Coffeehouses of the Enlightenment: A Study of the Public Sphere in London, Paris and Edinburgh


The Enlightenment marked a period in time where the public sphere became a normalized concept. Public sphere, in the context of this specific period, is defined as the platform that facilitated public discourse on matters that were normally confined to the elites of society. The same platform thus made political and scientific ideas more accessible in public discourse. This definition of public sphere is founded upon Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which argued that the establishment of the public sphere gave science and philosophy a new “cultural authority” that wasn’t in place during the Scientific Revolution. The public sphere, as social construct, took place in both tangible and intangible forms. For example, the public sphere could exist through long-distance communication via subscription to the same periodicals or through face to face interaction in a public space. It could also exist as a congregational space for urbanites. One of the popular spaces that made up the public sphere was the coffee houses that sprung up around Europe when the first one was established in Venice in 1645. The notion of the public sphere often alludes to the idea of a highly accessible and democratic space – where anyone could voice out whatever opinion they want. However, it would be wrong to suggest that coffeehouses – as a quintessential venue of the public sphere – were fully democratic and inclusive. As explained below, European coffeehouses during the Enlightenment were not entirely free of of social and political restrictions. Firstly, coffeehouses during the Enlightenment were a traditionally masculine space and did not include or attract women. Secondly, as illustrated in selected historiographies, not all coffeehouses and their patrons were respected as intellectual powerhouses. Some of them were, instead, viewed with disdain as a second-rate debate platform. This paper will first introduce the theory of social space that first emerged during Enlightenment. It will then explain how coffeehouses emerged as an important venue for public discourse during the Enlightenment in three different cities: London, Paris and Edinburgh. In addition, it will examine the extent it functioned as democratic space and its inclusion of the varying European demography.

The public sphere and the Enlightenment

The theory of the public sphere has its origins in the feudal society of Europe. Prior to the Enlightenment, the church, royal families and nobilites had a monopoly on “publicness” – meaning that they were able to control what was published in the art and media. Their monopoly, however, took a turn with the rise of capitalism in the continent as the bourgeoisie had established a private sphere that was independent of the church, the court and the government. This expansion meant that bourgeois control of the public sphere had transformed from being a “literary” outlet to one that is “political.” Despite the transition, the dissemination of information remain a critical element in the construction of the public sphere. The Enlightenment could be seen as a “tendency, rather than an [organized] movement” where the application of reason was implemented with the target of social improvement. Information was seen as an instrumental role in developing the human capacity, as well as the ability to process the natural and the human environment. Furthermore, the Enlightenment also valued information as the thread that linked the different cosmopolitan centres in the continent. The web of intra-continental intellectual discourse was crucial for the establishing the ranks of intellectual predominance and shaping the cosmopolitan character of the Enlightenment. The multilateral links of intellectual discourse aligns with contemporary interpretations that there is no one, single cohesive event of the Enlightenment but rather a series of local movements that formed it.


By definition, coffeehouses were public spaces open to anyone who was able to pay for a drink. Literature, such as periodicals and other print media, was available for interested patrons, and popular notable publications like the Tatler and Spectator were typically available. The availability of such literature allowed coffeehouses to brand itself as the “key site for the performance of civilised sociability,” which was then considered to be the “basis of liberty and improvement.” As a typically male space, coffeehouses were also seen as as “civilised alternative” to the violent atmosphere of the tavern. Men who were part of intellectual associations, such as the Select Society, frequented coffeehouses and used them as meeting places or as an extension to associational activities. When coffee houses became prominent in the early seventeenth century, they were seen as a social threat as they were deemed to be blurring the social ranks of Europe. Social strata of the Enlightenment categorised knowledge and expertise as “key elements of social hierarchy” and it was a universally agreed concept. The new structure of public sociability meant that issues could be discussed on the “basis of equality and without social differentiation in the fore” – and this ability was one that is opposed by many. For example, in France, the philosophes were scathing about what they presented as the “superstitious ignorance of the peasantry.” The peasants’ perceived inability to fully understand new and complex information was presented as one of the justifications for why they should not attempt to be involved in intellectual discourse. This justification was also used to oppose social mobility during the era.

Similarly, in Britain, dissemination of information amongst the public could not be separated from the conversation about social class. Thomas Villiers, a British diplomat during the Enlightenment, wrote about the consequences of the democratization of information among common men during the War of Austrian Succession, arguing that the desolate and convoluted nature of politics was not well-suited for all men:

“the independent country gentleman … must not take it amiss if those, labouring for the public good, don’t always give the great attention he thinks his lamentations deserve. I look upon him as one of the happiest animals when he keeps himself clear of politics; but if once infected, he is more miserable than if he had the plague.”

