Roberto Mangabeira Unger

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Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Roberto Mangabeira Unger (born 24 March 1947) is a philosopher, politician, and law professor whose writings span the fields of social theory, philosophy of law, economics, religion, science, and general philosophy. Widely known as a key figure in the Critical Legal Studies movement, Unger has developed an intellectual project that proposes changes to political and social structures that would make society and individual lives more open to self-revision, fulfillment, risk-taking and experiment.


The Critical Legal Studies Movementː Another Time, A Greater Task (2015)[edit]

  • One of the greatest merits of the critical legal studies movement was to have created an intellectual space in which law and legal thought could be better used to resist the dictatorship of no alternatives. Its limited but important contribution to such resistance was the development of ideas about alternatives, made from the contradictions and variations in established law. The greatest failure of the movement was not to have embraced and executed this task more fully.
    • p. 15
  • One way to clarify the origin and character, if not the justification, of the ideal inspiring our programmatic institutional ideas is to say that our program arises from the generalization of aims broadly shared by the great secular doctrines of emancipation of the recent past—both liberal and socialist—and by the social theories that supported them. At the heart of each of these doctrines lay the belief that the weakening of social divisions and hierarchies would reveal deeper commonalities and liberate productive and creative powers. The theoretical and practical consequences of this belief were drastically constricted by dogmatic assumptions about the possible forms of social change and their possible institutional expressions. We have attacked the second set of constraints and therefore, by implication, the first. The result is a more generalized or radicalized version of the social ideal. Our attack on these constraints has led us to rethink the content of the progressive cause.
    • p. 104-5
  • [T]he quest for a social world that can better do justice to a being whose most remarkable quality is precisely the power to overcome and revise, with time, every social or mental structure in which he moves.
    • p. 105

The Religion of the Future (2014)[edit]

  • We can establish universally an education that recognizes in every child a tongue-tied prophet, and in the school the voice of the future, and that equips the mind to think beyond and against the established context of thought and of life as well as to move within it. We can develop a democratic politics that renders the structure of society open in fact to challenge and reconstruction, weakening the dependence of change on crisis and the power of the dead over the living. We can make the radical democratization of access to the resources and opportunities of production the touchstone of the institutional reorganization of the market economy, and prevent the market from remaining fastened to a single version of itself. We can create policies and arrangements favorable to the gradual supersession of economically dependent wage work as the predominant form of free labor, in favor of the combination of cooperation and self-employment. We can so arrange the relation between workers and machines that machines are used to save our time for the activities that we have not yet learned how to repeat and consequently to express in formulas. We can reshape the world political and economic order so that it ceases to make the global public goods of political security and economic openness depend upon submission to an enforced convergence to institutions and practices hostile to the experiments required to move, by many different paths, in such a direction.
    • p. 29
  • [T]here is a path of ascent, requiring and enabling us to undergo a transformation of both society and the self, and rewarding us with an incomparable good. The incomparable good is a greater share of the attributes of the divine, or eternal life, or a greater life, with higher powers, making us more godlike.
    • p. 121 (explaining the religious tradition Unger calls "struggling with the world")
  • For the struggle with the world, ordinary men and women have the spark of the divine. They are embodied spirit, unresigned to belittling circumstance. They can ascend, whether or not with the help of divine grace …. It is not just that the lowly are equal to the lordly and that the vulgar forms of sensibility are as revealing as the hieratic or canonical ones. It is that the lowly and the vulgar are higher. They are higher because they are freer from the posturing and vigilance—over himself and others—that prevent each of us from coming closer to what Shakespeare called the thing itself: unaccommodated man. The more orphaned ordinary men and women are by the established powers of the world, the more reason they have to find the divine within themselves and to struggle against the constraints that established arrangements impose on their rise to a larger life and a higher state of being.
    • p. 135
  • By the structure of society, I mean the institutional and ideological presuppositions that shape the routine practices, conflicts, and transactions in that society, and that are largely taken for granted, even to the point of being invisible, as if they were part of the nature of things. In a free society, this institutional and ideological framework does not present itself as an alien fate beyond the reach of the transformative will and imagination.
    • p. 295
  • In a free society, the individual has the educational equipment, as well as the economic and political occasion, to cross the frontier between the activities that take the framework for granted and those that bring it into question. He has been educated in a way that enables the mind as imagination to become ascendant over the mind as machine. He has learned to philosophize by acting, in the sense that he recognizes in every project the seed of some great or small reformation.
    • p. 295
  • It has been a continuing theme of this book that our commitment to any approach to the problems of existence (the overcoming of the world, the humanization of the world, and the struggle with the world first among them) can enjoy no definitive justification. Its demands always exceed, immeasurably, its grounds for making them. It says, “Follow me.” It can never give a conclusive reason to do so. All that it can do is to make an incomplete argument and a defeasible appeal. It cannot escape the circularity in all our large-scale transformative projects: for better or worse, each of them is a partly self-fulfilling prophecy. If it is embraced and it works, it remakes part of experience in its image.
    • p. 298-9
  • In our advance to a greater life, we confront an initial obstacle. Unless we remove or overcome this obstacle, we can rise no further. We spend our time in a daze of diminished existence, neither awake nor asleep. We resign ourselves to compromise and routine, seeing the world through the categories of the prevailing culture or the methods of established ways of thinking. We reconcile ourselves to the mutilation of our experience that we begin to accept when we entered on a particular course of life. We allow ourselves to be subdued by the carapace of diminished experience that formed around is, as we grew older. For the vast majority of men and women, overwhelming economic necessity and drudgery overwhelm and disguise a stupefaction that would otherwise be apparent. For the increasing number of people who, with the material progress of society, are released from grinding material constraint, there is no disguise. In this way, we cease to live as embodied spirit: as the context-bound but context-resisting agents that we really are. That which is most precious—life itself—we give away in return for nothing. We belittle ourselves, wrongly mistaking our belittlement for a fate as inescapable as our mortality, our groundlessness, and our insatiability.
    • p. 356
  • Openness to the new is the virtue that describes the moral consequence of the doctrine of the relation of spirit to structure. The religion of the future inherits this doctrine from the struggle with the world, and radicalizes it. This virtue acts out the human truth of our relation to the settled contexts of our life and thought. That they are ephemeral and defective, that they cannot accommodate all the experience and insight we have reason to value, that there is always more in us, individually as well as collectively, than is, or ever can be, in them are facts giving us persistent reason to rebel against such structures.
    • p. 385

