Unger, Roberto Mangabeira 1947–

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Unger, Roberto Mangabeira 1947–


Born 1947, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; mother a journalist and poet; married; children: four. Education: Attended college in Brazil; Harvard University, law degree. Hobbies and other interests: Playing the cello.


E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]


Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, from assistant professor to Roscoe Pound Professor of Law, c. 1969—. Directed a foundation for needy children in Brazil, c. 1980s; unsuccessfully ran for Chamber of Deputies seat, Brazil, 1990. Visiting scholar, Yale University, 1999.


Knowledge & Politics, Free Press (New York, NY), 1975.

Law in Modern Society: Toward a Criticism of Social Theory, Free Press (New York, NY), 1976.

Participação, salário e voto: um projeto de democracia para o Brasil, Paz e Terra (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), 1978.

Passion: An Essay on Personality, Free Press (New York, NY), 1984.

The Critical Legal Studies Movement, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1986.

False Necessity—Anti-necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy (Volume 1 in Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory), Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1987, new edition, Verso Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Plasticity into Power: Comparative-Historical Studies of the Institutional Conditions of Economic and Military Success (Volume 3 in Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory), Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1987, new edition, Verso Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1987.

Social Theory, Its Situation and Its Task (Volume 2 in Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory), Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1987, new edition, Verso Books (New York, NY), 2004.

A alternativa transformadora: como democratizar o Brasil, Editora Guanabara Koogan (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), 1990.

(With Ciro Gomes) O próximo passo: uma alternativa prática ao neoliberalismo, Topbooks (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), 1996.

What Should Legal Analysis Become?, Verso (New York, NY), 1996.

Politics the Central Texts: Theory against Fate, edited and introduced by Zhiyuan Cui, Verso (New York, NY), 1997.

Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative, Verso (New York, NY), 1998.

(With Cornel West) The Future of American Progressivism: An Initiative for Political and Economic Reform, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.

Respuestas al neoliberalismo, IIPS (La Paz, Bolivia), 1999.

A segunda via: presente e futuro do Brasil, Boitempo Editorial (São Paulo, Brazil), 2001.

Politics, Verso (New York, NY), 2004.

What Should the Left Propose?, Verso (New York, NY), 2005.

Free Trade Reimagined: The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2007.

The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2007.

Contributor to books, including Law and New Governance in the EU and the US, edited by Grainne de Burca and Joanne Scott, 2006; contributor to periodicals.


In some ways, Roberto Mangabeira Unger's life is a reflection of his maternal grandfather, a man he much admired. Octavio Mangabeira was a former astronomer turned Brazilian politician when his oratory skills were discovered. Unger himself has gone from an academic to becoming a fresh political voice. As a young man, Unger left Brazil for Harvard University to study law. In 1970, however, there was a military crackdown in Brazil, and Unger decided not to go back home. He became, instead, one of Harvard's youngest-ever law professors. By the 1980s he was considered the leader of the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement at Harvard. The central idea of CLS is that people presume incorrectly that the principles forming the basis of the legal system are inherent and not the product of values set up to define power relationships within society. In other words, laws in the United States favor principles that help retain the status quo of power and have no true basis in neutral, universal principles. "The overall goal of C.L.S. is to remove the constraints and hindrances imposed on individuals by unjust social hierarchy and class," explained Calvin Woodard in a New York Times review of Unger's The Critical Legal Studies Movement.

Unger and his like-minded colleagues felt that the legal system could legitimately be challenged and allowed to evolve to create a more just society. Unger first set down some of his basic ideas in his debut book, Knowledge & Politics, which created a huge stir in the academic and legal community. The book "mounted a sharp attack on liberal political philosophy, which he accused of reducing life to a series of false antinomies—rules versus values, reason versus desire," according to Eyal Press in Lingua Franca. Left-leaning in his beliefs, Unger feels that liberalism and other similar political schools are stagnating because of their unwillingness to change and adapt. One key point where Unger differs from many on the Left is his idea that society should not be based so much on equality as on individual capability.

As with his insistence that society and the law should evolve, Unger himself is perfectly willing to allow his theories to change, as is evident in his written work. Reviewing Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory, William Connolly wrote in the New York Times: "Freedom as rising to highest human fulfillment now gives way to freedom as mastery over the contexts that form us: ‘We are our fundamental practices. But we are also the permanent possibility of revising them,’ he says. Productivity, innovation, empowerment, reconstruction, experimentation, context-breaking and self-assertion become key terms in the Unger lexicon." Pointing out the flaws in such schools as Marxism and Naturalism because they make certain inflexible assumptions, Unger says the "general idea [should be] … to enhance the flexibility of governing institutions so that they become effective instruments of individual and collective agency." Many of Unger's critics have seen his views as too utopian, for he "refuses to believe human beings are inherently brutish in the Hobbesian sense," related Woodard. Though Woodard believed that Unger "and his followers weaken their cause by adopting the style of Continental philosophy," the critic also stated that "one cannot fail to be impressed by his high idealism and intelligence."

