Temporal Naturalism and Deep Freedom: Roberto Mangabeira Unger's The World and Us

reviewed by Alexander Malakhov
Roberto Mangabeira Unger, one of the most influential intellectuals of our time and a rare example of a truly original thinker, has recently published a groundbreaking six-hundred-page work, The World and Us, which represents a pivotal point in his lifelong philosophical quest. Raised in Brazil, Unger was forced to leave the country after the military coup due to the threat of persecution. He had spent a considerable portion of his life in the United States, but upon his return to Brazil, he re-engaged in the country's political scene following its transition back to democracy. For a time, he even served as a federal minister. In American academia, Unger became a star, played a pivotal role in the emergence of Critical legal studies, and developed an extraordinarily humanistic theory of society that defends the possibility of radical novelty in our social experimentation.

Verso, 2024. 640 p.
Over time Unger's project proved to be much more ambitious, encompassing not only politics but also the theory of reality, epistemology, ethics, natural philosophy, and what is commonly referred to as philosophical anthropology—the study of the ultimate conditions of human existence as rational, embodied, and finite beings. The realization of this project took a long time, producing a couple of masterpieces along the way (The Religion of the Future and The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time), and now at last Unger's comprehensive work has been published, summarizing his ongoing quest.

The book covers almost all areas of philosophy and grand theory, redefining many of them along the way: metaphilosophy (the question of the methods, tasks, and possibility of the philosophical enterprise), philosophy of science, ontology (the nature of reality), epistemology (knowledge and its limits), ethics (how to live oneself), political philosophy (how to live in community), and numerous excursions into other spheres. Unger weaves together questions ranging from the nature of time, the limits of knowledge, and the tragedy of our finitude to the reform of social institutions and the reinvention of the knowledge economy. This alone places him among the very few contemporary thinkers who dare to undertake such a scope without falling into banality and superficiality.

At the same time, it is resolutely impossible to attribute Unger to any established school of thought. He is definitely not an analytic philosopher, although, being an outstanding legal theorist, he knows how to formulate ideas and arguments clearly. But Unger does not fit into the continental camp either. Perhaps his orientation can be described as an original form of pragmatism, as he is willing to distance himself from discussing many ultimate questions when it seems to him that focusing on them would distract from people's real lives and solving pressing problems.

The main thread of the narrative unfolds from ontology through epistemology and anthropology, to ethics and political philosophy. Unger radically rethinks ontology, making it more down-to-earth in two spheres: natural philosophy and social theory. Natural philosophy, once a venerable discipline, practically disappeared a century ago, but Unger undertakes to bring it back to life. For him, natural philosophy is not the philosophy of science or metatheory, but a critical reflection on what can be said about the surrounding world based on the best available data and theories.

Unger calls his ontology temporal naturalism. It is temporal because time plays a key role in it; everything has a history, and everything changes, including the basic mechanisms of change itself. It is naturalism because it considers the world as it is without "why," without seeking external meaning or explanation for its nature. Unger's two main opponents are the philosophy of deep (timeless) structure—dominant in Western thought in various forms, from ancient Greek systems to theories of modern physics—and the philosophy of timelessness (Timeless One), characterizing most Eastern traditions. Despite all their differences, their common point, which Unger opposes, is the denial of the reality and fundamental character of time. For Unger, no timeless logic and script are dictating how and where the flow of time should go; here he diverges from teleological temporalism (Whitehead, Chardin, etc.) because for him, to recognize a goal would mean to recognize that outside of time there is an external pointer, a standard, setting if not the direction, then the measure of things. Instead, there is an infinite possibility of novelty and a flow of time that carries and absorbs everything, but the temporality of everything does not mean its ephemerality; on the contrary, although everything is temporary, everything is real.

In this temporal Universe, people find themselves in a rather tragic situation—they have nothing to rely on, they're deprived of a foundation (groundlessness) and they're fundamentally finite. (I must say, Unger's reflections on human mortality are some of the most intimate and poignant lines in the book). But man has a unique ability for transcendence—to surpass any boundaries and predetermined conditions. It is in this combination of finitude and transcendence that the drama of human existence lies. Since Unger avoids introducing any external referents for this transcendence (God, Enlightenment), it is considered by him as a pure ability—we do not know how far we can reach and we have no destination, we only have the path that we pave from moment to moment, surpassing any fate.

