Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Full name Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Born March 24, 1947
Era Late 20th Century, Early 21st Century
Main interests Social theory · Political theory · Social change · Critical Legal Studies
Notable ideas False necessity · Formative context · Negative capability · Empowered democracy · Radical pragmatism · Transformative vocation

Roberto Mangabeira Unger (b. March 24, 1947, Rio de Janeiro) is a philosopher and politician. He has written widely on social, political, legal, and economic theory, much of which has laid the philosophical and theoretical groundwork for reimagining and remaking the social and political order. He has made substantial forays into philosophies of human nature and knowledge, and more recently into religion and science. He was a co-founder of the Critical Legal Studies movement in the 1970s, and his political and economic thought has inspired progressive thinkers, such as Cornel West, as well as won him advisory positions to Latin American politicians. He has taught at the Harvard Law School since 1976, and has long been active in Brazilian politics. He served as the Minister of Strategic Affairs under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Unger's political activity has been an extension of his philosophical work. He developed opposition parties in Brazil, advised presidential candidates, and served in the Lula da Silva administration. He was an advisor to Mexican president Vicente Fox,[1] and also taught Barack Obama at Harvard Law School.[2]

Four intellectual programs are central to Unger's philosophical and political work: (1) developing a systematic alternative to the rationalizing and idealizing style of legal thought (2) developing a social theory that offers an alternative to Marxist determinism and contemporary positivist social theory by de-naturalizing the existent and insisting on the link between insight into the actual and imagination of the possible (3) employing social theory to imagine institutional alternatives, such as the market, democracy and civic society; and (4) developing a philosophical position that vindicates the reality of time, the openness of history, and the possibility of the new.



Early life

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, Artur Unger, suffered a heart attack during a family visit to Brazil, which delayed their return to the US and led to the birth of Roberto Unger in Brazil. After the elder Unger's recovery, the family of three returned to New York. The young Unger spent his childhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side and attended the private Allen-Stevenson School.

Both of Unger's parents were accomplished intellectuals. His Dresden-born father, who had arrived in the United States as a child and became a naturalized citizen, was a lawyer. His mother, Edyla Mangabeira, was a Brazilian poet and feminist journalist. They met in the US during the exile of Unger's maternal grandfather, Octávio Mangabeira, who was a liberal politician from the state of Bahia. He was a former professor of astronomy who gained popularity and was elected governor after an inspired public lecture in 1910 on Halley's Comet. He went on to serve as Brazil's minister of foreign affairs in the late 1920s before the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas forced him out of the country. Unger continues to express deep admiration of his grandfather and has often noted the his influence.

When he was 11, Unger and his mother moved back to Brazil upon the death of his father. Unger attended Jesuit school where he learned to speak proper Portuguese, and went on to graduate from Rio law school in December 1969. He was admitted in September 1969 to Harvard Law School in anticipation of the successful completion of his exams. Having arrived too late for orientation, Harvard arranged special tutoring for late arrivals, which gave Unger the opportunity to get to know and debate the faculty.

With Brazil under a military dictatorship and Unger unable to return, Harvard invited him to stay for a second year and teach. At 23 years old, Unger began teaching first year contracts to first year students.[3]

Academic career

In 1976, at 29 years old, Unger became one of the youngest faculty members to receive tenure from the Harvard Law School. In that same year, he also won a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship.[4] Although appointed to the faculty of law, Unger often taught courses in social theory and philosophy. For his class "Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel" the dean once asked him to append "and the law." Unger recalled that, "I said no because of the code of honor that kept me from saying yes to a figure in authority. … And he just laughed and shrugged his shoulders, and that was that. Basically no Harvard Law School dean since then has ever asked me for anything."[3]

The beginning of Unger's successful and influential career in academia began with his doctoral thesis, which was published as Law in Modern Society in 1976.[5] Taking the likes of Marx and Weber as his conversationalists, he explored the origins of law in modern West and the pressures that were beginning to undermine contemporary legal arrangements. The key question it asked was why modern societies have legal systems with distinctions between institutions, such as legislature and court, and have a special caste of lawyers who have method of reasoning about social problems? Marx and Weber explained this as an economic necessity for the grounds of capitalist development. Unger argued that it was the result of political and cultural developments specific to Western Europe, and that there is no real basis of fact on their necessary integration.[6] Similarly, his first book, Knowledge and Politics, published in 1975, took aim at liberal political philosophy, which he argued reduced the world to false antinomies—rules vs. values, reason vs. desire, etc.