The Left Alternative (2009)[edit]

First published as What Should the Left Propose? (2005)

  • In history obedience rarely pays; what pays is defiance.
    • p. 8
  • A deepened, high-energy democracy does not seek to replace the real world of interests and of interest-bearing individuals with the selfless citizen and with the all-consuming theater of public life. It is not a flight into republican purism and fantasy. It wants to enhance our ordinary powers, enlarge the scope of our ordinary sympathies and ambitions, and render more intense our ordinary experience. It seeks to do so by diminishing the distance between the ordinary moves we may within institutional and ideological contexts take for granted and the extraordinary initiatives by which we challenge and change pieces of those contexts. Its agent and its beneficiary are one and the same: the real thing—the frail, self-interested, longing individual in the flesh, the victim of circumstance whom no circumstance can ever completely or definitively confine.
    • p. 30-1
  • The reader should understand that this book forms a small part of a larger intellectual program: a struggle against fate through thought, an effort to give new meaning and new life to projects of individual and social liberation that for the last two hundred years have shaken and aroused the whole world, a fight to imagine the forms that those projects can and should take if they are to have a future.
    • p. 187
  • I have pursued this intellectual program by building a radical alternative in social theory to Marxism, by recasting legal thought as an instrument of the institutional imagination, by proposing particular institutional alternatives for the organization of the economy and the state, and by developing a philosophical conception of nature and mankind within which history is open, novelty is possible, and the divinization of humanity counts for more than the humanization of society.
    • p. 187-8
  • I belong to the generation of 1968, which, throughout the world, hoped to recast society on the model of the imagination. I have tried to learn from disappointment and defeat, but I have not despaired. "If the fool would persist in his folly," wrote William Blake, "he would become wise."
    • p. 188

Free Trade Reimaginedː The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics (2007)[edit]

  • The movement of people and ideas is ... more than useful; it is sacrosanct. It forms part of the process by which the whole human race becomes both one and diverse, and makes itself more godlike, by affirming in the individual as well as in the species, its preeminence over the particular social and cultural worlds that it builds and inhabits. Both the movement of people and the movement of ideas can unsettle and frighten us, driving us back into ourselves. They can also inspire us to reimagine and to remake our interests, our ideals, and even our identities, by beginning to detach them from the settings with which we habitually associate them. Each of them is therefore an invitation to open ourselves to the new, in a world in which every man and woman has a better chance to become the original that he imagines himself to be.
    • p. 210

The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound (2007)[edit]