In some of his works, Unger proposes radical ideas. For instance, Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative "proposes not so much a blueprint but a profoundly new direction that includes high levels of government investment and taxes, required voting and forced savings to buffer states from the influence of international investors," according to New York Times contributor Jeff Madrick. In the more recent The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, Unger goes so far as to assert that there should be "a world revolution that is spiritual as well as political," according to reviewer Leon H. Brody in Library Journal. Brody remarked that Unger's is a difficult work drawing on a broad spectrum of disciplines, such as politics, religion, and philosophy. Moreover, he added, this "highly informed, insightful, and demanding" book argues for political and legal reform as a necessity for humanity's spiritual growth.

In a review of Unger's What Should the Left Propose? in the Guardian Unlimited, John Sutherland com- mented that Unger has evolved into a less utopian-minded and more pragmatic social philosopher. Unger increasingly tries to apply his theories to practical, real-world problems, such as the globalization of economies. Sutherland quoted Unger as asserting: "In a world of democracies, … the different states of the world should represent a form of moral specialisation. … Humanity can develop its powers and possibilities only by developing them in different directions. But if this pluralism is to be compatible with the deepening of human freedom, it must have as one of its premises that a person born into one of these human worlds, but antipathetic to its special character, should be able to escape it. So for all these reasons, one should look to a world in which the freedom of movement is continuously but cautiously expanded."

Unger has also tried to apply his academic work to the real world. Since the 1990s, he has become increasingly active in his native Brazil's politics. He ran unsuccessfully for office in 1990 and then supported finance minister Ciro Gomes in the 1998 and 2002 elections for president. Unger himself has had a number of radical ideas for improving life in Brazil, focusing on one of its largest cities, São Paolo, in particular. Here he proposed a new tax on cars to be used for public transportation systems, government regulation of shantytowns, and a rezoning plan for the city to create multiple pseudocenters, which resemble minicities within the city. While many of Unger's proposals may never be realized as he has conceived them, his highly original theories on society and the law have stimulated political debate worldwide.



Booklist, October 15, 1998, Mary Carroll, review of The Future of American Progressivism: An Initiative for Political and Economic Reform, p. 395.

Ethics & International Affairs, October, 2002, Samuel Moyn, review of False Necessity—Anti-necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, p. 135.

Institutional Investor, May 1997, Lucy Conger, "Tilting at Neoliberalism," p. 91.

Library Journal, March 1, 2007, Leon H. Brody, review of The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, p. 87.

Lingua Franca, March, 1999, Eyal Press, "The Passion of Roberto Unger: A Harvard Law Professor Jettisons His Past and Sets Out to Destabilize Latin America."

New York Times, July 8, 1984, Jerome Neu, "Looking Around for Our Real Selves," review of Passion: An Essay on Personality, section 7, p. 24.

Tikkun, July-August, 2007, review of The Self Awakened, p. 81.

Times Higher Education Supplement, February 24, 2006, Huw Richards, "Ideas Man Decides It's Time to Act: An Interview with Roberto Unger."

Utopian Studies, winter, 2001, Vincent Geoghegan, review of Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative, p. 266.


Guardian Unlimited,http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (February 28, 2006), John Sutherland, "He Wants to Be President of Brazil, and He Believes in the Human Right to Live Anywhere."

Harvard University Law School Web site,http://www.law.harvard.edu/ (October 22, 2007), faculty profile of Roberto Managabeira Unger.

New York Times Online,http://www.nytimes.com/ (November 23, 1986), Calvin Woodard, "Toward a ‘Super Liberal State,’" review of The Critical Legal Studies Movement; (February 7, 1988), William Connolly, "Making the Friendly World Behave"; (July 6, 1998), Tina Rosenberg, "The Latin Left Searches for a Practical Agenda"; (August 24, 1999), Celia W. Dugger, "Sri Lanka Peacemaker's High-Risk Life, and Death"; (October 7, 1999), Simon Romero, "A Brazilian Politician Stirs Fear and Debate on Debt"; (June 11, 2000), Sam Dillon, "Presidential Challenger in Mexico Pitches Tent in Two Camps"; (July 2, 2000), Paul Berman, "Mexico's Third Way"; (July 9, 2000), Ginger Thompson, "Mexico's Voters Spoke"; (August 2, 2001), Jeff Madrick, "The Mainstream Can't or Won't Recognize Some Basic Facts about World Poverty."

Play Ethic,http://theplayethic.typepad.com/ (December 8, 2005), "The Self Unbound," review of The Self Awakened.

Roberto Unger Home Page,http://www.robertounger.com (October 22, 2007).

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