Arguably the most important facet to consider when one is examining the social and cultural developments within the European Enlightenment is the rise of the public sphere. What gave rise to what many historians now regard as the birth of the modern middle class in Europe is debated to be the result of numerous factors. Within Europe, the birth and rapid spread of the coffeehouse gave rise to an open public space for people to meet and discuss issues of common concern. This was the first time in which social interactions between non-elites became commonplace in Europe.

The effects of modernisation and urbanisation had an additionally significant impact on the public sphere; the rising urban population, general population growth and improvements to communications in the 18th and 19th centuries created a greater number of possibilities for intellectual exchange between members of the public. Records from this period reveal that both private and state-run libraries were in existence during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, and as more middle class people became literate, accessibility to information became correspondingly widespread as the number of publications released continued to increase during this period.

The Protestant Reformation had an extremely significant impact on the public sphere as individuals began questioning the Catholic Church and its practices, particularly in the Northern and Western parts of Europe, for the first time. Changes in political structures, such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain meant a greater impetus for involvement in the running of one’s own states and therefore aided in the growing interest in the exchange of ideas.

External influences also had an impact on the public sphere; by the 18th century, most European states had considerable colonial holdings, which allowed their countries to be exposed to new cultures and lifestyles. However, it must be remembered that the public sphere that the Enlightenment gave birth to was still considerably limited; though non-elites were becoming involved in experiences previously only available to the upper echelons of society, these experiences continued to exclude both women and the working class, an imbalance that would only be rectified during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.