Customer Review

18 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Fact/Value antinomy redeployed as Politics/Knowledge, March 20, 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Knowledge and Politics (Paperback)
Here it is, from "Mr. Relentless" whose after-dinner speeches at Harvard-sponsored dinner meetings circulate like so many sacred artifacts among devoted followers of the Critical Legal Studies movement (aka "Crits"). Unger is famous for speaking without notes, and without pausing. Kind of a Richard Epstein of the left. This is his big book. It goes well with his major Harvard Law Review article of about 17 years ago.
The book is an examination of law and action, the same theme explored by Thomas Sowell from a more deontological, constrained perspective in his book "Knowledge and Decisions." You know something? Is it the same as what you do? You know how society could be best? Well, does it play out that way in society, that Aristotelian sphere of the polis? Also known as politics, where things are reduced to debates between Nixons and Kennedys, Bushes and Gores. Clintons and....well, let's move on.
Here's my criticism of this Crit. This book is ponderous, complex, and yes, inexorable. Unger refuses to allow you to encounter his premises of argument, without also embracing his neo-marxist-inspired conclusions, which basically work the same "antinomy" between what we want and what we get, which originally starred in Marx's writings exploring the basis for humankind's sense of "alienation." Later marxists from the Frankfurt school played the same themes, extended into the arts (Horkheimer), psychology (Bloch), and eroticism (Marcuse). Now here's Unger with the application to law.
Since law applies to social action, if we need law, there must be a difference between what we want and how we are. Some need to enforce something. Thus the contradiction, and Unger's direction is to work the contradiction to indict the shortcomings of what he labels "liberalism." But he stops at the indictment. No alternative. As if he is a literary form of Hodgkins disease, that needs some healthy body in which to circulate, and attack everything. Take away the relentless attack, though, and what do you have? I haven't found anything.
At the end of the book, in a flourish, Unger cries out "Speak, God!" Next to which I have jotted "Roll over, God! Play dead, God!" The theism point of departure can also be taken further, investigating what it might look like to submit to God to listen and obey what he might have to say. Paul wrote of the same antinomy, or struggle: "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out." (Romans 7:18b) And "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!" (Rom 7:21-24). Unger also no doubt knew of Paul's description of the same conundrum, when he wrote his book. Unger just goes in a different direction.
Will anyone read Unger in 2000 years? I guess we'll never know. Is he worth reading over now? Yes, but know what you're getting into. Like law, it's not self-executing, even if Unger thinks he has it pretty finely machined and nailed together.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 15, 2007 4:46:40 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 15, 2007 4:55:46 PM PDT
"This is his big book"? This was his first book, written as a 20-something upstart professor. This was his big book in 1976. But Unger has gone so far beyond this book, so should you... it is silly that contemporary adversarial critics of a writer who has been publishing for over 30 years continue to harp on and attack this freshman product as if this were Unger's final word on society. Further, it is about time people stop associating Unger with the CLS movement, just because he wrote a law review article/book about them in 1981. The only thing Unger and the Crits ever really saw eye-to-eye on was the critique of post-New Deal legal academia establishment. Unger's project and the ideas of the "Crits" very quickly turned out to incompatible in the 1980s - CLS turned out to be about three things: radical indeterminacy (especially Duncan Kennedy's and Jack Balkin's work), conventional marxist-leftist critiques of the law, and identity politics. None of these paths of critical practice is given much room in Unger's work. The law review article that linked Unger to CLS in some people's minds forever is simply a survey of the CLS critique of post-New Deal legal academia and a suggestion for a new path - the path Unger has tried to forge all alone since then. If you were serious at all about criticizing Unger's ideas, you would post something regarding Unger's recent work, or even his Politics trilogy.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 12, 2008 11:49:48 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 12, 2008 12:32:46 PM PST
Unger Reader says:
Thank you for your comment. I have not, as you have, kept up with Unger. You are correct that my review is time-limited, but my time in law school was limted, too. We all carry around our own household goblins, and Unger is one of mine. Perhaps like Bernard Henri-Levi, in older age he will come around to some kind of affirmation of how to harmonize the Is and the Ought in a way that makes more sense, or is more articluated. Maybe he did come around. My jurisprudence professor was kind of boastfully smug about Unger, and made us read this book. Your own reviews of rock-star academics seem to echo some of the same judgment-of-history idea I posed at the end of my review, drawing on Paul's letter to the Romans. Since the demise of Marxism, at least as "practiced" by Lenin's heirs, we seem to be short on new and exciting "watch me reconcile fact and value" assertions of liberation theology, jurisprudence or even personal self-improvement. I think Unger thought he was bigger than all that, but I think the tide of history has made him far less relevant than, say Ronald Reagan and the common sense he imbibed while lifeguarding and running the concession stand at a real time and place in Illinois. Unger stands athwart all that and it's easy to disregard him. Thank you for reminding me of his subsequent work and no doubt good faith attempts to continue his contributions. I am reminded, then, to keep an eye out for him and to maintain a scholar's commensurate goodwill. So you are acting as salt and light, a little, and thanks for taking the time to put it down as a comment.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2012 2:14:15 PM PDT
It's worth adding that Unger has a 5-page postscript of this book on his webpage, detailing why he feels it was inadequate: http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/unger/english/pdfs/knopol10.pdf

In particular, he criticizes his own "all or nothing" attitude.
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