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German original in: Über Habermas. Gespräche mit Zeitgenossen, ed. by Michael Funken, Darmstadt: Primus 2008. [Table of Contents] [Introduction] [more information] (all in German)

German version is available as a pdf file.

Mike Sandbothe

Habermas, Pragmatism, and the Media

An Interview with Mike Sandbothe

Translated by Kenton E. Barnes


Mike Sandbothe (1961) describes himself as a pragmatist in the tradition of Richard Rorty and promotes media philosophy as a new field of study and practice inside and outside of academia. He investigates the meaning and function of sensory, semiotic and technical media of communication, especially with regards to the desired democratization of political communication. This urge links him with the political intellectualism of Habermas; however, the pragmatist renunciation of large-scaled theories as well as a strong emphasis of sustainable development in cultural and educational policies separate him from Habermas. Sandbothe currently works as a prolific author, film producer, and media advisor in Denmark, Finland and Germany. -- The interview was conducted in German as a contribution to a volume that will appear in Germany in October 2008 in honor of Jürgen Habermas’ 80th birthday at 18. June 2009.

Practicing His Own Theories

How did you meet Habermas?


In the 80s in Dubrovnik, when I was a student I was invited to an international seminar at the Inter-University Centre. At that time, Nietzsche was my inspiration. The Habermas school was of little interest to me because I thought it to be a school of very Germanic, administrative thought. While in Dubrovnik, I took part in a course taught by Josef Simon and Wolfgang Müller-Lauter, both Nietzsche experts. However, another course, which was taught by Habermas, was held at the same time. I thought I could go in and give it a try. That was the time when Habermas was fighting Nietzsche and the post-modernists with all means using academic invectives like arbitrary thinking, irrationality, irresponsible, fascistic. And in this kind of somewhat condemning mode, I encountered him for the first time.

I got to know Jürgen Habermas somewhat better in Bamberg at the beginning of the 90s. I was a research assistant there in the Philosophy Department, where Walther Ch. Zimmerli organized the annual Hegel-week. Hegel had worked as a journalist in Bamberg. However, the Hegel-week was more of a PR-event, which was targeted to a large public outside the academic realm. It provided philosophy as an experience, incarnated by famous personalities. Among the lecturers were Gadamer, Jonas, Spaemann, and von Weizsäcker – but not Habermas. He had refused the invitation several times. Finally, he said that he would gladly come for two or three days to visit a philosophy course for advanced students.


Was there a reason for the refusal to participate in the Hegel-week? Perhaps because it was nothing more than a show?


I think that was one of his reasons. Just like he doesn’t appear on television, he also tries to avoid events where he is only supposed to represent philosophy, and where he is not invited to discuss, or to engage in discursive argumentation. So I got to know him as someone who is very sensitive to the media dimensions of philosophy in practice.


Did he come to the philosophy course?


Yes, he did come and that was exquisite – philosophical argumentation at the highest level: the clarity of his formulations, as well as his openness to criticism. Wolfgang Welsch, who at that time was a firm representative of post-modernism, taught in Bamberg. He examined Habermas’ criticism of post-modernism from a meta-critical perspective. Habermas let himself get involved in the discussion – much different than in Dubrovnik.

Later, in 1998, I saw Habermas at the Otto von Guericke Guest Lecture Series in Magdeburg. As a young assistant professor I was working there together with Wolfgang Welsch, who moved from Bamberg to Magdeburg and who was the coordinator for the Guericke series. Rorty also gave a talk at the series, by the way, in German. Then, when Habermas came to Magdeburg University, I realized the following: German academic culture encourages graduate research assistants to provide service outside their major field of study by taking responsibility for tasks that in other countries are realized by the specialized staff of the press office. Interestingly, it was important to Habermas right from the start, that none of the department’s research assistants or graduate students would be relegated to conduct such services for him. For example he didn’t want anyone to pick him and his wife up from the train station. Instead, they found by themselves their way through the city to the university. And he took pains to treat all the professorial assistants as colleagues. He made it a point to invite all of us young researchers to discuss our work with him. I found it remarkable that he didn’t want to be treated as a star, but rather as a colleague who was meeting other colleagues.


Living egalitarian thinking?


