Thursday, May 14, 2015
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Unger was educated in Brazil and the United States. He studied law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and was awarded a research doctorate by Harvard after he had already been teaching there for several years.
Unger views humanity as greater than the contexts in which it is placed. He sees each individual possessed of the capability to rise to a greater life. At the root of his social thought is the conviction that the world is made and imagined. His work begins from the premise that no natural social, political, or economic arrangements underlie individual or social activity. Property rights, liberal democracy, wage labor—for Unger, these are all historical artifacts that have no necessary relation to the goals of free and prosperous human activity. For Unger, the market, the state, and human social organization should not be set in predetermined institutional arrangements, but need to be left open to experimentation and revision according to what works for the project of the empowerment of humanity. Doing so, he holds, will enable the realization of the full extent of human potential and, as he puts it, “make us more god-like.”
Unger has long been active in Brazilian oppositional politics. He was one of the founding members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and drafted its manifesto. He directed the presidential campaigns of Leonel Brizola and Ciro Gomes, ran for the Chamber of Deputies, and twice launched exploratory bids for the Brazilian presidency. He served as the Minister of Strategic Affairs in the second Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration. He is currently working on social and developmental projects in the Brazilian state of Rondônia.
Unger's maternal grandfather, Octávio Mangabeira, was the last of eight children of Augusta Mangabeira and Francisco Cavalcanti Mangabeira, a poor pharmacist living in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Octávio's brother João Mangabeira founded the Brazilian Socialist Party. His sister Maria Mangabeira founded a religious order. Octávio became professor of astronomy at the Escola Politécnica in Bahia and gained popularity after delivering an inspired public lecture in 1910 on Halley's Comet, which propelled him into a career in politics. He served as Brazil's minister of foreign affairs in the late 1920s before the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas subjected him to a series of imprisonments and exiles in Europe and the United States. After returning to Brazil in 1945, he co-founded a center-left party. He was elected as a representative in the Câmara Federal in 1946, governor of Bahia in 1947, and Senator in 1958.
Both of Unger's parents were intellectuals. His German-born father from Dresden, Artur Unger, arrived in the United States as a child and became a naturalized citizen. He had a successful career as a lawyer. His mother, Edyla Mangabeira, was a Brazilian poet and journalist. She published numerous books of poetry, and a memoir of her experiences in social activism in Brazil entitled Três exílios e uma guerra. Her journalism appeared in many of Brazil's major news publications. Artur and Edyla met at a party in the US during the exile of Octávio Mangabeira.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 24, 1947. Although his parents lived in the United States at the time, his father suffered a heart attack during a family visit to Brazil, which delayed their return to the United States and led to the birth of Roberto in Brazil. After the elder Unger's recovery, the family returned to New York. The young Unger spent his childhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side and attended the private Allen-Stevenson School. He went to Brazil during vacations, where he stayed with his grandfather, Octávio Mangabeira. Unger cites these summers with his grandfather as influencing his conception of political life.
When Unger was 7, his mother began reading to him Benjamin Jowett's translation of Plato's Republic an experience he cites as the origin of his interest in speculative thought. When he was 11, his father died and his mother moved the family back to Brazil. Unger attended Jesuit school where he learned to speak proper Portuguese, and went on to law school at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Unger was admitted to Harvard Law School in September 1969 in anticipation of the successful completion of his exams in Brazil. After receiving his LLM, Unger stayed at Harvard another year on a fellowship. During this time, activist tensions with the Brazilian military government intensified, and between his sister's arrest during protests and his own misgivings about the police state, he opted not to return to Brazil. Harvard invited him to stay in the doctoral program and teach. At 23 years old, Unger began teaching jurisprudence, among other things, to first year students. In 1976, at 29 years old, Unger became one of the youngest faculty members to receive tenure from the Harvard Law School.
The beginning of Unger's academic career began with the books Knowledge and Politics and Law in Modern Society, published in 1975 and 1976 respectively. These works presented an analysis and criticism of the legal, political, moral, and epistemological assumptions that underlie much of modern thought. Knowledge and Politics took aim at liberal political philosophy, which Unger argued reduced the world to false antinomies—rules vs. values, reason vs. desire, etc. Law in Modern Society explored the origins of law in the modern West and argued that there is no relation between legal, political, and economic arrangements, as is often assumed.
These works led to the co-founding of Critical Legal Studies (CLS) with Duncan Kennedy and Morton Horwitz. The movement stirred up controversy in legal schools across America as it challenged standard legal scholarship and made radical proposals for legal education. By the early 1980s, the movement had hundreds of adherents and was holding annual events and conferences. A few years later, the CLS movement touched off a heated internal debate at Harvard, pitting the CLS scholars against the older, more traditional scholars. Despite Unger later distancing himself from the movement when it took a turn in new directions, critics claim that Unger's social theory provides the only credible basis for CLS critique of ruling ideas of legal thought.
Throughout much of the 1980s, Unger worked on his magnum opus, Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory, a three volume work that took an assessment of classical social theory and developed a political, social, and economic alternative. The series is based on the premise of society as an artifact, and rejects the necessity of certain institutional arrangements. The books are the natural outgrowth of his earlier work on law, extending the notion of the arbitrary social constructions of legal institutions to that of all of human activity. Published in 1987, Politics was foremost a critique of contemporary social theory and politics, developed a theory of structural and ideological change, and gave an alternative account of world history. By first attacking the idea that there is a necessary progression from one set of institutional arrangements to another, e.g. feudalism to capitalism, it then built an anti-necessitarian theory of social change, theorizing the transition from one set of institutional arrangements to another.
Unger has devoted much of the following decades to further elaborating on the insights developed in Politics by working out the political and social alternatives. What Should Legal Analysis Become? (Verso, 1996) developed tools to reimagine the organization of social life. Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative (Verso, 1998) and What Should the Left Propose? (Verso, 2005) put forth alternative institutional proposals.
Unger's model of philosophical practice is closest to those philosophers who sought to form a view of the whole of reality, and to do so by using and resisting the specialized knowledge of their time. It can be read as a form of pragmatism, but also as an attempt to disengage ideas and experiences that developed in the West under the influence of Christianity from the categories of Greek philosophy. His thought also has affinities with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, especially his thinking on time. It engages almost always implicitly the philosophy of Hegel, who Unger cites as having added to the "ambition of world-wide understanding the principle of historical consciousness." However, Unger's thought, unlike Hegel's, repudiates the ideas of a predetermined evolution of the spirit and of a definitive resting place. It reflects the lineages of romanticism and existentialism as powerful voices of the struggle with the world, but rejects the romantic and existentialist idea that we can be fully human only by waging war against structure, routine, and repetition—a war that the romantic and the existentialist believes we are doomed to lose. His thought is in some senses the inverse of Schopenhauer's philosophy, affirming as it does the supreme value of life and the reality and depth of the self and eschewing fecklessness. It turns away from Nietzsche's beating of the drums in the presence of death, regarding this desperate triumphalism as a misdirection and a misunderstanding of who we are and of what we can become.