  • The individual, his character, and his fate are for real. Each individual is different from every other individual who has ever lived or who will ever live. A human life is a dramatic and irreversible movement from birth to death, surrounded by mystery and overshadowed by chance.
    • p. 18
  • We live among particulars, but we always want and see something more than any particular can give or reveal—thus our restlessness, our boredom, our suffering. We are certain to die, although we find in ourselves tokens of undying spirit—thus our sense of living under the pressure of an intolerable contradiction between our experience of selfhood and our recognition of the unyielding limits nature imposes on our existence. We can see only dimly beyond the boundaries of the social world that we ourselves make—thus our confusion, our inability to place our undeniable suffering and our apparent accomplishment within a context of all contexts that would keep them safe from doubt and denigration.
    • p. 24
  • The single idea that resounds on every page of this book is the idea of the infinity of the human spirit, in the individual as well as in humanity. It is a view of the wonderful and terrible disproportion of that spirit to everything that would contain and diminish it, of its awakening to its own nature through its confrontation with the reality of constraint and the prospect of death, of its terror before the indifference and vastness of the nature around it, of its discovery that what it most shares with the whole of the universe is its ruination by time, of its subsequent recognition that time is the core of reality if anything is, of its enslavement to orders of society and culture that belittle it, of its need to create a world, a human world, in which it can be and become itself even if to do so it must nevertheless rebel against every dogma, every custom, and every empire, and of its power to realize this seemingly impossible and paradoxical program by identifying, in each intellectual and political situation, the next steps.
    • p. 26-7
  • In an age of democracy and of peaceful or warlike communion among all parts of humanity, philosophy, like poetry and politics, must be prophetic. The content of its prophecy is a vision of how it is that we may respond, right now and with the instruments at hand, to the experience of being lost in a void that is made up of time, into the beginning and end of which we cannot see, and that is indifferent to our concerns. It is a prophecy of the path of our unchaining and of our ascent in a world of time, in which we remain always bound to death and forever denied insight into the ultimate nature of reality.... No philosopher or philosophical tradition in the last two centuries has had a monopoly on this prophecy. It is everywhere.
    • p. 27
  • Philosophy is a concentrated deployment of the transgressing facilities of the mind.
    • p. 30
  • A central thesis of this book is that the connection between thought and practice is most intimately and fully realized only when our minds are addressed to our own affairs—the concerns of humanity. When we direct our thoughts to nature, even if to see ourselves as fixtures of nature, we loosen the connection between thought and practice. When we loosen it, we are tempted to assume the posture I earlier called naturalism. We survey both the human and the nonhuman worlds from a supposedly godlike distance. We treat the achievement of such distance as the realization of our longing for transcendence.
    • p. 32
  • Futurity should cease to be a predicament and should become a program: we should radicalize it to empower ourselves. That is the reason to take an interest in ways of organizing thought and society in ways that diminish the influence of what happened before on what can happen next. Such intellectual and institutional innovations make change in thought less dependent on the pressure of unmastered anomalies and change in society less dependent on the blows of unexpected trauma.
    • p. 41
  • A radicalized pragmatism is the operational ideology of the shortening of the distance between context-preserving and context-transforming activities. It is thus a program of permanent revolution—however, a program so conceived that the word “revolution” is robbed of all romantic otherworldliness and reconciled to the everydayness of life as it is.
    • p. 57
  • The structures of society and culture are fighting turned to stone; they are what comes into existence so long and insofar as we interrupt our practical and ideological struggles over the organization of life in society. When the fighting escalates again, the structures dissolve into the collective action and imagination from which they arose. When we fashion structures design to invite their own reconstruction, we make them into both superior instruments of our power and more faithful reflections of our humanity.
    • p. 63
  • The arrangements of society and culture are fighting petrified; they survive in the interruption or containment of practical and visionary strife. The more society and culture are organized to increase the distance between our context-preserving and our context-transforming activities, the more these arrangements take on the appearance of natural facts. They appear to us as givens, as our collective fate. Indeed, that is what, in a sense, they then become.
    • p. 69
  • ... the impulse of iconoclasmː refusing unconditional reality and value to the contingent and flawed worlds we build and affirming that there will always be more in us, individually and collectively, than there can ever be in them. The most complete expression of this iconoclastic commitment is the development of forms of life and consciousness that provide us with the means and occasions to resist and reform them. In this way, they save us from having to choose between engaging wholeheartedly in them and keeping the last word, of resistance and transcendence, to ourselves.
    • p. 70
  • By marrying experiment to speculation, we put ourselves in a dimmer version of the circumstance of the Creator. We remake nature or we imagine it remade. By this expedient we free ourselves, if only partly and tentatively, from suspicion of our beliefs, and we live once again, unafraid, in the light of the actual.
    • p. 80
  • We cannot form and enhance personality without encouraging strong impulse and strong vision in the individual. Such impulse and such vision must seek a collective voice and a social expression.
    • p. 123-4
  • To explore the countercurrents of consciousness in a given circumstance—uncertain promises of other futures; to trace the struggle between spirit and structure in every domain of social and cultural life; to show how vision becomes embodied in institutions and practices and, in being embodied, is both undermined and corrected, but in any event transformed; to reveal how we forfeit our freedom to imagine and reconstruct, and then regain it, even against our will; to commandeer alien wisdom the better to criticize the established order and present experience; to give voice to what has lost a voice or not yet gained one; to display in every department of our experience, from the micro to the macro and from passion to calculation, the revolt of the infinite within us against the finite around us—all this is the work of the humanities when they recognize us for what we are and might become.
