Tippett, Unger discuss institutional change fueled by the imagination


Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Krista Tippett, host of “On Being,” speaks with Roberto Unger, Brazilian philosopher and social theorist, about changing social institutions during the first of this week’s Interfaith Lectures, themed “Conversations on the American Consciousness,” in the Hall of Philosophy Monday.

According to Roberto Unger, “the world has been in a storm,” with a constant fire burning for about 200 years.

Unger, a philosopher, social theorist, professor and former Brazilian minister of Strategic Affairs, discussed the state of the world and the need to change societal institutions with Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s “On Being” and creator of The Civil Conversations Project. Unger, who spoke with Tippett at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, was the first guest in Tippett’s week-long Interfaith Lecture series, “Conversations on the American Consciousness.”

America, like his home country of Brazil, is smeared with inequality, Unger said.

“And yet — in the midst of this inequality and exclusion — the majority of men and women in these two countries continue to believe that everything is possible,” he said. “And that is the great enigma.”

Tippett asked Unger about the role of hope in the changing cultural view of “these very complex but exceedingly, intensely hopeful nations.”

Society is aware that the world is on fire, Unger said, and of the two matches that lit the flame. There is a divide between the religious and the secular needs of society.

“There is in the heart of humanity this incipient, inchoate, confused project of changing the organization of society and the conduct of life,” Unger said.

To expand on the context of consciousness, Unger compared the human mind to both a machine and an anti-machine, the latter representing the imagination.

“The relative power of these two sides of the mind, the machine side and the anti-machine side, is not predetermined by the physical structure of the brain. It depends on the organization of politics and culture,” he said. “We can organize our society and our culture in a way that either increases or diminishes the space of the imagination.”

Both Tippett and Unger agreed that American citizens see a need to alter the country’s institutional structure.

“I often think that one of the things that is so fascinating and unsettling about the moment we inhabit now is that we are becoming ever more acutely aware that most of the forms and institutions that seem to serve us in the last century don’t serve us anymore,” Tippett said. “We know that the education system is not what it should be, we know that the political system is not what it should be, we know that the economy is not what it should be — but we can’t yet see what the new forms will be.”

That’s because there is currently a “lop-sided understanding” of the individual versus social solidarity as a whole in the institutional and cultural organization, Unger said. America has a general “faith in the constructive genius of ordinary people” and a belief in experimentalists, but despite this powerful belief, the country still operates under a class society and citizens collectively exempt political and economic institutions from participating in experimentalism.

“A long line of American thinkers, from Jefferson to Dewey, struggled to convince their fellow citizens to lift this exemption that they accorded the institutions from the reach of the experimentalist impulse,” Unger said. “It’s time to do it now.”

The prophetic voice needs to rise up again in the American culture, Unger said. Society needs great thinkers to shape the country, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.

“For a long time, the prophetic voice has fallen silent in the United States,” he said. “The United States needs the prophetic voice to confront these taints on American democracy.”

When attempting to change institutions, Unger said society is quick to turn down any idea and no change is made.

“Everything that can be proposed in the current climate of opinion appears to be either utopian or trivial, and this dilemma threatens to paralyze the transformative imagination,” Unger said. “It’s a false dilemma, and it results from a misunderstanding of the nature of arguments about transformation.”

Transformation is a sequence of events, not one elaborate master blueprint implemented all at once, he said.

Tippett asked Unger about a theme found in his book, The Future of Religion.

“You acknowledge this period between the realization of a restructured society, and you say that in this period, while the institutional arrangements we need for this are missing, that virtues become important,” Tippett said. “And that that is something that everyone can immediately pursue and practice.”

Unger related the need for a discourse on virtues for a need on education reform. Society needs to embrace three types of virtues — the old pagan virtues, most importantly that of courage; the virtues of purification as a way to escape the clutter of society; and the divine virtues, which “require us to rise above the present situation” and be open to new ideas and to other people. But before living out these virtues, citizens need to be taught to think about subjects in liberating ways. The education system needs to teach citizens how to look at subjects from contrasting viewpoints, he said, so members of society can think about issues from all sides.

“One of the ways you are challenging the American consciousness is by focusing on ideas and imagination,” Unger said.

Society needs a new image — a new understanding of how to live, to accompany a new institutional system, he said. This imaginative quality and these ideas can come from any generation.

“It’s not just about now. It’s this persistent feature of humanity,” Unger said. “The soul of the ordinary man and woman hides vast stores of intensity, and the sadness of the human life is that this intensity is commonly lavished on unworthy objects. … This is the situation that we have to turn against and respond to through this transformative activity.”