In epistemology, Unger's pragmatism is most evident—yes, consistent skepticism cannot be refuted, and it is impossible to formulate an unconditional criterion of knowledge, but that's okay—let's focus on what we can do. And it turns out that we (or rather, Unger) can do quite a lot—his analysis of crises in science, the dynamics of knowledge production, the temptations of relativism and reductionism is subtle and convincing. Unger's positive program in epistemology is analogous to his program of social change—finding a middle way between revolutions (radical breaks) and superficial reforms; progress in our understanding can develop gradually, but at the same time this progress can be quite radical. Not limiting himself to philosophy and natural sciences, Unger ends the epistemological chapter with a deep excursion into art as a specific way of knowing.

When discussing ethics, Unger is particularly critical of the dominant forms of academic philosophy, which focus on theoretical models and simple criteria for decision-making in abstract situations. A final ethical theory is impossible and undesirable; ethics is the practice of achieving clarity about our way of life. As two paradigmatic ways of life, Unger considers the Ethic of Self-fashioning and Non-conformity, most vividly represented by American society, and the Ethic of Connection and Responsibility, most vividly represented by Chinese civilization. Their theoretical synthesis is impossible, but we can learn from each position.

At this point in the book, the stage is set and all the figures are in place, and Unger moves on to the political implications of his philosophy. Here Unger's philosophy comes full circle and finds its completion, and in retrospect, it turns out that everything Unger has written over half a century about society, law, and the liberation of humanity fits into a single picture—even his local political proposals are inscribed in his holistic theory of reality.

There are many brilliant political philosophers and social theorists in the world, but most of them limit their attention to social issues and carefully avoid disputes about the nature of reality or even the nature (it's better to say condition) of man—the world is separate, people and their affairs are separate. Unger looks at things in a completely different way—the fact/value dichotomy (empirical/normative) does not seem so fundamental to him; the more we peer into reality and reflect on our position in the Cosmos, the more it informs our idea of what is possible and desirable for us. And since for Unger reality is infinitely open to novelty, the emergence of new forms, and the possibility of transforming the basic mechanisms of change themselves, he sees these potentials in society as well. But Unger categorically does not accept the justification of the social order through its naturalization—correspondence to the alleged cosmic order—since the whole point of us as humans is transcendence, the ability to imagine and embody the unseen, surpassing any fate.

From this follows Unger's political program, Deep Freedom,"to live a larger life, not alone but with other people—to become greater together." The imperative for society is structural reform aimed at expanding the horizons of the possible, creating conditions (and providing resources) for each person to realize their ability for transcendence, understood here also in a very practical sense, as the ability to produce new social practices and social innovations (of which Unger is a prominent proponent). Unger contrasts such "Deep Freedom" with the "shallow freedom" of the right (freedom within the existing rules and institutions) and the "shallow equality" of the left (redistribution without eliminating the root causes of inequality).

Historically people faced a double crucifixion that determined their social fate—on the cross of class/caste and on the cross of the culture and society in which they were born. Although the prophets of the past showed the possibility of a fundamentally different world, it is only in recent centuries that humanity has begun to move towards Deep Freedom, which has found particularly vivid expression in democracy, liberalism, and socialism in politics, and romanticism in culture. The first showed that we could reject our social destiny and create another way of social life, while romanticism brought to the broader culture the idea of the infinite depth contained within each person.

Unger is known in particular for his idea of false necessity which deconstructs fixed views on society and social change (the market is X and only X, etc). In contrast, he emphasizes the importance of experimentation and imagination in public life. There is no ideal society that we must build, but there are directions of social evolution that open up more opportunities for transcendence and "deep freedom." Unger elaborates on the democratization of the market economy (which can find completely different institutional expressions than in historical capitalism), the expansion of the knowledge economy (which should encompass the entire economy, including those sectors and enterprises that are now in the rearguard), the liberation of labor (wage labor is not free labor), the revision of the concept of property, and the reform and deepening of democracy. A healthy state and a functional market play a fundamental role, but Unger's ideal is people organizing to realize their common freedom in civil society and creating a space that becomes a platform for social innovation. Since Unger attaches the highest importance to humanity's ongoing study of various ways of its existence, which requires the preservation of pluralism, he fiercely opposes the idea of a global government—"the price of the division of humanity into sovereign states is high. But it is not as high as the price of bringing the entire human race under the control of a world state"—very cleverly coping with the issues raised by the presence of such a diversity of value systems, forms of governance, and (including dysfunctional) actors.

This is a very schematic presentation of Unger's political program, which he has been developing since the 1970s, including in his recent works The Knowledge Economy (2019) and Governing the World Without World Government" (2022). If we are talking about the book as a whole, it is a very worthy summary of his philosophy. Unger writes without fear of delving into details and touching on controversial topics, but clearly, convincingly, and truly poetically—as real thinkers should write.