Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ph.D.




Nearly two decades ago, Chris Matthew Sciabarra began his "epic scholarly quest" (as characterized
by Lingua Franca) to reclaim dialectics in the name of liberty.  His project aims for a massive rereading of intellectual history, one which recaptures the dialectical elements at work in the thought of several key thinkers in the classical liberal and libertarian traditions. 

Dialectics is the art of context-keeping.   It is a thinking style that emphasizes the centrality of context in the analysis of systems across time.  As applied to libertarian social theory, it counsels us not to disconnect politics from economics, culture, social psychology, ethics, epistemology, and other factors.  It views these seemingly disparate aspects as interrelated within a wider totality.  Hence, any attempt to understand--or change--society must entail an analysis of its interrelations from the vantage point of any single aspect.  This brings forth an enriched portrait of society, and underscores the indivisible connection between theory and practice.   In furthering this research program, Sciabarra projected a trilogy of works--part intellectual history, part social theory, part social critique--that would define and defend a dialectical approach to libertarianism, a "dialectical libertarianism."  In the process, Sciabarra rediscovered the dialectical elements at work in the thought of several key thinkers in the libertarian tradition.

MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA introduces the trilogy through a comparative study of the works of Karl Marx and  F. A. Hayek, two theorists often situated in binary opposition to one another. Sciabarra argues in that book that Hayek's thought exhibits a dialectical mode of inquiry, which guides his project toward the recognition of context in any understanding of the social totality and its constituted relations.  Hayekian dialectics is a bulwark against intellectual and political hubris, because it stresses that our studies of--and actions within--a social whole are always contextualized by our distinctive vantage points.   And since no human being can gain a synoptic perspective on the whole, Hayek argues persuasively that we cannot simply redesign it de novo.  We are as much the creatures of our context, as we are its creators.  Hayek's critique of utopianism then, is a critique of the utopian's "pretense of knowledge," of the utopian's penchant for constructing a bridge to a future society on the basis of an abstract, ahistorical, exaggerated sense of human possibility.

AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL was the second leg of the trilogy.  Sciabarra argues here that Rand's integration of a profound dialectical sensibility with a realist-egoist-individualist-libertarian theoretical content provided an answer to one of the foremost questions raised by MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA:  To what extent do the strictures on human knowledge preclude rational, efficacious, social action?  Rand recognized the contextuality of human existence and knowledge, and argued that people living under concrete historical conditions could achieve efficacy in their own lives by shifting the tacit dimensions of their social practices toward greater articulation.  For Rand, philosophy was the vehicle of such articulation.

TOTAL FREEDOM is the culmination of Sciabarra's trilogy.   It seeks to reclaim radical social theorizing in the name of liberty. It is the first book to defend explicitly a dialectical libertarianism, challenging those on the left and the right to rethink their basic premises and conclusions.  It stresses investigations of the full context, the "totality" of systemic and dynamic connections among social problems (hence, "total") that beckon toward fundamentally libertarian solutions (hence, "freedom").

Synthesizing multiple disciplines, it is the only work ever published to integrate self-consciously a dialectical method, so often connected to the left, with a conception of freedom, so often connected to the right.  Sciabarra underscores the indivisible unity of theory and practice; he argues that any attempt to understand or change society entails an analysis of its many interrelated aspects (the political, the economic, the cultural, the psychological, the philosophical).

Part One explores the history and meaning of dialectics from its earliest beginnings in antiquity through its manifestations among those in the liberal tradition, including Herbert Spencer, the great British sociologist, and Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian school of economics.  Sciabarra’s rendering is the broadest exposition of the history of dialectic yet published.  He views dialectics not as a peculiarly Hegelian or Marxian legacy, but as deeply Aristotelian in its origins, the birthright of anyone who seeks a more realistic understanding of society than that offered by arid, one-dimensional, ahistorical models of human behavior.

Part Two examines libertarianism at the crossroads. Through a case study of the works of influential economist and social theorist, Murray Rothbard, Sciabarra attempts to separate the radical (and dialectical) wheat from the utopian (and non-dialectical) chaff in contemporary libertarianism. Though he surveys the ideas of many major twentieth-century libertarian thinkers, Sciabarra offers the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of Rothbard's wide-ranging system.  Critical of certain methodological aspects of the Rothbardian approach, Sciabarra nonetheless highlights the dialectical sensibility in Rothbard’s theories of structural crisis and class struggle.  He argues that this sensibility has inspired a new generation of thinkers who are moving libertarianism toward a "sociological" analysis that is not socialist, and a focus on "totality" that is not totalitarian.

Ultimately, Sciabarra offers a means of structuring the basic outlook of social inquiry. The ideal of human freedom that might result is one that will be informed by the broader context, those principles and institutions necessary for its achievement and sustenance.  His guiding principle was first enunciated in the conclusion of MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA: 

"By gaining a deeper understanding of the dialectical relationship between goals and context, future generations of radical thinkers might pave the way for progressive alternatives to the status quo, alternatives that are rooted in viable, if distant, possibilities, and that uplift the human imagination without endangering the survival of the species."

See here for an excerpt from the Introduction.

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