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A Review of Chris Matthew Sciabarra's "Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism"
The Necessity of Context
Sciabarra is convinced that a successful libertarian project must stress the necessity of context—the totality of systemic and dynamic connections among social problems. More specifically, the libertarian ideal cannot be isolated from the context upon which it depends. and freedom cannot be defended successfully when separated from its broader requisite conditions. The author proposes in Total Freedom a metatheoretical foundation upon which to construct a comprehensive libertarian social theory. Rather than making a convincing argument for liberty, he offers a means for structuring the methodology of social inquiry. The book is about how a context-sensitive methodology can be used to defend freedom. In order to think about freedom, people need to grasp the totality of its prerequisites and implications. Emphasizing the indivisible unity of theory and practice, Sciabarra says that any effort to understand or change society requires an analysis of its many related aspects.
Sciabarra explains that dialectics emphasizes the centrality of context in the intertemporal analysis of systems. It is a thinking style that stresses the contextual analysis of systems across time. Dialectics may be viewed as a method of analysis, a mode of inquiry, or a type of meta-methodological orientation or set of assumptions about how we approach the object of our study. Dialectics is an approach to thinking that attempts to grasp the full context of a philosophy or social problem. Dialectical thinking endeavors to understand the whole through differential vantage points and levels of generality and by a systemic and dynamic extension of analytical units.
The author emphasizes that dialectical thinking necessitates that we do not engage in context dropping, but instead make every possible effort to see interconnections between seemingly disparate branches of knowledge. Such an approach compels scholars to investigate empirically the potential connections between various spheres in an effort to attain integrated knowledge of the full context. Since people are not omniscient, understanding a complex world thoroughly requires an ongoing investigation of its many interrelated facets from shifting vantage points.
An Aristotelian Dialectic
As a methodological orientation, dialectics has been employed in the analysis of systems of argumentation, philosophy, ethics, linguistics, history, culture, psychology, social theory, political economy, etc. One of Sciabarra's goals is to capture the essence of the many dialectical approaches that have appeared throughout intellectual history. He argues that in its origins, dialectics is not an especially Hegelian or Marxian tradition, but rather in its inception is firmly Aristotelian.
Sciabarra explains that, although the pre-Socratics and Plato were the earliest practitioners of dialectics, it was Aristotle, the true father (or fountainhead) of dialectical inquiry, who first articulated its theoretical principles and techniques. Plato had connected dialectics to an idealist ontology that entailed the search for comprehensive transcendent truth. Plato's unrealistic epistemological standard was for human beings to somehow attain a synoptic perspective on the whole society.
Aristotle brought the dialectic down to earth by severing its principles from their Platonic-idealist formulation. The Aristotelian idea of dialectics eliminates cosmology from philosophy and relies on a minimalist metaphysics that states that existence is what it is, that consciousness is our means for understanding it, and that everything that exists is part of one reality. The history of dialectics is filled with battles between the synoptic Platonic idealist conception and the contextual Aristotelian realist understanding. As a dialectical reality, Sciabarra tells us that we should rightfully criticize those who form dialectical abstractions with no regard for their relationship to the facts of reality.
Sciabarra explains that Aristotle advocates shifting our viewpoints on any object of study in order to illuminate different aspects of it. In this way, Aristotle keeps the Platonic predilection for organic unity, but acknowledges the central importance of context. Aristotle's principles of inquiry call for us to constantly shift our perspective on any object of study. Each point of view provides a different context of meaning. It is by piecing together the various perspectives that a person gains a comprehensive understanding of the full context of the object.
Like Aristotle, the Medieval Scholastics applied dialectical principles to the argumentative arts. Sciabarra observes that they brought dialectics to the consideration of Biblical texts and thus began the centuries-long journey toward the secularization of the human mind, because they were brave enough to subject the scriptures to analysis, something that was disapproved of for centuries before.
Sciabarra argues that Hegel's conception of the dialectic harks back to the Ancient Greek ideal of organic unity and to the Platonic penchant for the divine. In turn, Marx anchored dialectics to investigations of the real world. However, Marx's vision presumed god-like planning and control of many nuances, tacit practices, and unintended consequences of social action. He also presumed a total grasp of history and often attempted to study the present as if from an imagined future. When Marxists suggest that history can lead to a victory over human ignorance, they are implying privileged access to total knowledge of future social conditions. This is inherently utopian and undialectical, since it is unbounded by the context that exists and is based on a synoptic delusion, a belief that one can live in a world in which every action produces consistent and predictable outcomes.
The Art of Context Keeping
If dialectics is the art of context keeping, then historical materialism proposes a theory of history that places the theoretician outside the context of the human condition. The problem occurs when Marx steps into the future to evaluate the present. He assumes the information needed by future planners will be available, despite the fact that these planners will have destroyed the context (i.e., the price system) which permits such information to be generated and socially traded. By holding this incorrect assumption, Marx is placing himself outside the historical process that he analyzes. Sciabarra observes that it is as though Marx is permitting himself privileged access to information about a future that is ontologically and epistemologically impossible. Such a Utopian way of viewing the world is essentially an a-contextual, a-historical search for human ideals, with no understanding of the limits or nature of reason. It is as if people can step outside the bounds of culture and society to re-create the world.