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 hundred of adherents with 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.[7] Despite later distancing himself from the movement when it took a turn in new directions, critics have said that Unger's social theory provides the only credible basis for CLS critique of ruling ideas of legal thought.[8] Unger himself said that CLS's most significant legacy is to treat legal thought "as an inquiry into the possibilities of reconstruction" — a tool for devising better institutions.[3]

Throughout much of the 1980s, Unger worked on his magnum opus, Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory, a three volume work on social change and alternative rivaling that of Marx. The series takes to the hilt the insight of society as an artifact, and smashes the idea of 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 issues a devastating critique of contemporary social theory and politics, develops a profound and highly original theory of structural and ideological change, gives an alternative account of world history, and then works out the consequences in a vision for the future. By first tearing down the idea that there is a necessary progression from one set of institutional arrangements to another, e.g. feudalism to capitalism, and then building an anti-necessitarian theory of social change of how we get from one set of institutional arrangements to another, these works lay the basis for re-imagining the world and creating a viable alternative to the North Atlantic liberal democracies.

Unger has devoted much of the following decades to further elaborating on the insights developed in Politics through a working out of 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.

In 2004, Unger was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Early political activity

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Unger has a long history of political activity in Latin America. With the end of the military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1970s, Unger began to return regularly to work with opposition groups. In 1978 he became the opposition party's chief of staff. He worked for six months in Brasilia uniting progressive liberals and the independent left.[3] In 1979, he drafted the founding manifesto of the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, and a few years later, he returned to Brazil to direct a foundation for needy children in the country's burgeoning urban slums. He even ran an eight-week lightning campaign for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, which he lost by a narrow margin.[7]

In the late 1990s, along with Mexican political scientist Jorge Castañeda Gutman, Unger began to put together an informal network of politicians and business leaders dedicated to redrawing the political map. Dubbed the Latin American Alternative the thrust of the group was to provide viable proposals alongside the critic of neoliberalism. They put forward proposals such as guaranteeing every citizen a "social right" to schooling and a job; breaking up media oligopolies; and holding town meetings to help citizens supervise municipal spending. Although Unger and Castañeda agree with others on the left who insist that the state must preserve a social safety net, they argue that money should be raised not through progressive taxes on income but through a value-added tax on consumption—this tax may increase the cost of living for some poor people, but it has the advantage of forcing the rich to actually pay it.[7]

His has served as an advisor to numerous Latin American political candidates. He helped Leonel Brizola, a two-time governor of Rio de Janeiro run for president twice, but Brizola lost. Later, Unger also advised another presidential candidate, Ciro Gomes, but he lost too.[3] He similarly advised Mexican politician Vicente Fox, first as governor of Guanajuato and then as president.[7]

Brazilian government appointment

In June 2007, Unger was appointed as head of the newly established Long-term Planning Secretariat—part of the executive office of the president—in Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's second term. The appointment raised eyebrows, for in November 2005, Unger described Lula's government as "the most corrupt of Brazil's history" and called for his impeachment.[9] Unger was also became responsible for the Institute of Applied Economic Research, or IPEA, a government think tank previously attached to the Planning Ministry.[10] Unger's nomination was reported to cause fear within the IPEA that he would politicize the institution, which has traditionally been seen as apolitical and independent,[11][12][13] and it was even reported that he would disband a long-standing IPEA workgroup that had existed for thirty years.[14]

On May 8, 2008 Lula designated Unger chief minister to coordinate the future of Amazon policy. This led to the resignation of the minister of environment in protest. Unger went on to sign a collaborative agreement with Russia.[3]

On June 26, 2009, President Lula announced Unger would be leaving the government and returning to Harvard, which has a strict two-year limit for leaves of absence.

Policies in office

Unger's policy proposals in office remained true to his philosophy. He sees the future in small enterprises and supports a rotating capital fund that would function like a government run venture capital fund. He pushed for a rapid expansion of credit to smaller producers and a decentralized network of technical support centers that would help broaden the middle class from below.[15] This is the enactment of Unger's theory of small scale flexible production that would be able to constantly revise and adjust its capacity and product, leaving more room for innovation and growth. Ultimately, this would lead to greater economic and social placticity.

