Dependence and Danger

Paul Seabright

  • Passion: An Essay on Personality by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Collier MacMillan, 300 pp, £13.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 02 933120 X
  • The Needs of Strangers by Michael Ignatieff
    Chatto, 156 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2866 6

Is it possible for the aspirations of politics in mass societies to be informed by that central tradition in art, religion and psychology which emphasises the world of personal relationships as the supreme source of value and fulfilment for human beings? This question, one of the most important in political philosophy, has been curiously neglected by the Anglo-Saxon tradition in our own time. It is marginal even in political rhetoric, the province of hippies and High Church totalitarians. How many of those on the left, who in their public lives advocate a ‘politics of compassion’, would be satisfied in their private lives with receiving compassion from others instead of dignity or love? How many of those on the right who see the aim of politics as the expansion of freedom would regard the pursuit of freedom per se in their own lives as anything other than empty, even wanton? In the relationships that matter to us most, it can be bitter to be offered compassion without passion, freedom without attachment. There is, it is true, a version of pluralism in political thought which draws a neat line between the public and the private spheres. It allocates to politics the role of ensuring that the conditions of public life (the distribution of power and wealth, the protection of individual rights) are such as to allow individuals the best opportunities to pursue a life of private personal encounter, in which life alone human fulfilment lies. It thus reconciles (or defends the inconsistency between) the values of politics and those of personal encounter at the cost of an unconvincing dichotomy between public and private: unconvincing partly because with improving techniques of communication and control, with ‘personality polities’, the private realm extends increasingly outward, but chiefly because, as artists have always known, even into relationships of the most familial and intimate kind politics can reach very far.

Roberto Unger’s remarkable new book, while avowedly an account of personality, of the role and inter-relationship of the passions in what he identifies as ‘the modernist image of man’, is inescapably about politics. Of psychiatry, for example, he writes:

An unmistakable and unsettling fact about modern psychiatry, and especially about psychotherapy, is that it flourishes in the rich countries of the contemporary Western world, where politics are a narrow exercise in bargaining and drift, where the possibility that society might be deeply transformed through collective action is made to look like a revolutionary reverie, where permanent cultural revolution co-exists with permanent political deadlock, and where the privileged devote themselves to the expensive, selfish and impotent cultivation of subjectivity. In these societies, a large part of the structure of social life that is effectively withdrawn from the scope of democratic politics is handed over to the professions and treated as a matter of technical necessity or scientific expertise.

It is rare for the political dimension, and rarer still for the polemical tone, to enter so explicitly into his writing. But he rejects categorically the abdication of political thought from the realm of personal relationships. His central argument is summed up by him thus:

the structures of society and the routines of character never fully inform our practical and passionate dealings with one another ... we can find in the resulting anomalies of personal experience and collective practice elements for the construction of countermodels to existing personal or collective order ... the countermodels on which we have reason to act now are the ones that promise to empower us more fully, and ... among the varieties of empowerment for which we strive is the one that results from diminishing the conflict between the implications of our mutual jeopardy and the consequences of our mutual dependence, between the imperative of engagement and the perils of oppression and depersonalisation.

It will be evident that the book’s strength does not lie in crisp exposition. This makes it hard to give a sense of its qualities through direct quotation, though there are some attractively-written passages and a few memorable aphorisms. At the heart of the book lies modernism, not an untidy historical creation of the actual literary movement but a neater doctrine abstracted from it, a doctrine Unger construes according to the solution it offers to two problems. One is ‘the problem of contextuality’: ‘our relation to the habitual settings of our action – the routinised collective institutions and preconceptions, the personal habits stylised in the form of a character, and the fundamental methods and conceptions employed in the investigation of nature – that we regularly take for granted’. Unger’s modernism both affirms the context-dependence of our personality, and denies that any context is ‘natural’ for us, by which he means that no context ‘allows those who move within it to discover everything about the world that they can discover’. So the predicament as well as the privilege of the human personality is ‘our need to be in particular contexts and our inability to rest content with any contexts in particular’. We are for ever limited by the fortuitous circumstances of our embodiment, but are always capable of questioning and transcending any particular inherited limits, of reinventing ourselves. If human beings are subject to determinism, it is at the level of their atoms; the categories in which we recognise character never limit completely the future development of a person. If Unger never uses the Wittgensteinian term ‘forms of life’ to describe these contexts which ground but never bound our lives, that is because he prefers to re-invent his jargon too. One way to understand this modernism is to see it as freeing Flaubert’s sentiment that chaque notaire porte en soi les débris d’un poète from its hint of artistic chauvinism, by suggesting that every poet also carries within him the debris of an accountant.