Yes. I saw him as a philosopher, who practiced his own theories. In my opinion, that is what is missing today! Philosophy that is reduced to a spectacle or simple historical talk from old authors does not rev up the engine of the philosophical spirit. Instead, intellectuals who intervene without being asked to, and who use their talents to sharpen the public debate accomplish that. Therefore, I am very glad that there is a Habermas. After Rorty died, Habermas became the figure to lead his public life in a manner that demonstrates convincingly what morally involved philosophy can accomplish. In this regard, his political, application-oriented publications show the way forward.

With Rorty for the Enlightenment

Rorty was a friend of Habermas. Rorty, the liberal ironist, who rejected the quest for timeless “truth” as metaphysical fundamentalism – and Habermas, who, with moral seriousness, made a great effort to try to save exactly this quest. Isn’t that amazing?


No, it isn’t. Both championed communicative action in democratic societies and argued for candour of discourse, for lucidity of arguments, for honesty in argumentation, but with different rhetorical strategies. Concerning the ideals of the Enlightenment – reduction of cruelty and humiliation, and the increase of solidarity – Habermas and Rorty share the same hopes. The basic differences are as follows: Habermas still feels the urge to justify the political ideals of the Enlightenment by the quasi-scientific means of theoretical philosophy. According to Rorty, it was admittedly useful to replace the authoritative claim of religion with a secular authoritative justification (called Reason) in the historical transition from a religious feudalism to a secular culture that emerged in the 18th Century. But only because this temporary substituion made the departure from religious authority more palatable. Rorty means that this bridge, which was built by philosophers in the 18th century, is needed less and less as more effectively democratic institutions establish themselves and their citizens internalize the appropriate practices of communicative discourse.


Rorty said, for example, in the discussion on the range of human rights, that the West should try no final justifications, but rather achieve human rights in practice. That creates a big chasm, doesn’t it!


Rorty did not consider the universalization of the democratic life forms as a theoretical work, but rather as a practical activity. You cannot convince people to become democratic with theoretical arguments. Instead, you have to set an example by living democracy.


Discourse theory raises a specific form of communication to an always already recognized, uncircumventable, and in a pragmatic way, transcendental basis of rationality and ethics. What do you think about that?


Anyone, who more or less looks for transcendental foundations for rationality and ethics, will find in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action (1981) a modern solution to this problem, which is, at the same time, a brilliant, systematic-historic inquiry. The difficulties that I, as a pragmatist, have with Habermas’ theory of communication begin from a different level. My reservations concern the issue whether the search for an uncircumventable foundation for rationality and ethics can and should still have an important role in the 21st century.

As a professional philosopher, Habermas made this search his life’s work. But he himself consciously distinguishes that kind of professional academic work from his role as a democratic citizen and intellectual. His statements regarding questions about Germany’s Nazi past and its reunification, the two Iraq Wars, European unification, bio-ethics, or global warming are activities that Habermas as a citizen and intellectual, so to speak, practices unsolicited outside his academic fields of expertise: they are activities of a human being who uses his argumentative and rhetoric skills to publicly join in the current political debates.

From a pragmatist point of view the crucial question becomes: how are the two different roles related to each other? With a certain focus on the transcendental-philosophical theme, this question may be reformulated in the following way: Does Habermas, as an intellectual, need the transcendental certainty that he, as an academic philosopher, with regard to the foundations of rationality and ethics, makes available to us? Or could the intellectual citizen, Mr. Habermas, accomplish his public interventions without reference to the result of this philosophically sound work of his academic twin brother, the Professor Habermas?

The pragmatist answer is clear and simple. It claims that cultural politics work in the 21st century without reference to the transcendental. Even more: it functions better and operates democratically more consistently, if it renounces authoritative requirements of a transcendental philosophical kind. For me, as a media philosopher, Habermas, the intellectual, has never been so valuable and important as he is today. For those argumentatively and rhetorically skilled people, who wonder if professional philosophy today could once again take the place that the Philosophy of Enlightenment occupied earlier when it had the power to foster a democratic renewal, Habermas’ public work as an intellectual gives a concrete role model they can follow.


Essentially, Habermas relies on the written word. Is that, from a media philosophical point of view, an anachronism?


In one of his most personal and private texts, Habermas describes how, early on, his articulatory handicap sharpened his awareness of the body as a media of communication, and that his nasalization was potentially one of the biographical reasons why he is so much convinced of the superiority of the written word.[1] However, he goes one step further. Habermas considers his physically caused "retreat into the precision form of written expression" as a private germ cell for one of the most fundamental distinctions of his theoretical philosophy, i.e. the distinction between naive participant perspectives (communicative action) and the perspective of the reflecting observer (the discourse). What Habermas here provides us is a kind of auto-psychoanalytic philosophy of his individual media ecology applied by himself via his own history of life and thought.