Specifically, Unger called for political solutions that would broaden access to production forces such as information technology, and for states to focus on equipping and monitoring civil society rather than trying to provide social services. He also advocated the weakening of strong executives by making branches of government mutually accountable to one another – the reduction in executive power, he said, would desirably "heighten the temperature of politics".[16]

Philosophy and Thought

Legal thought

Unger's early work explored the connection between the law and the arrangement of social institutions. The guiding question of his work that served as a cornerstone for Critical Legal Studies was why modern societies have legal system with distinctions between institutions, such as legislature and court, and have special caste of lawyers possessing a method of reasoning about social problems? And more so, why did these practices first emerge in Western Europe? Theorists such as Marx and Weber, not to mention the neoliberalist thinkers, had argued that this was a product of economic necessity to secure property rights and the autonomy of the individual. Unger rejected such a determinist explanation and went on to argue in Law and Modern Society that this system of private rights is not based on necessity, effectiveness, or moral superiority, but rather the result of a particular and contingent political and cultural development.

Unger identified three types of law, which fit into ideal types and satisfied conditions of legitimizing social order, reflecting the nature of social relations, and representing meaningful totality. These three types are customary law (characteristic of tribal societies), bureaucratic law (emergent in agrarian empires), and the liberal legal order of today (which is general, public, positive, and autonomous). It is this third type, the liberal legal order, that must be explained and not assumed.

Unger argued that in its development, the liberal legal order holds all equal before the law, thus stripping the ruler of any immunity. This led to a separation of powers and a practice in which rules are autonomous, not moral or religious. Likewise, institutions of the law are autonomous and legal reasoning adheres to the established set of rules rather than moral codes. Rather than any necessary connection between this set of legal codes and economic order, this legal thought and arrangements arose in Europe as a result of the indeterminate relations between monarchy, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie. It took the particular generality of form that it did from the long tradition of natural law and universality.[17]

Social Theory

Critique of social theory

Social theory for Unger has failed in its task to take the idea of society as artifact to the hilt. In Social Theory: Its Situation and its Task, Unger argues that modern social theory was born proclaiming that society is made and imagined and not the expression of an underlying natural order, but at the same time its capacity was checked by the equally prevalent ambition to create law-like explanations of history and social development. The human science that developed claimed to identify a small number of possible types of social organization that coexisted or succeeded on another through inescapable developmental tendencies or deep-seated economic economic, organization, or psychological constraints. Marxism is the star example.[18]

Conventional social science and the theories that it has left us with today fall into one of two types: deep-structure social theory and positive social science. The former make a distinction between routine practices and the underlying institutional contexts that shape those practices. At the same time, however, this type of social theory couples this distinction with indivisible types of social organization and deep seated constraints and developmental laws. As such, the possibilities of human social development is limited and constrained. The latter practice of positive social science refuses to take the distinction between formative context and formed routines as the central practice of social and historical explanation, but rather sees society and history as an endless series of episodes of problem solving. What this has led to is either the social sciences adhering to a script of history or social organization, or forsaking any attempt at explanation in favor of just detailing conflict and resolution.[19]

Unger thus sees that the state of the social sciences and humanities today have succumbed to the sway of three impulses that stagnate their development and curtail their transformative power. These are the rationalizing, humanizing, and escapist impulses.

  • Rationalization: contemporary social scientists rationalize the present social order as a natural state of arrangements and see it as the victor of a competition with failed alternatives. In practice, social scientists merely explain why the current institutional landscape is the way it is, without recognizing that the social arrangements under exploration are the product of a particular historical time and place. The laws that they generate, therefore, cannot be universal laws for human societies, for once the institutional context changes these "laws" will no longer be valid.[20]
  • Humanization: political and legal thought today operates on the premise that we cannot change society fundamentally and thus should only strive to make humanely better an imperfect world.[21] Rather than restructuring the foundations that cause inequality and insecurity, those that aim to humanize the world advocate compensatory transfers of wealth by governments to attenuate the inequalities and insecurities of the market economy.[22] For Unger, those political and legal theorists that limit themselves to only humanizing the present order suffer from “the poverty of the imagination of structural change” and the false view that we must choose between humanization (reform at the edges) and revolution (the substitution of one whole system for another).[22] In response, Unger argues that one need not choose between revolution and humanization because societies are not “indivisible systems, standing or falling together” and thus we can bring about their piecemeal reconstruction.[20]
  • Escapism merely describes and explores adventures in consciousness, which bear no relation to confronting the problems of and remaking the social order. Escapists focus on spiritual adventurism while giving up on the institutions and practices of society. In response, Unger argues that some structures are more inviting to change than others, and that one is mistaken to pessimistically believe in a universal maxim that all structures are unchangeable enemies to our transcendent spirits.[23]