In his preface to the New York edition of The Ambassadors, the first great novel to be written in the modern century, Henry James wrote that ‘for development, for expression of its maximum, my glimmering story was, at the earliest stage, to have nipped the thread of connection with the possibilities of the actual reported speaker. He remains but the happiest of accidents; his actualities, all too definite, precluded any range of possibilities; it had only been his charming office to project upon that wide field of the artist’s vision – which hangs there ever in place like the white sheet suspended for the figures of a child’s magic lantern – a more fantastic and more moveable shadow.’ For Roberto Unger, the aura of unrealised possibility is to be found in all human personality, not just in that which is artistically conceived and enhanced. It is central to modernism’s solution of his second main problem, which he calls ‘the problem of solidarity’: ‘the unlimited quality of both our mutual dependence and the jeopardy in which we place one another, and ... the tendency of these two features of our life to push us in opposite directions’. The power of love to transform the tension between our need for and our vulnerability to one another lies in its capacity to show us a person as someone who is greater than the sum of what he has done, someone whose potential transcends his character and circumstances and thus retains for us an element of magic. Likewise our acceptance by another person helps us to come to terms with ourselves as grounded in the accidental particularities of our lives without being suffocated by them. ‘This truth has sometimes been described as the idea of the infinite imprisoned within the finite. It may be less contentiously characterised as the belief that the capabilities and the demands of the self are disproportionate to its circumstances,’

The reason this agreeable solution to the problem of solidarity is so hard to attain and maintain is precisely the friction between our public and private lives. ‘To obtain the means for our material support we must take a place in the social division of labour. When we do so, the institutional forms of production and exchange risk enmeshing us in the ties of subjugation and dominion.’ But without the categories of social life ‘the imagination cannot work ... If we stray too far or too quickly from the collective script we are left without a way to converse. These experiences present less a conflict between the affirmation of individuality and participation in social life than a clash between the enabling conditions of self-assertion. For 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.’

Politics on this view is merely the more public end of a spectrum of human engagements in which we seek continually to re-examine the language and conventions of our activity. ‘The world of face-to-face relations contains in undefined form all the possible schemes of human association.’ An open society is valuable, not for what it brings, but for what it is; openness is an end of politics as of all human encounter. Unger spends most of this book giving an account of individual passions-love, hate, pride, hope, envy, jealousy, despair and others – by describing them as particular forms of our response to the paradox of dependence and danger. He rejects two influential conceptions of passion, which we might crudely label the Stoic and the Freudian views:

one ... contrasts passion to reason; another, to social convention. Each of these traditions of thought suggests a different perspective upon what madness ultimately means. In one case, it is a passion that gets out of hand, rebels against reason, and causes a loss of the sense of reality. In the other case, it is emotion that detaches itself from its normal objects in society, rises up against the demands of an established form of social life, and goes from maladjustment to complete social antagonism or paralysis.

Instead, his own view ‘puts passion at the centre and ... describes it in relation to itself rather than to a contrasting reality’. For Unger, ‘the ground of passion ... is the domain of experience in which people count for one another as more than means or obstacles to the realisation of practical ends. The other person is surrounded by an aura, as if each episode of passionate encounter raised, and provisionally answered, the basic question: is there a place for me in the world, or am I one too many?’ And he makes the bold claim that ‘all the vices described in classical moral doctrine, starting from the root experience of hatred, can be understood as different forms and degrees of failure in the achievement of a solution to the problem of longing and jeopardy.’

If there were any justice towards those who toil in the vineyards of scholarship, Unger’s book would be a failure. In a work that claims to expound a conception of personality advanced by an identifiable literary tradition, there are only a dozen or so names mentioned. Reference is made to precisely two other works: Rousseau’s Emile and a previous article of Unger’s in the Harvard Law Review. One result is a curious arbitrariness, even at times a misrepresentation, when he does name names: a cardboard Wittgenstein is mentioned as an opponent; the parentage of Hegel (to whom this theory owes more than to any properly modernist writer) is never avowed. The work itself belongs to a genre – the speculative treatise on human nature – that the author acknowledges to have fallen into disuse. He does not acknowledge that some of the reasons it has done so are good ones: the sciences of human behaviour, for all their mechanism and naivety, have at least shown us that armchair investigations into human nature are apt to produce much parochial nonsense. Lacking either literary or scientific anchors, one might expect an essay on personality to take care to make its exposition concrete and precise. On the contrary, this book employs a persistently abstract discourse full of private terms of art. The author seems unaware of the literary convention that the words ‘for example’ introduce a phrase or sentence less abstract than those that precede it. His prose often and almost provocatively approaches the fine line between gravity and preciosity.

