Philosophy:The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound

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The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound
The self awakened.png
AuthorRoberto Mangabeira Unger
CountryUnited States
Publisher2007 (Harvard University Press)
ISBNISBN:978-0-674-02354-3 (hardcover); 978-0-674-03496-9 (paperback)
LC ClassB832.U55 2006
Preceded byWhat Should the Left Propose? 
Followed byFree Trade Reimagined 

The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound is a 2007 book by philosopher and politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger. In the book, Unger sets forth a theory of human nature, a philosophical view of time, nature and reality, and a proposal for changes to social and political institutions so that they best nourish the context-transcending quality that Unger sees at the core of human existence. Written in a prophetic and poetic manner that drew comparison with the work of Whitman and Emerson,[1] and delving into issues of humankind's existential predicament in a manner that one critic found evocative of Sartre,[2] The Self Awakened also serves as a summation of many of the core principles of Unger's work.


Unger opens the book by describing the predicament of human beings, who are born into a particular world and constrained by particular contexts, but also possess the ability to resist and subvert the given structures of organization and belief in which they find themselves. He asks, what should our attitude be toward these contexts—the structures and institutions that, at the same time, seem to confine us but never fully contain our ability to subvert them?[3] The dominant response to this situation has been a set of beliefs commonly referred to as the "perennial philosophy", which holds that the world of appearance and distinction is an illusion and that true reality is a single, changeless being or divinity.[4]

Unger contends that the perennial philosophy is an unsatisfactory response to the human situation, because it rests on a denial of transformation, difference, and time, all of which he considers central to a meaningful life. The perennial philosophy calls for a diminution of intensity in life, in contrast to the life of risk and engagement that Unger advocates.[5] Unger contends that the most fruitful and promising philosophical position for enhancing human freedom is a form of radicalized pragmatism.[6] Rejecting the distorted pragmatism that disguises insights about humanity as insights about knowledge and being, Unger's radicalized pragmatism celebrates the primacy of the personal over the impersonal and an ethic of vulnerability over a striving for invulnerability.[7] After setting forth his theory of humanity and arguing for radicalized pragmatism, Unger then sets forth a program for the renovation of society in the spheres of democracy,[8] social life,[9] religion,[10] and philosophy,[11] all of which he urges would be transformed for the benefit of humanity by practices of experimentalism, heightened vulnerability, and a social endowment fund that gives people the security to embrace these attitudes and practices.

Key Ideas

The following ideas are central to Unger's argument in The Self Awakened:

  • The nature of human beings as context-transcending agents: What is distinctive about the human being is his ability to outreach and subvert whatever context he is in. According to Unger, social structures, to nourish the context-transcending quality of human life, must be designed so that they are open to revision.[12] Otherwise, the dead exercise too much control over the living.[13]
  • The concept of radicalized pragmatism: Pragmatism is the most promising philosophical orientation for the radical project that Unger proposes—namely, its privileging of the personal over the impersonal,[14] its valuing of vulnerability over invulnerability,[15] and its definition of knowledge as whatever helps us achieve success in our projects.[16] Unger celebrates a mindset that involves experimentation, improvisation, and risk, a way of working that looks for tools as we need them.[17] Pragmatism in its purest form expresses that way of working and understanding. But according to Unger, the classic tradition of American pragmatism mistook an insight into human life for an insight into knowledge. He wants to "radicalize" pragmatism and return its emphasis to its central insight, which is a "personalist" philosophy.[18][19]
  • The rejection of the perennial philosophy: The perennial philosophy is a dead-end, according to Unger, because it seeks to dim our intensity as the price of serenity. It denies the reality of time and transformation. Unger argues that our vitality is all we have, and a philosophy that seeks to diminish our vitality is, in doing so, denying us the quality most valuable to us, the quality that makes us godlike.[20]
  • The time-drenched nature of the world: Nothing, Unger argues, is untouched by time. Even natural laws have a history, and may have changed during the history of the universe.[21]
  • The reality of difference and transformation: For us to live with vitality and fully experience our lives as context-transcending agents, Unger argues that we must embrace the reality of difference and transformation.[22]
  • The importance of experimenting with different institutional expressions of democratic ideals: Unger argues that the American expression of democratic ideals is too often distorted by an exaggerated belief in the ability of people to rise by their own efforts, without social structures in place to foster their social mobility and to provide social endowments that give them the security to take risks.[23] Unger contends that we must experiment with social structures in an attempt to better fulfill the democratic promise.[24]
  • The future: Unger argues that we need to live for the future as a way of living in the present.[25][26]
  • American distortion of pragmatism: The American pragmatist tradition has mistaken its insight into humanity for an insight into epistemology and metaphysics. Unger wants to return pragmatism to an emphasis on the "personalist" dimension that he considers its most promising feature.[27] He also contends that pragmatism was married to a form of institutional dogma, democratic perfectionism, that diminishes its message.[28]
  • The importance of an ethic of vulnerability: To foster an ethic of vulnerability, in which people are more enabled to take risks in personal connection and as enterprising, creative agents, should be a principal task of an experimentalist democracy as Unger envisions it.[29]
  • The need to reform society to make it more susceptible to transformation: Making society more susceptible to transformation would help to achieve what Unger sees as a high ideal of the kind of state he imagines: in which society is modeled on the imagination, and open to the recursive, infinite, context-transcending qualities of the human mind.[30]
  • The possibility of genuine novelty: Unger contends that the tradition of the perennial philosophy, and many other philosophical perspectives, deny the possibility of genuine novelty, and they have a diminished sense of the possibility of the "new." States of affairs, according to this diminished view, are merely penumbra of the actual, like actors waiting to come onstage. Unger, drawing upon his insight into the "time-drenched" nature of the world in which transformation is central, views genuine novelty as possible.[31]
  • Mind as imagination: The imagination is the central aspect of the mind that gives human life its context-transcending power.[32][33] Three tendencies in today's humanities and social sciences—rationalization, humanization, escapism—disarm the imagination.[34]
  • Philosophy as a discipline devoted to expanding the range of things that can be said: Philosophy is neither super-science nor form of self-help, Unger argues; it is most effective when it adopts a third mission, which is to be a discipline devoted to unsettling, undermining, subverting, and expanding the range of things that can be said.[35]
  • Troublemaking and iconoclasm: The idea that people should be free and encouraged to "look for trouble," to be iconoclasts, because that is a way of living for the future as a certain way of living in the present.[36][29][37]