Instead of pursuing abstract and purely theoretical reflections on the "mediality" of the media - as they are wide spread in the German academic media discourse (Sandbothe, 2008) - Habermas intervenes directly as an active transmitter in media practice and uses the technical mass media in his own way. He likes watching television, but avoids television appearances. He enjoys using electronic mail, but keeps his email address secret. He also doesn’t like to pick up the telephone. But he knows how, in which newspaper, at what time, and about what topic he has to place his articles.

In his work since The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Habermas has set the analytical standards for modern philosophy of media and communications. Media philosophers, who want to progress from the diagnosis via therapeutic counter-balancing of certain imbalances of the modern media system to a purposeful media-ecological transformation, can only profit from the standards set by Habermas. Pragmatist media philosophy supports a more balanced and democratic relationship between the different media. To that extent media pragmatists like myself problematize the priority of the written language before the non-linguistic media as it is theoretically defended and consequently practiced by Habermas in his written cultural-political interventions into the public sphere.

Limits of Habermas’ Approach

Conservative philosophers have accused Habermas of raising a certain method of communications – the academic discourse – to a norm; do the boundaries of a Habermasian communications theory lie therein?


The boundaries of Habermas’ communications theory are connected with his individual media ecology, as well as with certain constraints of professionalized academic philosophy and furthermore with a bunch of cultural-historical configurations of the modern media world. The adherence to the philosophical quest for a transcendental certainty, the praise of the analytic and scientific perspective of the observer as prior to the transformative and designing perspective of the participant or the bias towards the linguistic forms of rationality in contrast to non-verbal media: these constraints are stable pillars of Habermas' philosophy, but at the same time they also mark some of the problematic limits of his approach from my point of view as a pragmatist media philosopher.

Within the Frankfurt School there are attempts to go beyond Habermas’ fixation on language as being ‘the’ distinguished media of communicative reason. Matthias Vogel has gone the farthest. In his book Medien der Vernunft (Media of Reason) (2001) he tries to show that non-linguistic media such as music and painting can assume a similar, quasi-transcendental founding function with view of rationality and ethics as the written or spoken word have in Habermas’ thinking. For this purpose Vogel goes back to the non-linguistic conditions of the possibility of language acquisition and develops a generalized concept of media. This concept defines media "as certain quantities of activity types which are constitutive for us as mental beings".

Interestingly enough, Habermas doesn’t engage himself in media-theoretical deductions of this kind. He has, to a large extent, finished his work on internal theoretical questions and now is mainly occupied with keeping his theory in motion and adapting it for the different fields, regarding which it can be applied. He seems to me like someone, who has built himself (and others) an instrument and now tries to work with it in a careful, normative, goal-oriented way. As a pragmatist, I like that. If I have a look at the way Habermas evaluates, for example, images on the television, by using his theory of communicative action, he has a normatively well defined standard for the communicative quality of the public media sphere. But he does not make this standard into an absolute. It is clear to him that the function of mass communication is something other than the function of face-to-face conversation. He uses his theory and makes suggestions as to how a public media sphere in the transition from national to trans-national political structures could look like. His thoughts on the Europeanization of national public spheres is important and path-breaking. So is his critical analysis, which he orients to flattening tendencies by the large daily newspapers and the commercialization of the Internet. I consider that to be a very sensible form of intellectual argumentation and a quite useful type of cultural political intervention with the transformation of media today: it constitutes media as a constructive tool for the reflected public, without a discourse character of its own, but with the potential to ensure an opinion-forming transfer between political system and society.

At present the independence of this kind of public sphere is endangered and with it the deliberative basis of democracy. This danger is caused by worldwide tendencies as privatization, globalization and safety-political functionalization of the media system. Media-philosophical intellectuals today have an important task of revealing and actively intervening (into) these developments. A transcendental deduction of the conditions of the possibility of image and sound or a deepening phenomenology of ‘the audiovisual’, do not really help us to solve burning practical-political problems; even if from an academic point of view, the aforementioned special concerns of a professionalized theoretical philosophy of media can, of course, be very exciting.