But there is no justice, and this is a book of rare subtlety and boldness, one of the most rewarding works of moral philosophy I have read in a long time. It is remarkably surefooted, never allowing its abstraction from either the specific manifestations of personality or an established tradition of debate to deflect it from its purpose. Though Unger’s prose may sometimes take the high road when a reader would prefer the low road, he gets to the point before us with unnerving regularity. The effect is not so much a product of individual passages: his analysis of jealousy, for example, is elegant and succinct, but says nothing about the contours of this emotion that cannot be found in Proust. What is really impressive is this book’s beautiful economy of conception, which illuminates the discussion of each emotion with reflections of earlier passages. Jealousy is not sui generis; it is a development in the counterpoint of the mutual fear and longing of individuals, a modulation into an unexpectedly sombre key. The components of jealousy are those of many other emotions, and the slightest rearrangement can nudge the counterpoint in a more positive direction. It is a counterpoint that has its part in politics too. Unger brings together the private and the public forms of jealousy by analysing the strange composition of dominance and dependence that often characterises the relationship of powerful groups in society to the subjected groups who supply them with their material comforts and their self-esteem. The analogies between the public and private accounts make one realise the power of each.

To plunge straight into Unger’s book is like viewing a picture from too close: you need to appreciate the aesthetics of the whole before you value each part. Even his vocabulary, with its terms of art and its apparent preciosities, makes much more sense once you realise what it is seeking to express. By and large, he uses words because they are precise, and is unconcerned that they may also be unfamiliar or to an academic sensibility embarrassing. It is surprising how rarely this unconcern leads him astray.

The book is written with passion as well as about it. It is a powerfully optimistic work, a manifesto for a view of human beings not only as desirous but as capable of treading lightly and happily through the world, free from superstition or addiction to its passing qualities. Like all manifestos, it rarely argues with its opponents, and does not even note the existence of all of them. (For instance: Unger’s modernism is fiercely individualistic. Someone who believed that the catalogue of moral agents included families might be puzzled how to apply modernism to them. Some forms of context-revision that are realistic options for individuals – like divorce – are not so for families; after divorce the family as such ceases to exist, even if its constituent individuals all exist and prosper.) Like all manifestos, it never really answers the question ‘is it possible ...?’ – the question with which we began. The view of human nature it expresses will not occupy centre-stage in political or moral discourse, but will share a dialogue with another view of a less optimistic kind – a view to which Unger offers counter-affirmation rather than counter-argument. The latter view is akin to one he christens ‘Confucian’, and rests on a belief that human beings are not all capable of the moral qualities required to see all our contexts, all our habits and attachments, as provisional and open to change. Some doubt that these qualities are even desirable, but those whose doubts are less radical wonder whether most people are capable of seeing their attachment to all contexts as provisional without undermining their capacity to form satisfying attachments in the first place. It may be that it is only by having some commitments that are unconditional (to a Church, a country, a lover, a political or metaphysical theory, a place in a hierarchy of social rights and duties) that our personality can be affirmed at all.

Unless one embraces the notion of a moral aristocracy, what is at issue is the psychological stability of the modernist outlook. Unger mistakenly treats this as a purely intellectual issue, when he takes pains to distinguish his view from ‘the heretical variant of modernism’ which ‘teaches us to wage an endless war against all the concrete settings of our existence. But how,’ he continues, ‘can the conduct of this war be made compatible with the hope of developing a social medium of conversation and practice that makes us more fully accessible to one another?’ The threat that this variant poses to the personality is the threat of dissolution: turning and turning in an ever-narrowing gyre, the self becomes a vortex, throwing over any institutional context or habit of thought when it has barely formed. But the threat may not be intellectual (or not only – some of the excesses of Post-Modernist literary criticism suggest it can be intellectual too) so much as practical. We may appreciate the danger, while finding it very hard, once we begin a radical process of context-revision, to halt it before reaching the vortex. Restlessness once provoked may be hard to tame.

It is not just in its mediation between politics and the private world that Passion is engaged in unfashionable work. Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy has lived for so long in the shadow of Hume that it has become cripplingly shy of giving accounts of human personality intended to motivate a normative theory of what is good for mankind. Under the influence of liberal economics and ideas of consumer sovereignty, it has concerned itself overwhelmingly with the logic of moral claims (if people value such-and-such, then ...) or the distribution of means to happiness, without sufficiently inquiring what our moral claims ought to be or where our happiness lies. There is a long and important introduction to Unger’s book which inter alia tries to justify his method of attributing normative force to a substantive conception of personality. As a contribution to an argument in academic philosophy it is slim, but his best argument is his view of personality itself. If human beings are like this, his view of what is valuable for them and how they should be treated is irresistible.