Villiers’ remark exposes the inseparable concepts whereby the ability to grasp complex political issues was tied to the burden of knowing its dark side. The reputation of coffeehouses, however, took a turn in eighteenth century: they became known as the “bedrock of urban sociability” and, by extension, of “national liberty and improvement.” The emergence of European coffee houses coincides with the expansion of material publication in the beginning of the 18th century. This complementary relationship was particularly evident in Britain following the implementation of the Licensing Act in 1695. The introduction of the new law changed how information was defined, acquired, used and classified during the era.

Parisian coffeehouses: networking platforms for the philosophes

Symbolically, coffee houses were known as the place of congregation for intellectuals of the Enlightenment, along with their ideas. In The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World, Jeremy Black describes the extent which coffeehouses facilitated radical discussion among the philosophes of the 18th century. Parisian coffeehouses served as the preferred meeting points for its members and, to illustrate the range and prominence of the cafes, among them included: Café Procope, Café Palais-Royal, Café Rotonde, Café Gradot and Café Laurent. Apart from the utilizing the apparent amenities, the philosophes were able to express “irreverent” views freely, albeit by no mean without precautions. Debates that were held at the coffeehouses frequently revolved around the great questions posed by Newton and Voltaire, but that also by Bayle as Diderot was highly immersed in the work of the former. The transmission of critical ideas led to the Parisian cafes becoming a point of contention between “radical-minded atheists” and “non-providential deists.” Parisian cafés also served as an important location for many landmark events of the Enlightenment’s intellectual movement. In the mid 1740s, when most of the younger philosophes broke away from Voltairianisme, coffeehouses were a crucial forum in allowing this drama to play out.

Parisian cafes also served as a place of networking for the philosophes and were consequently responsible for advancing the career of many intellectuals. The coffeehouse served as a central point for a member of his group to meet his colleague: for example, Diderot met Rosseau at a Cafe de la Regence. In addition, the cafes also served as a platform for the philosophes to meet local publishers, including those who were able to put out “clandestine works.” It was via his presence at cafes which allowed Diderot to foster close relations with Laurent Durand, who published Pensees Philosophiques and Les Bijoux indiscrets. Furthermore, Diderot’s publication of his Encyclopedie would also not have been possible without a connection he made at his cafe: Antoine Claude-Briasson, who became one of the four publishers of the text. Briasson’s entrepreneurial force was highly influential in making the Encycolpédie a success. The Encycolpédie was one of the prominent Enlightenment projects that is a quintessential vernacularized example of what was previously an elite discourse. Created to mobilized the propagandic ideas of the philosophes, the text was an attempt to translate Ephraim Chamber’s Cyclopaedia (also known as An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published in 1728.) The project was particularly crucial for Diderot, as he believed that as people became informed of such ideas, they would become “more virtuous and happier.” The publication of the Encycolpédie, enabled by the connections made by Diderot and his publishers, exemplified the importance of the coffeehouses as a physical space for networking among intellectuals. It acted as gateway for the their ideas to reach a greater public readership. Thus, Coffeehouse was not only a place where exchange of ideas could occur but was also an important mechanism that allowed for the dissemination of ideas among the public.

Whiggish control in London coffeehouses

Similarly, in London, coffeehouses – which first emerged in the city in 1650s – played an instrumental role in the proliferation and politicization of the public sphere. French novelist and author Abbé Prévost, in 1729, described London coffee houses as “the seats of English liberty” and a platform where the “government’s affairs [became] a concern of the [common] people as of the great.” These coffee houses were important in the dissemination and exchange of information, ideas and criticism, and their prominence was exemplified in the fact there were 551 of them in city in 1739. They attracted reporters from the gazettes and public newspaper and thus transformed the place into a “political stock-exchange.” Customers patronizing the coffeehouses not only to consumed their beverage of choice in morning but also acted as news mongers who wanted to pick up on the latest lead, particularly that which revolved around politics and the royalty. Conversations and interactions in the coffee houses did not abide by social constructs or rules that existed externally, meaning that men of different social classes were engaging in political discourse with one another.

However, while it should be noted there was a sudden emergence in cross-class discourse, the existence of such social interactions did not mean that Britons were experiencing a revolution in her social order. In Mr. Spectator and the Coffeehouses, Brian Cowan explores the relationship between the democratization of intellectual discourse in the newly established public sphere and the negative reception of it in post-Reformation England, along with how spaces like the coffeehouses are used to advance Whiggish political control. Cowan bases his study on Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, who’s author had gained an understanding of coffeehouses from the works on Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. The two English authors were famous for their periodical journalism that included the Tatler (1709-11), the Spectator (1711-14) and the Guardian (1713). While mainstream understanding of coffeehouses – with imageries of men reading literature and immersing in rigorous intellectual discourse – is often seen as the archetypal venue for booming social democratization of the Enlightenment, Cowan insists that it isn’t necessarily the case. Instead, he argues that the Spectator project – a term used to denote the collaborative oeuvre of Addison and Steele – attempted to “close off and restrain, rather than open up” pathways for public debate, especially those pertaining to political matters. This agenda was particularly evident in the fact that the Spectatorial essays in the later years of Queen Anne’s reign was visibly “a reaction to the high Tory resurgence” of the era. In other words, it seeked to promote “a positive image of urban sociability” where it had previously been used as the foundation for Tory satire and mockery. The fashioning of the coffeehouses formed a part of what Cowan categorised as the Whiggish motive for the disciplining and suppression of the “political public-ness” identified by Habermas. The suppression is a reflection of the Whiggish aims in construction a social order that would be friendly to the survival of Whig politics in an era where the future of Whiggery was uncertain.