Sciabarra goes on to explore the manifestations of dialectics among those from the liberal tradition including Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger, Mises, Hayek, Rand, and especially Murray Rothbard. The author's goal here is to show how classical liberal and modern libertarian approaches embody conflicting orientations. He also describes how these thinkers have been richer, more complex, and more context-sensitive than their critics have been willing to acknowledge. Total Freedom documents how a contextual-dialectical approach informed many of the classical liberal, and libertarian thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A large portion of the second half of Sciabarra's work involves a comprehensive case study of the writings of Murray Rothbard, one of the major libertarian thinkers of the twentieth century. Sciabarra attempts to identify the dialectical and undialectical aspects of Rothbard's wide-ranging anarcho-capitalist analytical model. Rothbard's work is used to expose and analyze the dialectical strengths and nondialectical weaknesses that are typical in modern libertarian social theory.
Sciabarra observes that Rothbard, for most of his life, believed that libertarianism did not require a theory of culture. Rothbard appeared to think that his axiom of non-aggression could resolve social and political problems by itself. Like many other libertarians, he simply dropped the larger context which freedom requires in order to flourish, and stressed libertarian goals without considering the problem of meeting them. He insisted that libertarianism was a political philosophy that could accommodate any culture. For example, Rothbard believed that men could simply use their reason to develop a permanently fixed Libertarian Law Code in accordance with anarcho-capitalist principles.
Sciabarra questions the efficacy of such an imposition, because it does not take into account the philosophical, cultural, and historical context upon which libertarian principles depend. The acceptance of a Libertarian Law Code in the real world would require a deeper understanding of personal and cultural factors. Rothbard had abstracted a single principle of non-aggression and created a dualistic tension between theory and reality by declaring that state institutions are at odds with human nature. This led Rothbard to universalize the market as a means of destroying the state.
Sciabarra points out that Rothbard later realized that proponents of a free society needed a fully articulated theory of culture, since some cultures foster, while others threaten, a free society. Rothbard's later dialectical sensibility is exhibited in his theory of structural crisis, which was simultaneously historical, political, economic, and sociological and in the foundations of his non-Marxist theory of class struggle.
In Need of an Effective Strategy
Toward the end of his book, Sciabarra briefly surveys the growing dialectical trend among libertarians such as Peter Boettke, Douglas Den Uyl, Don Lavoie, Douglas Rasmussen, Mario Rizzo, and others. Sciabarra is convinced that libertarianism as a social theory is valuable and offers a valid perspective on the nature of the crisis in modern society, and that voluntary social relations, with all their preconditions and effects, are morally and consequentially preferable to the status quo and to statism in all its varieties. However, he does not believe that libertarian theorists have presented the best formulations and arguments in the context of social conditions that exist. Freedom cannot be defended successfully when severed from its broader requisite conditions. Libertarians must pay greater attention to the broader context within which their goals and values can be realized.
Sciabarra's message is that libertarians need an effective strategy that recognizes the dynamic interrelationships between the personal, political, historical, psychological, ethical, cultural, economic, etc., if they are to be successful in their quest for a free society. He explains that attempts to define and defend a non-aggression axiom in the absence of a broader philosophical and cultural context are doomed to fail. Libertarians must pay greater attention to the broader context within which their goals and values can be realized. The battle against statism is simultaneously structural (political and economic), cultural (with implications for education, race, sex, language, and art), and personal (with connections to individuals' tacit moral beliefs, and psycho-epistemological processes).
The author wants people to understand both the necessity for objective conceptual foundations for a free society and the need for cultural pre-requisites in the battle for the free society. The fight for freedom is multidimensional and takes place on a variety of levels, with each level influencing and having reciprocal effects on the other levels. Dialectics require that people take into account and pay attention to all the levels and structures that a politics of freedom depends upon. Sciabarra contends that it is possible to look at society from different angles and on different levels of analytical generality in order to obtain an enriched portrait of its total form. Change must occur on many different levels and cannot be dictated from the realm of politics—it must filter through all the various levels.
The goals of Total Freedom are to defend the need for a dialectical libertarianism that synthesizes multiple disciplines, and to reclaim dialectics as a viable methodology for libertarian social theory. The author accomplishes this in his well-documented, innovative, and academic treatise. He offers libertarianism as a valid and valuable perspective that is preferable to the status quo and to statism in all its varieties. However, Sciabarra stops short of developing his own substantive dialectical libertarian social theory.
His work is primarily methodological and only articulates the view that a dialectical libertarianism is essential to the future of both dialectics and libertarianism. He has taken the first step by offering a metatheoretical structure for social inquiry, rather than a comprehensive argument for liberty. Sciabarra cautions that much work needs to be done to test the validity of various libertarian theories. I am looking forward to seeing what Sciabarra will offer us next that will contribute toward the development of a comprehensive defense of freedom.
A version of this review originally appeared in Le Quebecois Libre, April 28, 2001.
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