The sterility of consumer sovereignty in ethics, and the problem of solidarity much as it is posed by Unger, are two of the main themes in Michael Ignatieff’s The Needs of Strangers. ‘What do we need in order to be human?’ asks the blurb. ‘Whose needs have we the right to speak for, ours alone or those of the strangers at our door?’ Ignatieff is a historian, whose work on the Scottish Enlightenment has left clear marks on this more philosophical book. He is also well-known to readers of the London Review of Books. His book is a great disappointment, posing itself too many questions and in the end answering none of them. The questions are important, but in the end are lost in the odyssey of an intelligent and humane mind anguished at the persistence of human needs intractable to reason. Early on, he suggests that need is distinguished from desire because, ‘by definition, a person must know that he desires something. It is quite possible, on the other hand, to be in need of something and not to know that one is.’ He goes on to demonstrate the falsity of this suggestion by appearing to have forgotten what he wants to argue. By page 27 we have learned that the ‘natural pairing of need with the idea of duty and obligation is what distinguishes need from desire’. Eleven pages later he has changed his mind again, and ‘the need for love is one that carries with it no implications of obligation.’ These examples are not unfairly chosen. A chapter on Saint Augustine suggests that freedom by itself may not meet our needs ‘unless choosing is accompanied by a sense of certainty’. It goes on to ask: ‘how can we create a world in which most people will not only be free to choose but will know how to choose?’ – as though choosing rightly were the same as feeling certain one had chosen rightly. It then confuses both with the problem of reconciling private with public interest, although the former problems underlie the very notion of private interest itself.

The writing, though elegant, can be careless. Of spiritual need he writes that ‘unlike physical need, which must be in language to be felt and known, it is ineffably beyond words.’ What Ignatieff appears to want to say is that spiritual need is ‘ineffably beyond words’ (i.e. beyond words), unlike physical need, which can be more prosaically described. What he actually says is that physical need must be in language to be felt and known, which is codswallop (ask any dog). At other points he undermines himself more subtly, as when he argues that Rousseau was not opposed to abundance per se (but to an inequality of it), only two pages before quoting in another context a passage where Rousseau insists that a democratic republic must have no luxury, because luxury ‘corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness; it sells the country to softness and vanity, and takes away from the state all its citizens, to make them slaves one to another, and one and all to public opinion.’ And occasionally incongruous pleas intrude (‘if nations cannot feed their people, they must seize the means to achieve autarky and self-sufficiency in the satisfaction of basic need within the international economy’) that follow by no visible means from anything else Ignatieff says.

It would be wrong to suggest that this book contains no fine passages, or that it is a bad book in the way a lot of books are bad. It is written by someone who sees through many liberal pieties about the compatibility of freedom with solidarity, who knows that even if secular ethics has rejected an outworn metaphysics it may have lost a very real source of human consolation, who hopes intellectuals will help mankind without sharing any facile belief about how they can. There is a subtly balanced chapter on Hume and the fear of death, with an intriguing if unconvincing suggestion that Hume and Augustine were kindred spirits. But even here, like the modernist mind in a vortex, Ignatieff seems unable to argue anything substantial before he is paralysed by the realisation of its weakness. There are gestures towards a retreat from secularism after all, but he, too, sees this as recommending a retrieval of the bathwater in consolation for the loss of the baby, so they remain gestures.

In the end, it is very hard to know what the book is arguing. Is it that we have certain needs? Or that we don’t know what needs we have? Is it that we are united by our common needs? Or by our differences of need? Is it that we don’t have a language adequate to our needs? Any of these is a reasonable guess. In the end, too, the elegance of the writing is a positive handicap. Ignatieff describes Pascal’s view of the unreflective life as one ‘propelled, not by a willed or chosen meaning, but simply by the plausibility of each moment’s yearning for the next’. It makes an ironic comment on his own prose style, which has diverted us along the way, in both senses of the word. The book ends with its clearest claim, that what we need to cope with these torments about the needs of strangers is a clarity of language. ‘It is words only, the common meanings they bear, which give me the right to speak in the name of the strangers at my door.’ In this final paragraph Ignatieff capitulates to a pious liberal hope of the kind he has scrupulously avoided before. It contrasts with the quite unpious hope that pervades Roberto Unger’s Passion, a book that never resorts to vague appeals to language out of despair at the power of thought.