Politics: Work in constructive social theory

Having made this critique of social theory, Unger's key task was to reconstruct social theory in a way that would avoid the shortcomings of conventional deep structure social theory and the positive social sciences, and provide a way of understanding discontinuous change. The task of such a social theory was to carry the idea of society as artifact to the hilt.[18]

In this effort of constructive social theory Unger began by formulating the theory of false necessity, which claims that our social worlds are the artifact of our own human endeavors. There is no pre-set institutional arrangement that our societies adhere to, and there is no necessary historical mold of development that they will follow. Rather we are free to choose and develop the forms and the paths that our societies will take through a process of conflicts and resolutions. However, there are groups of institutional arrangements that work together to bring out certain institutional forms, liberal democracy, for example. These forms are the basis of a social structure, and which Unger calls formative context. In order to explain how we move from one formative context to another without the conventional social theory constraints of historical necessity (e.g. feudalism to capitalism), and to do so while remaining true to the key insight of individual human empowerment and anti-necessitarian social thought, Unger recognized that there are an infinite number of ways of resisting social and institutional constraints, which can lead to an infinite number of outcomes. This variety of forms of resistance and empowerment make change possible. Unger calls this empowerment negative capability.[24]

Political Theory

Programmatic Thought

We cannot revise the institutions the contain us unless we first imagine how they could be otherwise. Thus, we must have a programor give up the radical program altogether--that is, we must engage in programmatic thought. In building this program, however, we must not entertain complete revolutionary overhaul, lest we be plagued by three false assumptions:

  • Typological Fallacy: the fallacy that there is closed list of institutional alternatives in history, such as ‘feudalism’ or ‘capitalism’. There is not a natural form of society, only the specific result of the piecemeal institutional changes, political movements, and cultural reforms (as well as the accidents and coincidences of history) that came before it.
  • Indivisibility Fallacy: most subscribers to revolutionary Leftism wrongly believe that institutional structures must stand and fall together. However, structures can be reformed piecemeal.
  • Determinism Fallacy: the fallacy that uncontrollable and little understood law-like forces drive the historical succession of institutional systems. However, there is no natural flow of history. We make ourselves and our world, and can do so in any way we choose.[25]

To think about social transformation programmatically, one must first mark the direction one wants society to move in, and then identify the first steps with which we can move in that direction.[26] In this way we can formulate proposals at points along the trajectory, be they relatively close to how things are now or relatively far away. This provides a third way between revolution and reform. It is revolutionary reform, where one has a revolutionary vision, but acts on that vision in a sequence of piecemeal reforms. As Unger puts it, transformative politics is "not about blueprints; it is about pathways. It is not architecture; it is music."[26]

Empowered democracy

Empowered democracy is Unger's vision of a more open and more plastic set of social institutions through which individuals and groups can interact, propose change, and effectively empower themselves to transform social, economic, and political structures. The key strategy is to combine freedom of commerce and governance at the local level with the ability of political parties at the central government level to promote radical social experiments that would bring about decisive change in social and political institutions.[27]

In practice, the theory would involve radical developments in politics at the center, as well as social innovation in localities. At the center, by bestowing wide ranging revisionary powers to those in office, it would give political parties the ability to try out concrete yet profound solutions and proposals. It would turn partisan conflicts over control and uses of governmental power into an opportunity to question and revise the basic arrangements of social life through a rapid resolution of political impasse. In local communities, empowered democracy would make capital and technology available through rotating capital funds, which would encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. Citizens rights include individual entitlements to economic and civic security, conditional and temporary group claims to portions of social capital, and destabilization rights, which would empower individuals or groups to disrupt organizations and practices marred by routines of subjugation that normal politics have failed to disrupt.[28]

Political thought

Unger sees two main Lefts in the world today, a recalcitrant Left and a humanizing Left. The recalcitrant Left seeks to slow down the march of markets and globalization, and to return to a time of greater government involvement and stronger social programs. The humanizing (or ‘reformist’) Left accepts the world in its present form, taking the market economy and globalization as unavoidable, and attempts to humanize their effects through tax-and-transfer policies.[29]