    • 124
  • The vitality of the individual ... depends on his success in fashioning a character resistant to the narrowing of experience, to the rigidity of response, and to the consequent constriction of possibility that surrender to a hardened version of what the self implies. "He was so extremely natural," said Santayana of William James, "that there was no way of telling what his nature was, or what came next." It is an observation that states an ideal, suitable to the ambitions of personality under democracy. The point is not to make war against habit or to make war against one self. It is to fashion a style of existence, a mode of the self, in which we lower our defenses enough to strengthen our readiness for the new, our attachment to life, and our love of the world.
    • p. 130
  • It may seem strange that there can be a structure for breaking all structures and that it can have a precise, limited form, and be built to particular specifications. Yet we have two major examples of such a structure in our experience. One is the mind as imagination. The other is society, progressively recast on the model of the imaginationː organized to shorten the distance between our context-preserving and context-transforming activities and to diminish the dependence of transformation on crisis.
    • p. 132
  • If society is organized to insulate its own arrangements from challenged and change, and thus to give itself the semblance of a natural object or an alien fate, the noncomputable and the nonmodular aspects of the mind will remain no more than a penumbral light around the darkness of computability and modularity. However, as society acquires the features of democratic experimentalism, those aspects become central to the life of the mind. The hold of the innate mental faculty on our experience gets turbinated by a political construction.
    • p. 132-3
  • There is one type of functional advantage that enjoys in this dark struggle unique status and deserves special attention. As the force of path dependency in history wanes, and as different forms of life and consciousness get more jumbled together, this force gains in importance. It is negative capabilityː the power to act nonformulaically, in defiance of what rules and routines would predict, a power that may be inspired and strengthened, or discouraged and weakened, by our arrangements and practices as well as by our ways of thinking and feeling.
    • p. 134
  • From negative capability, embodied in institutions, practices, and modes of consciousness, a wealth of practical competitive advantages result. However, negative capability is not merely a source of such advantages; it is a direct manifestation of our godlike power to outreach the established settings of action and thought and to split the difference between being inside a framework and being outside it. History, we may suppose, selects for this advantage more powerfully and above all more quickly than any form of natural competition for reproductive success, at the level of the species, the organism, or the genotype, can exert selective influence. Negative capability is power to the mind in its least modular and computable aspectsː mind-making continued through politics.
    • p. 134
  • We shall melt down, under the heat of repeated pressure and challenge, all fixed orders of social division and hierarchy, and prevent them from working as the inescapable grid within which our practical and passionate relations to one another must develop.
    • p. 142
  • We can, we must, jumble up the categories of reform and revolution, preferring change that, though perforce piecemeal, may, in its cumulative effect, become revolutionary.
    • p. 143
  • [W]e still depend on crisis as the midwife of change, and we must learn to arrange things so that we may depend on it less. Yes, but the particular forms of the advance always remain obscure and controversial. We cannot even agree whether they should occur chiefly at the subnational, national, or supranational levels; whether the ideas that animate them should appear as local heresies—or as a universalizing heresy—doctrines, as liberalism and socialism were in their day that convey a message to all humanity; and how we should understand and practice the relation between change of institutions and changes of consciousness. Because the forms of change are obscure and controversial, they will continue to give rise to conflict and even to war. They will be dangerous. Yes, but all of this will take place, or fail to take place, in the long time of history, not in the short time of biography. We cannot wait; we must find a solution for ourselves nowː a way of foreshadowing in life as we can now live it that which the species has yet collectively failed to achieve.
    • p. 143-4
  • I ask myself in this bookː on what assumptions about the world and the mind, the self and society, do these beliefs—mere translations and developments of a creed that has already taken over the world and set it on fire—continue to make sense? Within what larger combination of ideas can we ground, develop, and correct them?
    • p. 144
  • The struggle for counterfactual insight—the attempt to see what things might become along a periphery of possible next steps around how things are now—presents us with what at first seems to be a conundrum of the understanding.... If we cannot close the configuration space of the possible states of affairs and bring them all under the regime of a closed and timeless set of laws, we cannot be sure that we shall be able to fight our way back from our flight of causal inquiry to the recovery of the phenomenal world in its visionary immediacy. We shall be unhappy because our consciousness of the world will remain divided between the poetry of experience and the science of nature.... There is an aspect of our mental life in which we enjoy such a reconciliation. However, its presence there instead of reassuring us ought to arouse and disturb us all the more. It should do so both by suggesting what we lack in the remainder of our conscious experience and by implying that the reconciliation is a mirage, never to be grasped. Dreams regularly join two features, the combination of which eludes us in our waking livesː counterfactual insight and visionary immediacy.
    • p. 157-8.
  • Philosophy is neither a discipline among others nor the master discipline. It is the imagination at war, exploring what the established methods and discourses do not allow to be thought and said.
    • p. 233
  • We do not live that we may become more godlike. We become more godlike that we may live. We turn to the future to live in the present. The practices by which we invent different futures bring down upon us a storm of impalpable meteors. The risks to which these practices subject us, the commotions, the hurts, the joys, strike and break the coats of armor within which we are all slowly dying. They enable each of us to live in action and in the mind until he dies all at once.
    • p. 236-7.
  • Imagination over dogma, vulnerability over serenity, aspiration over obligation, comedy over tragedy, hope over experience, prophecy over memory, surprise over repetition, the personal over the impersonal, time over eternity, life over everything.
    • p. 237