For these and other reasons, we media pragmatists suggest that the quest for philosophically founded certainties may be deferred for a while. Media pragmatists hold that the biased priority of the observer perspective experimentally should be replaced by a more balanced understanding. Al Gore, Naomi Klein and Michael Moore, but also, Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin or Orson Wells supply current and historical examples of the activities which pragmatist media philosophers may perhaps increasingly exercise in the future. They thereby extend the performative mode of their work and thus the definition of ‘philosophy’. The American-Finnish duo of pragmatist media philosophers, Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen, in an interesting and very innovative way formulated and realized this opening strategy in their book Imagologies. Media Philosophy (New York: Routledge 1994). The long lasting hegemony of the observer’s perspective is being undone more and more. Besides the established methods of participating observations, the practice of a so-called observing participation is emerging which is the morally responsible production and reflecting co-design of a political public sphere. Not only in the written text, but also by intelligent use of media such as the analog and digital image, the spoken and sung word, musical sound, body language, gestures, facial expressions, dance, pantomime, performance - and all this in real space as well as in the cinema, the theatre, on television and in the Internet.


The forgotten Jaspers or the classic Heidegger – to which of the two thinkers will Habermas be compared in 30 or 40 years?


With Rorty the answer would be clear: He, himself, would have assumed that he (Rorty) will suffer Jaspers’ fate. Rorty saw himself as a moderator between great philosophers like Habermas, Davidson and Derrida. And he would be adamantly convinced that in 30 – 40 years these three also would appear in academic philosophy text books as the most important figures of the second half of the 20th century. The possibilities are also quite impressive: one must only look at the power-politics of academic institutions and consider what kind of training the people who will write these text books are likely to have received. History is mostly written by enthusiastic imitators as well as pupils and members of influential academic sects. The Habermas School is surely one that will exhibit a number of great encyclopedia of philosophy writers.

I believe that Habermas will attain a similar status for the coming generations like Kant has for us today. However, the increasing marginalization of the role of academically professionalized philosophy makes the comparison difficult. But Kant would be comparable, because he is influential beyond school borders and we see him highly involved and actively intervening in the political public sphere of his times – just like we see Habermas today. Derrida, as the more literary, more poetic and more private master thinker, would then be seen as being similar to Nietzsche, who gave birth to a dancing star – and whom one in 50 years will still find exciting. Finally one could compare Davidson to Frege: logical-technical austerity, puritan purity, but hardly known beyond certain professional circles.


As what kind of figure could Habermas enter philosophical history?


Surely as the precise theoretician and cultural-political co-designer of a secularly understood democracy; a democracy taken not merely as a vision or a hope, but rather as a concrete political practice lived and politically organized in the western national states in and after the Age of Enlightenment. Habermas writes on the basis of the experience of historical processes of materially institutionalized democracy. He does not only do this in an abstract or formal manner like John Rawls and others, but in the concrete contexts of historically unfolding constellations. And furthermore, in my judgement, Habermas brings the philosophical attempts of the so-called final justification (“Letztbegründung”) to an end: The quasi in Habermas’ quasi-transcendental already says everything. If one is searching for quasi-transcendental foundations, then one knows that one actually needs no philosophical foundation for democracy anymore.

A Selection of Literature

Sandbothe, Mike, et al. (Eds.). The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy. Contemporary Engagementsbetween Analytic and Continental Philosohy, Albany: SUNY, 2004 (German original: Weilerswist: Velbrück, 2000).

Sandbothe, et al. (Eds.) Medienphilosophie. Beiträge zur Klärung eines Begriffs.(Contributions to the Clarification of a Term.) Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2003.

Sandbothe, Mike. Pragmatic Media Philosophy. Foundations of a New Discipline in the Internet Age. Online publication:, 2005 (German original: Weilerswist: Velbrück, 2001).

Sandbothe, et al. (Eds.) Systematische Medienphilosophie. (Systematic Media Philosophy.) Berlin: Akademie, 2005.

Sandbothe, Mike (Ed.). Wozu Wahrheit? Eine Debatte. (What’s the use of Truth? A Debate.) Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2005.

Sandbothe, Mike. „Media and Knowledge. Some Pragmatist Remarks about Media Philosophy Within and Beyond the Limits of Epistemology“. Online Publication:, 2008 (print version: Nordicom, 2/2008; German original - Online publication:, 2007).

Sandbothe, et al. (Eds.) Pragmatism as Cultural Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (German original: Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2009).

[1] Jürgen Habermas, „Public Space und Political Public Sphere. The Biographical Roots of Two Motivs in my Thought“. in: Between Naturalism and Religion. Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Polity, 2008, pp. 11-23.

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