Unger finds the two major orientations of contemporary Leftism inadequate and calls for a ‘Reconstructive Left’ – one that would insist on redirecting the course of globalization by reorganizing the market economy.[30] In his two books The Left Alternative and The Future of American Progressivism, Unger lays out program to democratize the market economy and deepen democracy. This Reconstructive Left would look beyond debates on the appropriate size of government, and instead re-envision the relationship between government and firms in the market economy by experimenting with the coexistence of different regimes of private and social property.[30] It would, like the recalcitrant and humanizing Left, be committed to social solidarity, but “would refuse to allow our moral interests in social cohesion [to] rest solely upon money transfers commanded by the state in the form of compensatory and retrospective redistribution,” as is the case with federal entitlement programs. Instead, Unger’s Reconstructive Left affirms “the principle that everyone should share, in some way and at some time, responsibility for taking care of other people.”[30]

Unger has laid out concrete policy proposals in areas of economic development, education, civil society, and political democracy.[31]

  • On economic development, Unger has noted that there are only two models for a national economy available to us today: the US model of business control of government, and the northeast Asian model of top down bureaucratic control of the economy. Citing the need for greater imagination on the issue, he has offered a third model that is decentralized, pluralistic, participatory, and experimental. This would take the form of an economy encouraging small business development and innovation that would create large scale self employment and cooperation. The emphasis is on the protection of big business as the main sectors of the economy, but the highly mobile and innovative small firm.
  • Unger links the development of such an economy to an education system that encourages creativity and empowers the mind, not one that he now sees geared for a reproduction of the family and to put the individual in service of the state. He proposes that such a system should be run locally but have standards enforced through national oversight, as well as a procedure in place to intervene in the case of the failing of local systems.
  • Unger's critique of and alternative to social programs goes to the heart of civil society. The problem we are faced with now, he claims, is that we have a bureaucratic system of distribution that provides lower quality service and prohibits the involvement of civil society in the provision of public services. The alternative he lays out is to have the state act to equip civil society to partake in public services and care. This would entail empowering each individual to have two responsibilities, one in the productive economy and one in the caring economy.
  • Unger's proposal for political democracy calls for a high energy system that diminishes the dependence of change upon crisis. This can be done, he claims, by breaking the constant threat of stasis and institutionalization of politics and parties through five institutional innovations. First, increase collective engagement through the public financing of campaigns and giving free access to media outlets. Second, hasten the pace of politics by breaking legislative deadlock though the enabling of the party in power to push through proposals and reforms, and for opposition parties to be able to dissolve the government and call for immediate elections. Third, the option of any segment of society to opt out of the political process and to propose alternative solutions for its own governance. Fourth, give the state the power to rescue oppressed groups that are unable to liberate themselves through collective action. Fifth, direct participatory democracy in which active engagement is not purely in terms of financial support and wealth distribution, but through which people are directly involved in their local and national affairs through proposal and action.

Transformative vocation

Unger argues that there are three ideas about work in society: work as honorable calling, work as instrumental, and work as transformative vocation. Work as honorable calling is the idea that “labor enables the individual…to support the family that provides him with his most important sustaining relations.” Your job provides you with dignity, proves you have proficiency and experience in some area of society, and indicates that you are neither shifting, dependent nor useless.[32]

The instrumental conception of work is the idea that work “lacks any intrinsic authority” nor “any power of its own to confer dignity or direction on a human life.” [32] Unger argues that to conceive of one’s workaday activity in this manner is to “view the social world as utterly oppressive or alien.” To Unger, those who see work this way are denied any sense of belonging to the world.

The final conception of work – one that Unger argues is turning things inside out – connects self-fulfillment and transformation. In this conception, one’s work is a struggle against the defects or the limits of existing society or available knowledge. Those with such ‘transformative vocations’ find that “self-fulfillment and service to society combine” and “resistance becomes the price of salvation.”[32] Unger argues that the idea of transformative vocation is an insurgent, growing ideas in the world, waging “a largely mute spiritual struggle against the other two notions of work.”[32]


The core conception

At the core of Unger's philosophy is the idea that we must exist within social contexts but that we are more than the roles that these contexts may define for us--we can overcome them. In Unger's terms, we are both "context-bound and context-transcending;" we appear as "the embodied spirit," or as "the infinite imprisoned within the finite."[33] In this way, Unger denies the philosophy of natural form of our individual and social being, and instead holds that we are unbound in what we can be become, and that we are infinite in spirit. As such, no social institution or convention can contain us. While institutions do exist and shape our beings and our interactions, we can change both their structure and the extent to which they imprison us.[34]

The self and human nature

In Passion: An Essay on Personality, Unger explores the individual and his relation to society from the perspective of the root human predicament of the need to establish oneself as a unique individual in the world but at the same time to find commonality and solidarity with others. This exploration is grounded in what Unger calls a modernist image of the human being as one who lives in context but is not bound by context.