Democracy Realizedː The Progressive Alternative (1998)[edit]

  • We cannot wait until we agree upon the truths of a new social theory to think and act as democratic experimentalists. We must find the ideas our efforts and commitments require, and try to make no assumptions that the facts of social reality and historical experience invalidate.
    • p. 15
  • If I propose something distant, you may sayː interesting, but utopian. If I propose something close, you may answerː feasible but trivial. In contemporary efforts to think and talk programmatically, all proposals are made to seem either utopian or trivial. We have lost confidence in our ability to imagine structural change in society, and fall back upon a surrogate standardː a proposal is realistic if it approaches what already exists. It is easy to be a realist if you accept everything.
    • p. 29
  • The driving force in the world economy is fast becoming a global confederation of productive vanguards. The vanguards established in different parts of the world drive one another forward. They trade with one another. They transfer personnel, technology, and organizational practices among themselves. Above all, they emulate one another.
    • p. 32
  • In Brazil as in the United States, we find two voices of a New World promise of happinessː a promise to raise up human life to the exuberance of nature itself while breaking down the hierarchies and privileges that keep people distant from one another. A society of originals whose enhanced powers and self-possession enable them to accept one another more fully is the aim of this American and Brazilian dream. Translated into another, more universal vocabulary, this longing represents one form of the effort to reconcile a pagan ambition of greatness with a Christian idea of tenderness, purging the former of its impulse toward masterfulness and the latter of its knack for resentment. Thus, empowerment and solidarity can come more fully together.
    • p. 126
  • Democratic experimentalism sees the core of the good of human liberation in a softening of the tension between two great competing demands upon our vitality and greatnessː the need to engage in group life and the need to diminish the price, in subjugation and loss of self-identity, that we regularly pay for such engagement.
    • p. 165
  • The relation of politics to personality in this deepening of democracy has a scope broader than the need to economize on political virtue. One way to explore this relation is to consider the bearing of a program like the one outlined here upon two great sources of human sadnessː the loss of vitality and the disproportion between such vitality as we keep and the activities normally available for its expression.
    • p. 248
  • The partnership between the progressive school and the deepened democracy may help to nourish the childlike intensity of ordinary people as they grow older.
    • p. 249
  • Any casual observer of humankind will have been struck by the incongruity with which we may lavish great passion upon the trivial, the frivolous, and the ephemeral or upon collective crusades to which, suddenly and with little reason or reflection, we sacrifice everything. When ordinary men and women, living in the ordinary situations society offers them, move beyond the domain of their most intimate personal relations, they often find little to deserve their surviving intensity—little other than the great historical storms that occasionally sweep them up or fanciful individual escapes that remain disconnected from their daily lives.... A program like the one outlined here remains united to the cause of progressive thought by its emphasis upon the liberation of ordinary people from drudgery and humiliation.
    • p. 250-1

What Should Legal Analysis Become? (1996)[edit]

  • A democratic experimentalist will not stand waiting for the next magical moment. Rather than have us be crowned by history, he will insist that we crown ourselves.
    • p. 20

Social Theoryː Its Situation and Its Task (1987)[edit]

  • This enlarged view of the radical cause ... allows us to connect leftism and modernism, the radical politics of institutional reform and the radical politics of personal relations, a political vision obsessed with issues of dependence and domination and a moral vision concerned with the inability of the individual to gain practical, emotional, or even cognitive access to other people without forfeiting his independence.
    • p. 7
  • The struggle against arbitrariness, as violence and as deception, requires people to build a society that is less hostage to itself. No central aspect of its arrangements must be left invisible or immune to challenge in the normal course of our routines of conflict and exchange. Objectivity is achieved not by holding fast to a given structure, resolutely contrasted to the hell of force and fraud, but by rendering the structure insubstantial—by turning it, increasingly, into the structure of no structure. This is the realistic next best to the visionary ideal of a circumstance in which all hierarchies and divisions have fallen down forever. The next best consists in the circumstance in which these hierarchies and divisions are repeatedly dragged out into the light of struggle and revision.
    • p. 45-46
  • Here, then, is another way to understand the intentions of the social theoretical project that this critical analysis of the contemporary situation of social thought prepares and suggests. Philosophical disputes about the social ideal have increasingly come to turn on an unresolved ambivalence toward the naturalistic premise, an incomplete rebellion against it. The visionary imagination of our age has been both liberated and disoriented. It has been liberated by its discovery that social worlds are contingent in a more radical sense than people had supposed; liberated to disengage the ideas of community and objectivity from any fixed structure of dependence and dominion or even from any determinate shape of social life. It has also, however, been disoriented by a demoralizing oscillation between a trumped-up sanctification of existing society and would-be utopian flight that finds in the land of its fantasies the inverted image of the circumstance it had wanted to escape; disoriented by the failure to spell out what the rejection of the naturalistic view means for the vision of a regenerate society. The social theory we need must vindicate a modernist—that is to say, a nonnaturalistic—view of community and objectivity, and it must do so by connecting the imagination of the ideal with the insight into transformation.
    • p. 47
  • To understand society deeply is always to see the settled from the angle of the unsettled. The settled is the region or the moment where relationships become fixed and, through their fixity, take on a specious aura of necessity. The unsettled is the experience that discloses the perilous, uncertain, malleable quality of society. By seeing the settled unsettled or by looking toward the disturbances that take place in its vicinity, we begin to understand how the settled really works and what it really is.
    • p. 65
  • The imagination works by a principle of sympathy with the suppressed and subversive elements in experience. It sees the residues, memories, and reports of past or faraway social worlds and neglected or obscure perceptions as the main stuff with which we remake our contexts. It explains the operation of a social order by representing what the remaking of this order would require. It generalizes our ideas by tracing a penumbra of remembered or intimated possibility around present or past settlements, and it then subhjects this enlarged sense of possibility to the tests of further comparison and practice. By all these means it undermines the identification of the actual with the possible.
    • p. 204
  • [T]wo moments, of trance and struggle, mingle in the real life of societyː an undercurrent of conflict and disbelief always counteracts the routines of dependence and deference. Society, no matter how impregnable it seems to its inhabitants, always stands at the edge of the cliff. The petty practical quarrels and normative disputes, endlessly refought to reproduce a social world in the face of divergent interests and changing circumstance, can escalate at any moment into broader and more intense conflicts that put this world at risk.
    • p. 205

False Necessityː Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy (1987)[edit]