Lee Smolin reviewed the book in The Times Higher Education Supplement. Smolin praised the range and ambition of Unger's book: "These days, few professional academics profess the ambitions of the great philosophers of the past.... One exception to this is Roberto Mangabeira Unger, whose book The Self Awakened shows him to be one of the few living philosophers whose thinking has the range of the great philosophers of the past." Smolin assessed the book as "highly accessible to a broadly educated reader. It is written in a vivid prose style that mixes precise lawyerly argument with poetic and metaphorical passages of astounding vividness. It is a polemic and a call to action, but what it challenges us to do most of all is to experiment with how we live and think. It is many years since I found myself as inspired and provoked by a book of non-fiction." Smolin concluded: "This is a philosophy as ambitious as any being written now."[38]

Douglas McDermid, writing in the Review of Politics, described The Self Awakened as "penned by three Roberto Ungers: a poet-preacher, a philosopher, and a political theorist." McDermid criticized The Self Awakened, saying "The book overreaches hugely: in a mere 256 pages (no bibliography, no notes, no quotations), Unger tells us what he thinks about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, religion, science, economics, art, mathematics, society, education, politics, consciousness, nature, human nature, genetic engineering, life, and love ..."[39] Decrying Unger's "paucity of careful argumentation," McDermid contends that "his lack of engagement with opponents real or imagined gives the volume an oddly solipsistic, self-enclosed feel—ironic, given its title."[40] McDermid is sharply critical of Unger's use of the term "pragmatism" to describe his philosophy, stating that such a description does Unger a disservice:

In my opinion, it would be much more useful and illuminating to see him as a moralist in the tradition of Emerson. Both Emerson and Unger are buoyant optimists who preach the doctrine of “the infinitude of the private man;” both stress the epiphanic character of ordinary experience; both wage eloquent war against the tyranny of custom; both depict life as ceaseless process, as change without limit or end; and both shine when they eschew dialectic and simply speak their “latent conviction”—often in the form of memorable and arresting apothegms. In short, the best parts of The Self Awakened ... are, like the best of Emerson, simultaneously edifying and provocative, perceptive and hopeful.[41]

Louis Groarke reviewed The Self Awakened in The Heythrop Journal. Groarke acknowledges that the book is "written with an undeniable flair and a cosmopolitan eloquence, incorporating different aspects of a socially-progressive ideology into a comprehensive metaphysics." But Groarke contends that "[t]he knowledgeable reader will find nothing that has not been said, many times over, by other authors in more precise or compelling terms. This is not truly original work. Unger does not undertake the hard work of rigorous, objective argument."[42]

Ruth Levitas considers both The Self Awakened and Democracy Realized in her article "Pragmatism, Utopia, and Anti-Utopia". Levitas writes that "[t]he radical potential of pragmatism is made explicit" in The Self Awakened. Comparing The Self Awakened to Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country, Levitas writes that while both authors adopt a pragmatist approach to advancing progressive aims, Levitas writes that Unger distances himself from Rorty's "shrunken pragmatism" which is associated with a kind of "democratic perfectionism ... that effectively denies the alterability of social life, fetishizing a particular set of institutional arrangements."[43] Contrary to Rorty's "anti-utopian" perspective, Levitas writes, Unger "may actually be utopian in the best sense of the word."[44]

Levitas also considered The Self Awakened in an essay on the legacy of May '68. She contends that the utopian energies unleashed by the events of May '68 have been "largely extinguished," but refers to Unger's ideas in The Self Awakened as a rare contemporary manifestation of the May '68 spirit.

