LawProf as Philosopher-King
posted by Frank Pasquale
Carlin Romano’s fascinating profile of Harvard Law Prof Roberto Unger should prove inspiring for any academics who long for a policy role. Here’s a taste:
His political involvement in Brazil dates to the late 1970s, when military dictatorship gave way to a “political opening.” Unger offered his services to the united opposition party. In 1978 he became that party’s chief of staff . . . . In those days, he says with a grin, he consoled himself “during solitary evenings … with readings and translations of Chinese imperial poetry, one of the themes of which is the presence of the exiled intellectual in the dusty steppes.” . . .
In April 2007, [Socialist President] Lula invited Unger for two long conversations in Brasília, then offered him a new position running a “Secretariat for Long-Term Actions.” Unger accepted, informing Lula that he’d start after finishing his Harvard semester. . . .
“I have the only position in the government that is about everything, except for the position of the president,” Unger exults. “He has all power, and I have none. But I have one advantage over him. I don’t have to manage daily crises. I’m therefore free — as he is not — to deal with the future and to deal with our direction. It’s been fantastic.”
Unger’s ideas for change are interesting, though the scholarship that underlies them has gotten a mixed reception in the American academy.
[Cornel] West, an admirer of Unger’s “fascinating” books despite some reservations, praised his project as “the most significant attempt to articulate a Third-Wave Left romanticism that builds on the best of the Jefferson-Emerson-Dewey and Rousseau-Marx-Gramsci legacies.” Jerome Neu celebrated Unger in his Times review of Passion for “some of the most brilliant writing of this kind since Hegel.” Fish tipped his hat to Unger’s “distinctive” voice. Rorty wrote admiringly, “He does not make moves in any game we know how to play.”
In contrast, Stephen Holmes blasted Unger’s 1,140-page Politics in a New Republic review headlined, “The Professor of Smashing: The Preposterous Political Romanticism of Roberto Unger.” In that treatise, Unger argued repeatedly for a “radical project” of “context-smashing” that would usher in a “complete remaking of society.” Holmes groaned that “a more repetitive attack on repetitiveness is difficult to imagine.” Holmes savaged Unger for a “riot of inconsistency” and “overdose of rhetoric,” as well as out-of-control Nietzscheanism . . . .
I share the mixed feelings that Romano reports. I found his big article on CLS a real eye-opener, exposing how major trends in legal scholarship were efforts to cloak an ideological agenda in the guise of objective science. On the other hand, I found much of Politics, a Work in Constructive Social Theory virtually unreadable–partly because of my own deficiencies in social theory, partly due to the abstractness of the “super-theory” he was trying to construct. I’ve also been disappointed by Unger’s appropriation of “plasticity” as a summum bonum–a rejection of the idea of an innate human nature and a desire for “change for its own sake” that can easily lose its emancipatory potential. As Noam Chomsky reminds us,
If in fact man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee [or the blind forces of competition in any contemporary capitalist society]. Those with some confidence in the human species . . . will try to determine the intrinsic human characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community. [For Reasons of State, 404, quoted in Michael Perry, Morality, Politics, and Law.]
Nevertheless, I find the following ideas at the close of Unger’s Knowledge and Politics inspiring:
Within its province, philosophy is sovereign. But this province is limited, and the experience of running up against its limits is indispensable to our knowledge of it. When one thinks philosophical problems through, one comes at last to the outer frontiers, politics and religion, at which the philosopher’s pride is cast down, and other kinds of striving come to the fore. . . . So is man’s meditation on God a final union of thought and love–love which is thought disembodied from language and restored to its source.
Academics and lawyers are prone to overvalue the power of words and reason. Unger helps us see the place of dreams, desire, and passion in politics. Given Brazil’s current state, his courage in entering politics there is extraordinary.
Photo Credit: Biblioteca Nacional, Brasilia, by Luiz Castro.