  • [T]he project of the modernist visionary: the search for individual and collective empowerment through the dissolution of the prewritten social script.
    • p. 22
  • This book can be read as an argument that social democracy is not enough and we can establish something better than social democracy. The explanatory ideas of False Necessity provide an understanding of society that presents the institutional arrangements on which the social democrat relies as the relatively contingent and revisable outcome of a particular sequence of practical and imaginative conflicts. More generally, these explanatory arguments support a view of social reality within which the rejection of social democracy seems reasonable. The programmatic ideas propose an alternative to social democracy that realizes more fully the ideals that the social democrat can only imperfectly achieve and radically redefines these ideals in the course of realizing them.
    • p. 26
  • The disproportion between our capabilities and our shared situations would be merely ironic or tragic if we were unable to diminish it. By doing so, we change, to our benefit, the quality of our relation to our cognitive and social assumptions. As a result, we also alter, to our advantage, the quality of our relations to one another. We put more of the infinite us into the finite worlds in which we live.
    • p. 97
  • Humanity takes a long time to understand its relation to its structures of discourse and sociability. People have usually mistaken the forms of inquiry and discourse, exchange and community, to which they are accustomed for flawed approximations to the true face of reason or society. More often than not, they have cast this prejudice aside only to replace it with a more modest, halfhearted reformulation of the same belief.
    • p. 97
  • People who can readily put on their agenda the foundations of the world they inhabit must be haughty, high-spirited, and even reckless. They must be secure in their inviolable independence. Yet the instruments of this independence must not smother the struggles that constantly offer them visible images of the connection between the forms of their life in common and the activities from which these forms arise and that cultivate the sense of mastery suitable to men and women who are neither masters nor servants.
    • p. 134
  • The cultural-revolutionary politics of personal relations may be far more firmly established in the domains of domesticity, leisure, and consumption than in the organization of practical life. It may still flourish more strongly among the educated professional classes than among ordinary working people. Its war against the tyranny of roles and hierarchies may be perverted by a lack of institutional imagination. Yet its achievements are real. We cannot understand them merely as a series of episides in the confined life of high culture. We can often trace the ideas of this cultural-revolutionary politics of role-jumbling to the work of small numbers of thinkers, artists, and professional outsiders. But the diffusion of these ideas through the medium of popular culture, and the sympathy with which they have been greeted by ever larger sectors of the population, would have been inconceivable without a prior transformation of social life. As always, people had to see enacted before their eyes a fragmentary example of the connection between the freedom to revise social arrangements and assumptions and freedom from dependence and depersonalization. Only then could they want more of the same and believe more possible.
    • pp. 293-294
  • The characteristic method of social invention in general and of the development of negative capability in particular is to seize on deviant, subsidiary, or repressed elements in present or remembered experience and to push them toward a dominant position, all the while changing them in the course of this extension.... [T]he most successful transmutations over the long run—the ones least vulnerable to subversion by practical rivalry, moral indignation or aspiration, and by theoretical insight—are likely to be those that permit or invite further tinkering. Thus, they may be repeatedly corrected rather than entirely replaced.
    • p. 336
  • There is no permanent canon of forms of normative argument. Our ways of arguing about ideals are, like our other practices, the mutable products of a specific history and the expressions of our ideas about society and thought.
    • p. 361
  • The ultimate stakes in politics are the qualities of the direct relations among people.... This fine texture of routinized human relations is the primary social reality. Even the boldest transformative efforts often take it for granted or, having acknowledged its importance, fail to alter it.
    • p. 397
  • ̆[T]he vision and anticipatory experience of transformed personal relations encourage the self-restraint vital to successful institutional reconstruction. When the government's active engagement in the defense of established institutional arrangements has been shaken by violent or peaceful means and when settled assumptions about collective identities, interests, and opportunities have come partly unstuck, institutional reinvention enjoys its favored moment. This opportunity can, nevertheless, be squandered if redistribution over material advantages takes priority over institutional reconstruction.
    • p. 400
  • The radicals want something of the quality of the hot moments of social life—the periods of accelerated collective mobilization—to pass into the cold moments—the ordinary experience of institutionalized social existence.
    • p. 433
  • ̆̽The argument of the social theory developed in this book [works] out the idea that each imaginative and institutional form of society represents an attempt to freeze, into a particular mold, the more fluid experiences of practical and passionate relationship characterizing the immediate, relatively unreflective, uninterpreted, and undisciplined life of personality. The dogmas and arrangements inform this life and alter it. But they do not completely overcome its recalcitrance or determine its inner nature. The visionary impulse in politics draws much of its persuasive force from the appeal to this defiant experience.
    • p. 467
  • The view of human society and personality that informs this argument refuses the consistently disappointing and misleading attempt to distinguish a permanent core and a variable periphery of human nature. It takes into account the loose, contradictory, and complex set of motivations and aspirations that people demonstrate in the societies it wants to reform. It recognizes that even the most intimate and seemingly unyielding of these propensities are influenced and cumulatively remade by the institutional and imaginative context in which they exist. But it rejects as unrealistic any institutional scheme whose success requires a sudden and drastic shift in what people are like here and now.
    • p. 500
  • Just as the attempt to actualize liberal ideals requires ideas and arrangements unfamiliar to liberals, so the effort to make our moral experience resemble more closely what so much of moral thought already supposes it to be like calls for a practice of role defiance and role jumbling that has little place in traditional moral doctrines.
    • pp. 563-564
  • The cultural revolutionary wants to show how roles can be stretched, pulled apart, combined with other roles, and used incongruously. He acts out of a loosened sense of what it means to occupy a role. In this way he helps disrupt frozen connections among social stations, life experiences, and stereotyped forms of insight and sensibility. He thereby carries into the drama of everyday personal relations the effort to free sociability from its script and to make us available to one another more as the originals we all know ourselves to be and less as placeholders in a system of group contrasts.
    • p. 564