Unger’s aim is twofold. First, to level a critique, expansion, and defense of modern thinking about the human and society “so that this practice can better withstand the criticisms that philosophy since Hume and Kant has leveled against it.”[35] And second, to develop a prescriptive theory of human identity centered around what Unger calls the passions—our raw responses to the world that are ambivalent towards reasons but also act in the service of reason. He outlines nine passions that organize and are organized by our dealings with others: lust, despair, hatred, vanity, jealousy, envy, faith, hope, and love. While these emotional states may be seen as raw emotion, their expression is always conditioned by the context within which the individual mobilizes or learns to mobilize them.

Religion and the human condition

Unger has written and spoken extensively on religion and the human condition.[36] Religion, Unger argues, is a vision of the world within which we anchor our orientation to life. It is within this orientation that we deal with our greatest terrors and highest hopes. Because we are doomed to die, we hope for eternal life; because we are unable to grasps to totality of existence or of the universe, we hope to dispel the mystery and provide a comprehensible explanation; because we have an insatiable desire, we hope for an object that is worthy of this desire, one that is infinite. Religion was first embedded in nature and humans' susceptibility to nature, but as societies evolved the emphasis of religion shifted to social existence and its defects. A new moment in religion will begin, Unger argues, when we stop telling ourselves that all will be fine and we begin to face the incorrigible flaws in human existence. Conversely, Unger argues that nihilism arises from the fear that our lives and ourselves may be meaningless, and its onset is triggered when we are unable to grasp the enigma of the totality of the world and our existence. Our mortality only lends weight to this groundlessness.[37]

According to Unger, there are four flaws in the human condition. They are, our mortality and the facing of imminent death; our groundlessness in that we are unable to grasp the solution to the enigma of existence, see the beginning or end of time, nor put off the discovery of the meaning of life for we are immortal; our insatiability in that we always want more, and demand the infinite from the finite; and our susceptibility to belittlement which places us in a position to constantly confront petty routine forcing us to die many little deaths.[38]

Unger sees three major responses in the history of human thought to these flaws: escape, humanization, and confrontation.[39]

  • The overcoming of the world orientation claims that change is an illusion and true reality is hidden; access to this reality must be opened in order to obtain serenity. The religion of Buddhism and philosophical thought of Plato or Schopenhauer best represent this orientation.
  • The humanization of the world orientation creates meaning out of social interactions in a meaningless world by placing all emphasis on our reciprocal responsibility to one another. Confucianism and contemporary liberalism represent this strand of thought.
  • The struggle with the world orientation is framed by the idea that series of personal and social transformations can increase our share of attributes associated with the divine and give us a larger life. This orientation has been articulated in two different voices: the sacred voice of Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam, and the profane voice of the secular projects of liberation.

The religion of the future

Struggle with the world

Time and Space

Time is real and there is only one real world

Criticism and Reception

In 1987 the Northwestern University Law Review devoted an entire issue to Unger's work, hailing the appearance of his three volume magnus opus Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory as "an important intellectual event." Michael J. Perry, a professor of law at Northwestern, commended Unger for producing a vast work of social theory that dared to combine law, history, politics, and philosophy within a single, sweeping narrative. In the years since, Cornel West, Perry Anderson, Richard Rorty, and numerous other prominent scholars have published detailed—and, very often, admiring—essays on Unger's project.[7]

Early reviewers of Politics questioned Unger's seeming predicament of criticizing a system of thought and its historical tradition without subjecting himself to the same critical gaze. "There is little acknowledgment that he himself is writing in a particular socio-historical context," wrote one reviewer,[40] and another asked, "in what context Unger himself is situated and why that context itself is not offered up to the sledgehammer."[41][42] Such criticism has largely been answered by Unger with his enumeration of the revolutionary orthodoxy and his outline of world history.[43]

Critics also balked at the lack of example or concrete vision of his social and political proposals.[44] As one critic wrote, "it is difficult to imagine what Unger's argument would mean in practice," and that "he does not tell us what to make."[45] Others have pointed out that the lack of imagination of such readers is precisely what is at stake,[46] while Unger has since answered such criticism with works on social, political, and economic alternatives.[47][48][49][50]