The quest for alternative futures needs to ... lead to politically effective action. Roberto Unger has suggested that this action leads to a kind of utopian pragmatism—improvisation of new institutions, new social processes, new ways of being. Unger argues for a sense of prophetic identity, which runs counter to contemporary politics of identity and does resonate with the sense of ’68: we should define ourselves in terms of what we might become, not where we came from.[45]

Martin Stone offered sharply qualified praise for The Self Awakened in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Stone described the book as

vintage Unger: exhortative, deeply romantic, full of moral intensity, relentlessly hopeful, marginal to professional philosophy. The work is part essay (after Emerson or the German romantics), part sermon, part political manifesto, and part critical theory. It is a left-romantic-existential-political Wake-Up Call. There is an American optimism and energy about it too. It seems more spiritually akin to Whitman or Emerson than to the "Pragmatists" it celebrates.[2]

Stone also praised the vivid quality of Unger's writing: "The sound of the writing is one of Unger's signatures—the Epistle to the Romans meets the lawyer's appellate brief. And that is no accident. It's part of Unger's ambition to bring visionary modes of thought—those which are sometimes called prophetic or poetic—closer to the language of institutional rationality."[2] But Stone criticizes Unger's way of grappling with philosophical problems, arguing that his philosophical method is at odds with his message of plasticity, transcendence, and encounter:

Although its ideas are solidarity and sympathy, Unger's writing is notably impatient and dismissive, obliterating where it should criticize or respond. It speaks of the radical potential in personal encounter, but it overpowers the other by netting him in the many "theses" and "alternative views" that rigidly structure its intellectual space. Wanting plasticity and availability to experience, it freezes and fixates ....[2]

Stone concludes that The Self Awakened is "[i]nspiring in the survey it offers of Western thought, as well as in its radicalization of liberal political themes," but that "it is bound both to excite and disappoint the philosophical reader."[2]