Plasticity Into Power: Comparative-Historical Studies on the Institutional Conditions of Economic and Military Success (1987)[edit]

  • The more successfully we learn and practice the gospel of plasticity, the less suitable we become as subjects of the necessitarian styles of social and historical analysis that the great social theorists have taught us. We can, in fact, raise a storm in the world and still understand and explain ourselves. All we need is a better approach.
    • p. 2
  • The utopian element in politics lies in the ability to disentangle the image of possible human association from forms of life that make people's material and moral ability depend on their acceptance of predetermined hierarchical and communal divisions. The struggle of this visionary politics is to deny the identification of society with a limited repertory of social forms. Such a repertory imprisons all experiments in practical collaboration, in self-expression and reconciliation, within a determinate scheme of ranks and divisions, of authoritative ideals, and of accepted contexts for the realization of these ideals.
    • p. 12
  • [T]he indispensable instrument of a visionary politics is collective mobilization, which brings people together in ways not foreordained by the established structure or the prevailing dogmas of society.
    • p. 12
  • To come out from under the protective wall of role, habit, and frozen perception, a person must throw himself into a situation of heightened exposure. He must put himself at greater risk to the harm that other people may do to him and to the destructive influence that enlarged experience may have on what he had previously regarded as his enduring core of identity.
    • pp. 12-13
  • The extreme moment of shock in battle presents in heightened and distorted form some of the distinctive characteristics of a whole society involved in war. These characteristics in turn represent a heightening and distortion of many of the traits of a social world cracked open by transformative politics. The threats to survival are immediate and shifting; no mode of association or activity can be held fixed if it stands as an obstacle to success. The existence of stable boundaries between passionate and calculating relationships disappears in the terror of the struggle. All settled ties and preconceptions shake or collapse under the weight of fear, violence, and surprise. What the experience of combat sharply diminishes is the sense of variety in the opportunities of self-expression and attachment, the value given to the bonds of community and to life itself, the chance for reflective withdrawal and for love. In all these ways, it is a deformed expression of the circumstance of society shaken up and restored to indefinition. Yet the features of this circumstance that the battle situation does share often suffice to make the boldest associative experiments seem acceptable in battle even if they depart sharply from the tenor of life in the surrounding society. Vanguardist warfare is the extreme case. It is the response of unprejudiced intelligence and organized collaboration to violence and contingency.
    • p. 160
  • There is no aspect of a people's collective life that may not have to be abandoned for the sake of meeting a practical challenge, just as there is no aspect they may not have to jettison in order to deal with the visionary appeal in politics. Consequently, the different forms of social life that exist in the world are always less real than they seem; the differences among them subsist on a containment of conflict. If the nations of the world were exposed to constant practical and visionary conflict, none of the differences among them would have any permanence. This does not mean that the peoples would become alike; it does mean that the marks that distinguish their identities would constantly shift hands and that other marks, never before dreamt of, would suddenly appear.
    • p. 169
  • The art of self-transformation for the sake of developing practical capabilities seems to have a similar content in the most varied historical circumstances. The Mamluks and the Normans suffered defeat because they failed to open up and readjust the organizational and social contexts of warfare. The Seljuqs succeeded because they did just that. The West African coastal kingdoms used an extraneous technological advantage to avoid having to change radically. But they could neither go on the offensive against the savanna states nor prepare themselves to resist their European patrons and trading partners.
          In all these instances success seems to have required the dissociation and recombination of available models of the organizational and social context of military activity. To have succeeded would not have meant, for the Mamluks, becoming like the Ottomans; it would have meant creating an order that never existed before. To possess the alien, you must change it.
    • pp. 169-170
  • Society will oscillate between long periods of relative stagnation in which state-protected privileges crowd out experiments in the organization of production and brief interludes in which much is destroyed before anything can be created. To perpetuate the practice of innovation, societies must replace such drastic and violent swings with a more constant liquefaction of deals and privileges. They must invent the structures that make structures easier to change.
    • p. 192
  • The imperative of plasticity requires that advances in productive or destructive powers be achieved through the subversion of fixed plans of social division and hierarchy and of stark contrasts between task setting and task following. All possible combinations have to be tried out, as quickly and as freely as possible. The only structure that can be allowed to subsist is one that offers the fewest obstacles to this principle of pitiless recombination.
    • p. 208

Law in Modern Societyː Toward a Criticism of Social Theory (1976)[edit]