In addition, Addison and Steele’s criticisms of London coffee houses were highly visible in their publications. Men who frequented the coffeehouses were caricatured as “newsmongers … who had an inordinate interest in the affairs of other countries.” Stories of these supposed newsmongers were often published as cautionary for those who would become too engrossed in coffeehouse news and chose to neglect their personal and professional responsibilities. Criticisms of newsmongers and coffeehouses extended well beyond the Spectator project. In post-reformation England, when news is labelled as “coffeehouse discourse,” it implies that it lacked in “value and trustworthiness.” The lack of credibility in ideas fermenting in the coffeehouses also applied to the patrons who partake in them. Men who participated heavily in coffeehouse news mongering were often labelled as “coffeehouse statesmen” or “coffeehouse politician” – term used to denote their amateur status in political discourse. Jonathan Swift described coffeehouses as “unreliable gossip centers” and remarked them as a place unworthy of a visit. The negative reception of London coffeehouses, along with the people who frequented them, demonstrates the disjunction between the imagined and the reality of the Enlightenment’s public sphere. As Cowan concludes, there was “a powerful tension [that existed] between the accessibility and the exclusivity of the social, the cultural, and the intellectual histories” of the coffeehouses.”

Reflections of Enlightenment gender theory in Edinburgh

While close examination of the coffeehouses in London unearthed the political undertone of the space, the ones in Edinburgh exhibits the gender divide that is reflective of Enlightenment social theory. In Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland, Rosalind Carr explored the gender stratification of public coffeehouses and noted that coffeehouses – with the activities of intellectual debate that took place in them – were often seen as a masculine site for homosocial activity. Similar to the majority of societies and clubs, coffeehouses in most parts of Britain were typically male spaces. The idea of coffeehouses being a masculine space then poses the question of where women would situate in the rise of coffeehouses as a public space. Female participation in the public sphere during the Enlightenment was mostly confined to the “passive” roles of hostesses in salons, where they mostly served for the benefit of male philosophes. Evidence of lack of female presence in the public sphere was not limited to the stereotypical high-traffic and popular meeting places. In the same book, Carr notes that there is little or no evidence of women-specific clubs or societies existing in eighteenth century Scotland. Thus, this observation then concludes that there were limits to cross-gender interactions and socialization in the public sphere during the era of Scottish Enlightenment, and it was a limit that was intentionally imposed. Carr argues this denial of female participation in the Scottish Enlightenment intellectual culture was a result of “the importance of the feminine to development of [male sensibility.]” This meant that female social roles were constructed accordingly to complement those of males. This is particularly exemplified – in the context of the public sphere – by the idea that the ability for men to have conversations with feminine women was seen as “an achievement”, made possible by the women who were willing to accomodate. This social convention, according to Carr, is founded upon the theories of gender pushed by intellectuals of the Enlightenment. Women, characterised by the Enlightenment ideology, were understood as bearing a greater “capacity for sympathy, a willingness to show emotion, and a natural aversion to conflict.” As a result, women were valued for their roles “as feminine complimentary beings,”in the development of public civility rather that the roles of being active, vocal actors that males were appreciated for at the time.


The prominence of coffeehouses in the Enlightenment demonstrate the manner in which social spaces were used to deliver the functions of the public sphere. The dissemination of information was a frequent activity that occurred and it transcended patrons of different social classes. Coffeehouses were also an important location for intellectuals to discuss and promote their ideas. It served as networking platform that popularised their idea to the greater the public. Additionally, coffeehouses also gave common men the ability to engage in intellectual discourse that they previously would not have the opportunity to do. However, this does not mean that coffeehouses were a truly liberal site where apolitical discourse could take place.  Studies have shown, in certain cities such as London, that coffeehouses were used advance to the political ideology of certain fractions. Furthermore, coffeehouses were also seen as a second-rate venue for debate and condescending views were also applied to the patrons who were involved in the conversations – deeming them as uninformed and uneducated. This differing image of coffeehouses challenges the historiographies of the urban hub where they have often been understood as a highly intellectual and bourgeois space. Finally, it is crucial to note that coffeehouses were socially exclusive with the aspect of gender. Coffeehouses were traditionally masculine spaces and the female presence was limited. This limitation is primarily founded upon the Enlightenment theory that women were better fit as passive actors in social settings. To conclude, coffeehouses of the Enlightenment bore certain traits as a democratic and inclusive space for the intellectuals but there was a limit to this inclusion for the greater European demography.


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