Writing style

Unger writes with a mix of social theory excess and everyday bluntness, which has overwhelmed some readers. In a telling anecdote, The London Review of Books returned to Unger a solicited piece on the new agenda for the left saying that it was "insufficiently conversational." Unger responded with a note that read, "even in conversation my style would never be considered conversational."[51]

Reviewers of Unger's books have found his writing style philosophically dense and explanations voluminous.[52][53] One reviewer termed his political thought "a staged exercise in political mystique."[54] However, Richard Rorty and others lavished praise for such poetics, comparing Unger to Walt Whitman,[55] and Unger's most recent book, The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, provides more accessible and condensed access to his thought.[43]

See also


  • Knowledge and Politics, Free Press, 1975.
  • Law in Modern Society, Free Press, 1976.
  • Passion: An Essay on Personality, Free Press, 1986.
  • The Critical Legal Studies Movement, Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1987, in 3 Vols:
    • Vol 1 - False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy.
    • Vol 2 - Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task - A Critical Introduction to Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory.
    • Vol 3 - Plasticity Into Power: Comparative-Historical Studies on the Institutional Conditions of Economic and Military Success.
  • What Should Legal Analysis Become?, Verso, 1996
  • Politics: The Central Texts, Theory Against Fate, Verso, 1997, with Cui Zhiyuan.
  • Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative, Verso, 1998.
  • The Future of American Progressivism: An Initiative for Political and Economic Reform, Beacon, 1998 - with Cornel West
  • What Should the Left Propose?, Verso, 2006.
  • The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, Harvard, 2007.
  • Free Trade Reimagined: The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • The Left Alternative, Verso, 2009 (2nd edition to What Should the Left Propose?, Verso, 2006.).


