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.

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