and that possibly our own way of handling certain problems is not the only one.

In the second part of my lecture I would now like to consider the separation of privacy and publicy the solution of such a problem.

Why Do We Need a Concept of Privacy? 

In the introduction I agreed with Geuss on the importance of the question of why we like to differentiate between the private and the public in a certain context. And I have already indicated that I consider this differentiation an attempt at solving certain problems.

In this context I would like to restrict myself to problems resulting from the handling of information. About some kind of information we say that they should be public, others, however, are considered private.

At first, let us ask ourselves: which kind of information should be made public, e.g. by mass media? I think that most of you will agree with suggesting politically relevant information, and at first I think of information as being exchanged in parliaments. Thus, I think e.g. of laws and other decisions concerning the citizens of a country.

Furthermore, we think that information of this kind should be open to everybody, as we want the citizens of a country to make decisions on the basis of this information by e.g. voting for a certain political party. Thus, in a democratic society information is not only made accessible to everybody to let them know about it but because we expect them to use this information for their judgement. Thus, we do not only expect them to know a law but also to judge on the question if a law is good or bad. In short: information is made public to be used.

The way in which information is handled is at the same time part of reporting on political decision processes. We expect these decision processes to follow certain rules. Distinguishing the private from the public is such a rule. On the one hand we expect private opinion not to play a role for the process of decision making, on the other hand we expect that nobody will be excluded from the process of decision making only because of his private opinion or attitude. This means that certain matters - i. e. private matters - should not be presented publicly, as we think that they would negatively influence the process of decision making.

Thus the problem, whose solution might be in distinguishing the private from the public, is: how could we make sure that decision making process happen in accordance with certain criteria? And the solution is: by making them public and by taking care that private interests do not play any decisive role.

An example of information which these days are (should) not be used publicly is e.g. information about a speaker´s sexual preferences. A presented argument may be correct or wrong, but is is not correct or wrong because it is presented by a homosexual. Thus, in most cases we do not expect somebody to refer publicly to his sexual orientation in order of emphasizing his argument; and also we do not expect an argument to be doubted because it is presented e.g. by a homosexual.

Here, the crucial point is our expectation that information regarding somebody´s private life is not used in the above mentioned context, even if publicly known. We may allow ourselves to be confused by the fact that the possibility to keep our private lives secret or to maintain anonymity may serve for protecting our private lives. But privacy cannot be confused with secrecy or anonymity just because of this (Nagenborg 2005). In respect of political decisions the separation of the private and the public serves most of all for deciding about which information may be used for the decision making process, which should be public.

Thus, this might be an answer to Geuss´s question of why we want to differentiate between private and public information in the political public. By the way, I chose the example of "politics" also because I agree with Geuss´s opinion that the origin of distinguishing is most probably to be found in the field of political acting (Geuss 2003).

This answer may also offer an indication of why I think that we have a critical view at surveillance: since the goal of surveillance is collecting information about people without telling us for which purpose they are used - while at the same time we have a clear imagination of how they might be used. After all, all of us have read "1984" or have watched the film or at least have heard about Michel Foucault´s texts on the panoptical society ... - which brings us back to culture.

Is it really a good idea to approach the problem of privacy in the inter-cultural context by way of the dichotomy of private and public, which particularly means also considering the private a part of one´s own culture? I think I am able to answer this question by a double "yes".

Yes, as "privacy" at least in the field of information ethics is often only considered a good worth being protected, so that "privacy" as a value plays a role most of all for the discourse on data protection in respect of the individual use of media. In this context there is often forgetting that our concern with the use of media can hardly be explained if we ignore how much our idea of media is connected to our idea of politics. Our idea of politics is again connected to a ceratin idea of publicy, without which we would find it difficult to explain why e.g. the private should not be made public.In my opinion, our culture does not only distinguish itself by appreciating "privacy" but also by taking care for that which should be public.

And, yes, in my opinion even in respect of an inter-cultural perspective it is necessary not to ignore the separation of the private and the public. It is not at all decisive in which way there is distinguishing but that there is distinguishing - for I think that the necessity of distinguishing private from public information does not only exist for the western culture. Certainly, I used a lot of typically western terms, e.g. "information" and "politics", but still I am convinced that in many cultures there is asking how information should be handled and in what way there could be distinguishing different kinds of information from each other. This would make it possible also for members of different cultures to speak about distinguishing certain kinds of information within their respective cultures - and maybe on this basis a member of western culture might succeed with explaining why we need a concept of privacy.

Concluding Remark 

My hope that it is possible to speak about "privacy" from an inter-cultural perspective is based on the assumption that we use the concept of culture to explain differences between cultures, while at the same time accepting members of other cultures as humans with whom we share a common nature.

In my opinion, this common nature becomes obvious by the existence of certain problems for which every culture must find a solution if it wants to survive. As humans, we must e.g. eat and drink, humans die and are born. There are different possibilities to deal with these problems. As members of a certain culture we may eat with a fork and a knife, with chopsticks, or with our hands - but as humans we must eat. And I also think that handling information is such a problem for which each culture must find a solution.

At the end of my contribution, however, I would like to remind to the fact that due to our history we are suspicious of attempts to explain to us what our culture should be like or what should be a part of our culture and what should be not.

Even if up to here I have always started out from the assumption that our idea of privacy is a feature of our western culture, it cannot be overlooked that seemingly many members of our culture do not think that the protection of the private is a great value. In my opinion, this can be explained also by the fact that in the past maintaining the separation of the private and the public often came along with prohibitions and regulations which were considered a restriction of individual freedom. I think e.g. of rules of etiquette which demanded discretion regarding certain topics and situation. The fact that privacy became a problem of ethics indicates the loss of these habits which we may also understand to be the expression of a certain culture.

Just this fact, however, may result in normative ethics being rejected if it demands a certain handling of information, as this is perceived as interfering with the cultural sphere. Thus, even if we may very much welcome the inclusion of an inter-cultural perspective into ethics, it is not at all clear which role ethics play, should play and are allowed to play for our culture. This we should not forget when looking at "privacy" as a cultural phenomenon.


Baecker, Dirk (2003): Wozu Kultur? Dritte Auflage. Berlin: Kadmos.

Jung, Thomas (1999): Geschichte der modernen Kulturtheorie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Geuss, Anthony (2003): Privatheit. Eine Genealogie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Nagenborg, Michael (2005): Das Private unter den Rahmenbedingungen der IuK-Technologie. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.

Winter, Rainer (1999): Die Zentralität der Kultur. Zum Verhältnis von Kultursoziologie und Cultural Studies. S. 146-195 in: Karl H. Hörning und Rainer Winter (Hrsg.): Widerspenstige Kulturen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Kuhlen, Rainer (2004): Informationsethik. Konstanz: UVB.

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