  1. ^ Crabtree, James (2005). "The Future of the left: James Carbtree interview Roberto Unger". Renewal 13 (2/3): 173. 
  2. ^ "Latin America optimistic about Obama". TVNZ. November 6, 2008. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Romano, Carlin (June 6 2008). "Harvard Law's Roberto Unger takes on the future of Brazil". Chronical of Higher Eduction 54 (39): B6. 
  4. ^ "Guggenheim Gives Fellowships for '76 Unger Gets Tenure, Too". The Harvard Crimson. April 5, 1976. Retrieved 31 August 2011. 
  5. ^ Unger, Robero Mangabeira (1976). Law in modern society: toward a criticism of social theory. New York: Free Press.
  6. ^ For a good discussion of Unger's early work on law see Collins, Hugh (1987). "Roberto Unger and the Critical Legal Studies Movement". Journal of Law and Society 14. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Press, Eyal (March 1999). "The Passion of Roberto Unger". Lingua Franca. Retrieved 4 July 2011. 
  8. ^ Collins, Hugh (1987). "Roberto Unger and the Critical Legal Studies Movement". Journal of Law and Society 14: 388. 
  9. ^ Marra, Ana Paula. Mangabeira Unger assume secretaria e diz que Lula foi magnânimo ao convidá-lo para o cargo. Agência Brasil. June 19, 2007. Retrieved on September 8, 2007.(Portuguese)
  10. ^ Marra, Ana Paula. Decreto transfere Ipea para Secretaria de Planejamento de Longo Prazo. Agência Brasil. June 19, 2007. Retrieved on September 8, 2007.
  11. ^ Franco, Ilimar. Temor ronda o Ipea após indicação de Mangabeira. O Globo. April 28, 2007. Retrieved September 8, 2007.(Portuguese)
  12. ^ Guerreiro, Gabriela.Líderes do PRB minimizam críticas de Mangabeira Unger a Lula. Folha de S. Paulo. April 24, 2007. Retrieved on September 8, 2007
  13. ^ A ameaça ao Ipea. O Estado de São Paulo. May 4, 2007. Retrieved September 8, 2007.
  14. ^ de Souza, Josias. Mangabeira Unger faz ‘operação limpeza’ no Ipea. Folha de S. Paulo. September 7, 2007. Retrieved September 8, 2007.
  15. ^ Barrionuevo, Alexei (February 2, 2008). "‘Minister of Ideas’ Tries to Put Brazil’s Future in Focus". New York Times. 
  16. ^ Szabla, Chris (October 4, 2009). "After rocky but influential tenure, Brazil's "Minister of Ideas" returns to HLS". Harvard Law Record. 
  17. ^ Unger, Robero Mangabeira (1976). Law in modern society: toward a criticism of social theory. New York: Free Press. See also, Collins, Hugh (1987). "Roberto Unger and the Critical Legal Studies Movement". Journal of Law and Society 14. 
  18. ^ a b Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). Social Theory: Its situation and its task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1. 
  19. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). Social Theory: Its situation and its task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 2, 87-96, 130-133. 
  20. ^ a b Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. pp. 112-114. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3. 
  21. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. pp. 118. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3. 
  22. ^ a b Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. pp. 119. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3. 
  23. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. pp. 123-124. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3. 
  24. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 35-36, 164, 169, 278-80, 299-301. ISBN 9781859843314. 
  25. ^ Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. xi. 
  26. ^ a b Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. xxi. ISBN 978-1-84467-370-4. 
  27. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). False Necessity: Anti-necessitarian social theory in the service of radical democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. see esp. ch. 5. 
  28. ^ This summary is drawn from Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). Plasticity into Power: Comparative-historical studies on the institutional conditions of economic and military success. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 87–88. 
  29. ^ Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. vii. ISBN 978-1-84467-370-4. 
  30. ^ a b c Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. ix. ISBN 978-1-84467-370-4. 
  31. ^ These policy points are taken from Unger, Roberto Mangabeira, The self awakened: pragmatism unbound (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007), and Unger, Roberto Mangabeira, "What Progressives Should Propose," (September 2011)
  32. ^ a b c d Unger, Roberto. [ttp:// "Social Theory: It's Situation and It's Task"]. ttp:// Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  33. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2007). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 40, ch. 4. 
  34. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2007). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. ch. 4, appendix 1. 
  35. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1986). Passion: An Essay on Personality. New York: Free Press. pp. vii. ISBN 0029331803. 
  36. ^ Tanner Lectures, Self Awakened, Nihilism
  37. ^ Nihilism 1
  38. ^ Nihilism 2
  39. ^ Nihilism 3, 4, 5, 6
  40. ^ Hutchinson, Allan C. “Review: A Poetic Champion Composes: Unger (Not) on Ecology and Women.” The University of Toronto Law Journal 40, no. 2 (April 1, 1990): 279.
  41. ^ Wilder, Joseph C. “Review.” The American Political Science Review 83, no. 2 (June 1, 1989): 623.
  42. ^ See also Yack, Bernard. “Review: Toward a Free Marketplace of Social Institutions: Roberto Unger’s ‘Super-Liberal’ Theory of Emancipation.” Harvard Law Review 101, no. 8 (June 1, 1988): 1970.
  43. ^ a b Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The self awakened: pragmatism unbound. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  44. ^ Yack, Bernard. “Review: Toward a Free Marketplace of Social Institutions: Roberto Unger’s ‘Super-Liberal’ Theory of Emancipation.” Harvard Law Review 101, no. 8 (June 1, 1988): 1969.
  45. ^ Shapiro, Ian. “Review: Constructing Politics.” Political Theory 17, no. 3 (1989): 481, 482.
  46. ^ Rorty, Richard. “Unger, Castoriadis, and the Romance of a National Future.” Northwestern University Law Review 82 (1988 1987).
  47. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Democracy realized: the progressive alternative. London: Verso, 1998
  48. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Free trade reimagined: the world division of labor and the method of economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007
  49. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The future of American progressivism: an initiative for political and economic reform. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998
  50. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The left alternative. London: Verso, 2009.
  51. ^ Crabtree, James. “The Future of the left: James Carbtree interview Roberto Unger.” Renewal 13, no. 2/3 (2005), 173.
  52. ^ See Yack, Bernard. “Review: Toward a Free Marketplace of Social Institutions: Roberto Unger’s ‘Super-Liberal’ Theory of Emancipation.” Harvard Law Review 101, no. 8 (June 1, 1988): 1964.
  53. ^ Ali, Shahrar (July 27, 2004). "Review". The Political Quarterly. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 
  54. ^ Fleischmann, Steven. “Review: The Plastic Politics of Abstraction.” Contemporary Sociology 17, no. 4 (July 1, 1988): 448.
  55. ^ Rorty, Richard. “Unger, Castoriadis, and the Romance of a National Future.” Northwestern University Law Review 82 (1988 1987). See also Allan C. Hutchinson, “Review: A Poetic Champion Composes: Unger (Not) on Ecology and Women,” The University of Toronto Law Journal 40, no. 2 (April 1, 1990): 271-295.

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