See also


  1. McDermid 2008, pp. 306-309.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Stone 2007.
  3. Unger 2007, p. 3.
  4. Unger 2007, pp. 10-11.
  5. Unger 2007, pp. 14-15: "The perennial philosophy draws its inspiration from the urge to confront this intolerable contrast between the transcending impulse of consciousness and our entrapment in mortality and mystery. The nature of its response is to redefine our situation so as to reassert, in the presence of circumstances that seem to deny them, the prerogatives of context-transcending spirit. The perennial philosophy does so, however, only by denying the ultimate reality of the perceptions of distinction and change that determine our picture of the world and of life in society. This denial turns out to exact a cost more terrible than the sufferings from which it would deliver us ... the calamity of a vacuum of initiative and belief."
  6. Unger 2007, pp. 27-51.
  7. Unger 2007, pp. 52-53.
  8. Unger 2007, pp. 182-195, Chapter 10: Politics: Democracy as Anti-Fate.
  9. Unger 2007, pp. 171-181, Chapter 9: Society: The Perpetual Invention of the Future.
  10. Unger 2007, pp. 208-229, Chapter 12: Religion: The Self Awakened.
  11. Unger 2007, pp. 230-237, Chapter 13: Philosophy: Beyond Superscience and Self-Help.
  12. Unger 2007, pp. 54-55.
  13. Unger 2007, p. 69: "The naturalized arrangements of society and culture ... exhibit and facilitate the empire of the dead over the living."
  14. Unger 2007, p. 54: "[I]n the implications of the claim of the priority of the personal over the impersonal ... we can find both what is most puzzling and what is most promising about pragmatism ..."
  15. Unger 2007, p. 53: "The road to self-possession and self-construction passes through a selective lowering of defenses, the creation of zones of heightened reciprocal vulnerability."
  16. Unger 2007, pp. 34-35: "Ideas and arrangements are tools, allowing [the individual] to cope with his situation; their most important feature is their instrumental character."
  17. Unger 2007, p. 142: "The freer we are to redefine practical tasks in the course of executing them, to develop a regime of cooperation that is to the greatest possible extent hospitable to permanent innovation, and to soften the contrast between order and chaos or design and improvisation, the better our chance of quickening economic growth and technical innovation. We disentangle our relations to one another from the established scripts of society and culture, and we turn them into a collective representation of experimental inquiry."
  18. Unger 2007, p. 51: "The result [of Unger's radicalization of pragmatism] deserves the name of pragmatism if anything does because it speaks to what, from the beginning, mattered most, and had most promise, in that tradition of thought."
  19. Unger 2007, pp. 53-54: "Within what understanding of the world, of the self, of society, and of thought, can we best develop this revolutionary impulse in our civilization, testing its credentials and working out its consequences? The pragmatism that is worth saving is just another name for the philosophy that takes this question as its own. The most troublesome element in this philosophical enterprise is its very first move: the assertion of the primacy of the personal over the impersonal, the determination to begin where we are, in our human world."
  20. Unger 2007, pp. 10-25.
  21. Unger 2007, pp. 81-110.
  22. Unger 2007, p. 18: "What individuals can do with their lives depends on the way society is organized and on their place within the social order, as well as on achievement and luck. What happens in biographical time turns in large part on what happens in historical time. For this reason alone, history is a scene of decisive action, and everything that takes place in it is, like individuality itself, for real, not an illusory or distracting epiphenomenon obscuring a timeless reality .... The reality of difference and transformation, rooted in the basic facts of individual experience, then becomes a model on which we see and confront the whole world."
  23. Unger 2007, p. 24: "[T]he institutional dogma tainting democratic perfectionism sets the stage for the cult of self-reliance."
  24. Unger 2007, p. 185: "No part of this work is more important than the reconstruction of democracy, given the role of politics in setting the outer limits for the revision of every aspect of society."
  25. Unger 2007, p. 141: "The supreme form of engagement without surrender is to live for the future and to struggle over its direction as a certain way of living right now ..."
  26. Unger 2007, p. 234: "[P]hilosophy ... has a message. The message, is that we should live for the future as a way of living more completely and more fully in the present, unbowed, with eyes wide awake."
  27. Unger 2007, p. 36: "In each [of the three characteristic ideas of the pragmatist tradition], an insight into humanity and self-consciousness is compromised by being represented—unadvisedly—as a claim about knowledge and nature in general.... Each imposes on pragmatism an overlay of naturalism."
  28. Unger 2007, pp. 50-51: "[P]ragmatism has been remarried to this democratic perfectionism as the philosophical expression of a set of national attitudes. The price ... has been to corrupt the expression and the radicalization of [the underlying themes of pragmatism] at the hands of what is in fact a Western heresy."
  29. 29.0 29.1 Unger 2007, p. 140: "For the last two hundred years, [a] family of beliefs about humanity and society ... repudiates the effort to find happiness in serenity and serenity in invulnerability. It recommends looking for trouble ... accepting a heightened vulnerability as the price of transformation and self-transformation."
  30. Unger 2007, p. 176: "[t]o extend in social life the susceptibility of all arrangements and practices to experimental transformation (the principle of revision).... it is in our interest to [adopt] practices and institutions that shorten the distance between our context-preserving and context-transforming moves ..."
  31. Unger 2007, p. 61: "From the vantage point of reflective action ... the possible is not the antecedent of the actual but its consequence. Something new has emerged in the world, something we may have ourselves created. It may have arisen in violation of the rules of possibility and propriety codified in the preeexisting regimes of society or of thought. We then arrange our view of the constraints on the transformation of certain pieces of the world. This rearrangement is our image of the possible. Correctly understood, it is an afterglow that we now mistake for an antecedent light."
  32. Unger 2007, p. 132: "[O]ur most significant innate faculty is a structure for outreaching and rebuilding all structures. This structure is the mind in its least computable and its least modular aspects: what we call imagination."
  33. Unger 2007, p. 135: "The mind ... exhibits two characteristic powers: the power of recursive infinity and the power of nonformulaic initiative. By the power of recursive infinity, the mind makes infinite combinations out of finite elements. By the power of nonformulaic initiative, it does things that are not rule-bound."
  34. Unger 2007, pp. 111-124: "Three ways of thinking—rationalization, humanization, escapism—are in the ascendant. Each has its headquarters in a distinct group of disciplines. The votaries of each oppose the champions of the others. Nevertheless, they work unknowingly together to disarm the transcending imagination and to inhibit the transforming will."
  35. Unger 2007, p. 233: "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."
  36. Unger 2007, p. 70: "[T]he impulse of iconoclasm: refusing unconditional reality and value to the contingent and flawed worlds we build and affirming that there is always more in us, individually and collectively, than there can ever be in them.
  37. Unger 2007, p. 148: "What I propose is a view giving us reasons to look for trouble."
  38. Smolin 2007.
  39. McDermid 2008, pp. 306-307.
  40. McDermid 2008, pp. 307-308.
  41. McDermid 2008, p. 309.
  42. Groarke 2012, p. 531.
  43. Levitas 2008b, pp. 53-54.
  44. Levitas 2008b, p. 58.
  45. Levitas 2008a, p. 92.