  • For all the classic social theorists, the effort to state a comprehensive view of men and society was inseparable from an interest in understanding the condition and prospects of their age. In this they simply repeated the eternal lesson that all deep thought begins and ends in the attempt to grasp whatever touches one most immediately.
    • p. 38
  • The search for this latent and living law—not the law of prescriptive rules or of bureaucratic policies, but the elementary code of human interaction—has been the staple of the lawyer's art wherever this art was practiced with the most depth and skill. What united the great Islamic ‘ulama’, the Roman jurisconsults, and the English common lawyers was the sense they shared that the law, rather than being made chiefly by judges and princes, was already present in society itself. Throughout history there has been a bond between the legal profession and the search for an order inherent in social life. The existence of this bond suggests that the lawyer's insight, which preceded the advent of the legal order, can survive its decline.
    • p. 242
  • The problem of method ... includes four main issuesː the possibility of an alternative to logic and causation, capable of overcoming the inadequacies of both rationalism and historicism; the link between this third method and causality; the connection between the meaning of an act for its agent and its meaning for an observer; and the relationship of systematic theory to historical understanding.
    • p. 245
  • We have seen how types of organization, of law, and of consciousness come together into more comprehensive wholes, the forms of social life. These forms of social life, exemplified in my essay by tribal, liberal, and aristocratic society and then again by the varieties of modernity, are the most general types available to social theory. Each of them represents a unique interpretation of what it means to be human. Each confronts its individual members with the recurring demands of human existence, but each presents these in a special way and limits the resources of matter and thought thst can be used to meet them. Perhaps the most pervasive of these continuing problems have to do with the antagonism between the requirements of human individuality and of human sociability, and with the attempt either to subordinate one to the other or to reconcile the two.
    • p. 259-260
  • The view I have just sketched of the relationships between the most general types—the forms of social life—and human nature is based upon two key ideas that might appear contradictory. The first notion holds that there exists a limited fund of problems and possibilities of human association. Each form of social life is defined by the way it responds to the problems and pursues the possibilities. The fact that the fund is limited makes comprehensive theory and universal comparison possible. This principle, however, seems incompatible with the other half of my thesisː that the forms of social life are constituents and re-creators, rather than just examples, of human nature. ¶ The way to reconcile these two equally important ideas is to conceive of human nature as an entity embodied in particular forms of social life, though never exhausted by them. Consequently, humanity can always transcend any one of the kinds of society that develop it in a certain direction. Nonetheless, human nature is known, indeed it exists, only through the historical types of social life.
    • p. 260
  • Much of social science has been built as a citadel against metaphysics and politics. Faithful to the outlook produced by the modern revolt against ancient philosophy, the classic social theorists were anxious to free themselves first from the illusions of metaphysics, then from the seeming arbitrariness of political judgments. They wanted to create a body of objective knowledge of society that would not be at the mercy of philosophical speculation or political controversy, and, up to a point, they succeeded. But now we see that to resolve its own dilemmas, social theory must again become, in a sense, both metaphysical and political. It must take a stand on issues of human nature and human knowledge for which no "scientific" elucidation is, or may ever be, available. And it must acknowledge that its own future is inseparable from the fate of society.
    • p. 266-7

On Barack Obama[edit]

  • President Obama must be defeated in the coming election ... He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices. ... He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.... Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a contest for the reorientation of the Democratic Party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country ... Only a political reversal can allow the voice of Democratic prophesy to speak once again in American life.
    • Quoted in Meena Hart Duerson, "Obama’s former Harvard professor: ‘He must be defeated’ː Roberto Unger called for Obama’s defeat in a recent YouTube video," New York Daily News, Monday, June 18, 2012[1]
  • I am a leftist, and, by conviction as well as by temperament, a revolutionary .... Any association of mine with Barack Obama in the course of the campaign could do only harm.
    • Quoted in David Remnick, The Bridgeː The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010), p. 185 (explaining why he avoided press inquiries during Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, concerning his association with Obama at Harvard Law School)
  • Obama shared in the more philosophical part of the discussion as vigorously as he did in the more context-oriented part .... The impression you report, of impatience with speculative exploration, is false. It does justice neither to him nor to me to represent these conversations under the lens of philistine activist against starry-eyed theoretician. He was always interested in ideas, big and small.
  • Obama’s manner in dealing with other people and acting in the world fully exemplifies the cheerful impersonal friendliness—the middle distance—that marks American sociability. (Now allow me to speak as a critic. Remember Madame de Staël’s meetings that deprive us of solitude without affording us company? Or Schopenhauer’s porcupines, who shift restlessly from getting cold at a distance to prickling one another at close quarters, until they settle into some acceptable compromise position?) The cheerful impersonal friendliness serves to mask recesses of loneliness and secretiveness in the American character, and no less with Obama than with anyone else. He is enigmatic—and seemed so as much then as now—in a characteristically American way.... Moreover, he excelled at the style of sociability that is most prized in the American professional and business class and serves as the supreme object of education in the top prep schools: how to cooperate with your peers by casting on them a spell of charismatic seduction, which you nevertheless disguise under a veneer of self-depreciation and informality. Obama did not master this style in prep school, but he became a virtuoso at it nevertheless, as the condition of preferment in American society that it is. As often happens, the outsider turned out to be better at it than the vast majority of the insiders.... Together with the meritocratic educational achievements, the mastery of the preferred social style turns Obama into what is, in a sense, the first American elite president—that is the first who talks and acts as a member of the American elite—since John Kennedy .... Obama's mixed race, his apparent and assumed blackness, his non-elite class origins and lack of inherited money, his Third-World childhood experiences—all this creates the distance of the outsider, while the achieved elite character makes the distance seem less threatening.


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