Professor Unger’s Knowledge and Politics, published in 1975 by The Free Press, impressed this reviewer as the most thorough critique of liberalism he had read. Yet, while rejecting liberal psychological, social, and political thought, Unger did little more than hint at the view of man and society which he would put in its place. In the present work he corrects this defect—at least in part—with a theory of human personality.
I say “in part” because that seems to be as far as he wants to go. He denies that a definitive political theory is desirable or even possible. At the same time he rejects radical skepticism, moral relativism, and historicism. He rightly perceives that such ideas, far from fostering social change, lead men to accept existing ideologies and institutions. These ideas destroy all standards by which the existing order can be judged and all incentives for considering alternative arrangements. “We despair radically,” says Unger, “when we believe that criteria of sense and value can come only from particular social worlds and that we have no reason to take one of those worlds more seriously than any other. ”
Unger seeks to revive the traditional notion that social and political thought can and should be based on substantive conceptions of human personality to which we may attribute normative force. The best of such conceptions, in his view is “the Christian-romantic image of man.” But he combines it with “modernism,” which insists that no conception of man or society is final. According to the modernists, we think as we live in conceptual and institutional contexts, but all contexts are open to revision. It is characteristic of the modernist break with tradition to hold “that everything is contextual and that all contexts can be broken.”
We never arrive at unconditional knowledge or grasp the metastructure of reality. Metaphysical realism is no longer tenable. Nor can we hope to create, even in thought, a “best” society. The most we can do is to open societies to constant criticism, conflict, and eventual collaboration in improvement.
Yet, to speak of improvement is to imply some standard by which we may judge whether our social relationships are getting better, and this in turn requires some conception of human personality. Linger takes as his starting point the human “self,” which finds itself torn between “an unlimited need and an unlimited danger.”
We long for “acceptance and recognition, to be intimately assured that we have a place in the world, and to be freed by this assurance for a life of action and encounter.” In order to satisfy this longing, however, “we must open ourselves to personal attachments and communal engagements” which go beyond our ability to control them and thus threaten “to create a craven dependence and to submerge our individual selves under group identities and social roles.”
The self, in other words, is caught between two dangers. On the one hand, the self cannot assert itself in isolation, and thus radical independence is impotence. On the other hand, it may lose itself in subjection to domination when it enters into union with other selves. “For,” says Linger, “our efforts at self-assertion—at marking out a sustainable presence in the world—may be undermined both by the lack of social involvements and by these involvements themselves.”
Unger’s statement of the basic problem of social and political thought seems to owe a great deal to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He does not, however, state the problem in terms of individual and general will as Rousseau did but in terms of passion. Our longing for others and our dread of subjection to them are both passions and spring from our passionate desire to assert ourselves. The problem is to reconcile them and so to satisfy our basic passion.
No solution is to be found in searching for a “natural” order of society since the thing does not exist. There is no “fixed, ideal balance between the claims of engagement and solitude” and no “specific set of social arrangements . . . realizes this balance.” All social orders are contexts which constrain the self and therefore can and should be broken. Yet the self can exist and think and act only in some context or other, which it must accept as the condition of its being, while refusing to absolutize it and striving to change it. While Unger often sounds like Rousseau, he sounds at other times like Edmund Burke.
Nor does the solution to the social problem lie in any final conception of human nature. We do, according to Unger, have a common human identity, but all conceptions of it are generated in particular historical contexts, as modernism has taught us. What we take from the Christian tradition is the belief that faith, hope, and love will make possible the “acts of mutual acceptance” which can “reconcile the conflicting requirements of self-assertion.”
Unger assures us that accepting these highest of the Christian virtues does not require any religious faith. “Modernism, however,” he adds, “allows us to regain the deeper meaning of insights into human nature that lie buried in the teachings of the great world religions.” An atheist could accept these insights as revealing fundamental human needs despite their religious origins.
Faith, hope, and love may, but need not, imply belief in God or divine revelation. They are not theological commandments but human passions which spring from the human need for self-assertion. As such, they can overcome the vicious passions, rooted ultimately in hatred, which keep us from making “longing and jeopardy advance toward risk and reconciliation.” Only those who are willing to take the risk of rendering themselves vulnerable through love can hope for genuine solidarity with others in society. Hence the closing words of the book: “Salvation through the acceptance of vulnerability is the only kind of salvation there really is.”
Unger does not tell us in any detail what a society governed by faith, hope, and love would look like. It has no definite shape because it is an ideal to be approached, never fully achieved. One gathers nonetheless that, to the extent that it came into being, it would repair the breach between modernism and leftism. The modernist “conviction that the person transcends his contexts,” Unger says, easily mistakes “the deficiencies of a particular social order for the inherent limitations of society.” It must therefore be corrected by the leftist “vision of instituted forms of social life that could in fact be better suited to a context-revising self.”
The ideal would seem to be a society in which everyone could be fully himself or herself, free from the straitjacket of socially assigned roles. It would, for example, reject the “mutilating antithesis” of gender roles and would put in its place “the ideal of the psychologically androgynous person.” Yet it would be a society and not an anarchy. Since human beings must live in contexts—intellectual, moral, and institutional—the most they can demand is that the contexts be always open to revision.
One is left with the impression that Unger sees revision, when properly carried out, as moving in the direction of a rather flat and thin egalitarianism. With all due respect to faith, hope, and love, one would have hoped for a social theory with more flesh on its bones. It may be, however, that something flat and thin is all we can expect if our theorizing begins with the modern conception of the “self.”
One must also wonder whether Unger succeeds in his effort to sail between the Scylla of metaphysical realism and the Charybdis of historicist relativism. It is all very well to say that no theory can be final and that we can only prefer those understandings of ourselves and our world which help us to “make sense of our experience.” The question still remains, where do we get the criteria for judging what makes sense? Unger’s modernist reluctance to accept the possibility of a valid metaphysics deprives him of intellectually ascertainable criteria and leaves him with a theory of man and society in which, to borrow a phrase from Burke, the inferences are in the passions.