Reviews of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000)

Roger Bissell

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James Otteson wrote a review of the third book in Chris Scabarra's dialectical libertarianism trilogy, Total Freedom (2000), which appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Freeman (the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education, or FEE). Here is a link to that review:

Total Freedom reviewed by James Otteson

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Third of Three: Chris Sciabarra’s Total Freedom

Reviewed by Robert Campbell

With Total Freedom, Chris Sciabarra reaches the long awaited completion of his trilogy, which began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (published in 1995 after significant delays) and continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (much more expeditiously in 1995).

Total Freedom divides into two nearly equal sections. Part One surveys the “History and Meaning” of dialectics. Part Two applies the Sciabarran perspective to the sociopolitical thinking of Murray Rothbard.

The first three chapters of Part One are a densely worked history of dialectics, beginning with the Greeks (primarily Aristotle) and continuing through G. W. F. Hegel into more recent currents of development. There is much fascinating material here—for instance, on the dialectical aspects of Aristotle’s thinking, or on the manner in which the gulfs and diremptions that opened up in Kant’s philosophy (between noumenal and phenomena, morality and prudence, free will and natural causes) gave renewed impetus to dialectics. The extent to which Aristotle was a dialectician has already been the subject of a lively debate in the pages of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and I would imagine there’s more to follow. I can say that Sciabarra’s treatment [of] Aristotle is consistent with my own (non-expert) reading of the texts.

Needless to say, we haven’t heard the end of disagreement as to whether Ayn Rand was a dialectician. But I am convinced (and not just because of Sciabarra’s dogged efforts to excavate her earliest philosophical influences) that dialectical thinking pervaded Rand’s overall conception, manifesting itself in such familiar themes as: keeping context; transcending the dichotomies of mind and body, theory and practice, intrinsic and objective; and understanding social processes at multiple interlocking levels of analysis.

When I first encountered The Russian Radical, I was pretty well cushioned from shock; my background in developmental psychology had already gotten me rather used to dialectics. The great developmentalist Jean Piaget was no fan of “historical materialism,” yet his thinking was also pervasively dialectical in Sciabarra’s sense. This could be seen in Piaget’s search for process explanations, his own attempts to transcend dichotomies, such as rationalism vs. empiricism; his reminders that human cognitive powers are still evolving and no synoptic standpoint is attainable; and his account of development as moving toward a balance between assimilation and accommodation, or between positive and negative attributions. (Unlike Rand, however, Piaget eventually labeled aspects of his conception as dialectical.) These days many of the “systems perspectives” in the social sciences will qualify as dialectical in Sciabarra’s sense.

What many a reader will find most valuable in Part One is Chapter 4, “Defining Dialectics,” in which Sciabarra seeks to lay out what is essential to dialectics, underlying the varied manifestations in Rand, Piaget, and many other thinkers. Sciabarra identifies dialectics as a methodological orientation, in terms that would be roughly familiar to philosophers of science: “A methodological orientation (or research orientation) is an intellectual disposition to apply a specific set of broad ontological and epistemological presuppositions about objects of study and their typical relationships to particular fields of investigation” (p. 143). Sciabarra ends up with this definition: “Dialectics is the orientation toward the contextual analysis of systemic and dynamic relations within a totality” (p. 173).

A question often raised about Sciabarra’s approach is to what degree the methodological orientation of dialectics depends on a metaphysical commitment to internal relations. The issue can be posed succinctly enough: “A is internally related to B if without its relation to B it wouldn’t be A…A is externally related to B if without its relation to B it would still be A” (p. 154, emphasis added). Sciabarra presents dialectics (p. 151) as a golden mean with Strict Atomism and Dualism laid out to one side of it, and Monism and Strict Organicism arrayed on the other. Atomism is committed to entirely external relations; Organicism to entirely internal relations.

Technical debates about this subject have also been going on since The Russian Radical was published; they give no indications of imminent abatement. Rand didn’t have a great deal to say about external and internal relations, and the analytic tradition in contemporary philosophy remains inhospitable to internal relations. Yet the interactivist theorist Mark Bickhard has pointed out that cognitive psychology badly needs internal relations. On the implied assumption that knowing is entirely an affair of external relations, psychologists end up trying to explain it with a model of concepts (or some other kind of mental representation) that correspond to particular things out in the environment. And this style of modeling can’t shake the need for an observer who already knows what is at either end of the correspondence. But what if knowing something ultimately takes the form of what the organism can anticipate being able to do next, when it is in the type of environment that has helped to put it in this internal state or that internal state? Then the type of environment is internally related to the type of organism and to what the organism could do. If I know that I am in an environment that will afford sitting (for instance, one that contains a tree stump of a certain height, not too jagged) the kind of environment is internally related to what I could do in it. It wouldn’t be the same kind of environment in relation to a cow or a blue fin tuna, or a banana slug. This is another way of saying that Ayn Rand’s conception of the epistemologically objective (as opposed to the subjective, wholly in the mind, and the intrinsic, wholly in the external world) requires internal relations.

* * *

The second half of Sciabarra’s treatise examines the sociopolitical thinking of Murray Newton Rothbard. It’s interesting to note that Rothbard was briefly (1957-1958) a member of Rand’s circle; later on, neither would admit the other’s influence. Rothbard nonetheless appears to have borrowed some views from Rand and adopted others in intentional opposition to hers. Meanwhile, Rand’s famously impatient rejection of anarchism leaves little doubt that it was directed at Rothbard. Often lionized during his lifetime as “Mr. Libertarian,” Rothbard has subsequently undergone a devaluing counter-reaction of the kind that dialecticians would have no trouble understanding. What’s more, it is a fearsome task to evaluate the thinking of a legendarily opinionful individual whose yearly output would make proficient “bloggers” feel unproductive. One of the triumphs of this book is that Sciabarra has managed to assimilate and integrate just about every scrap of Rothbardiana. And while frequently critical of Rothbard’s manner of approaching questions, Sciabarra consistently reminds us of their enduring importance.

Sciabarra works through Rothbard’s tendency to dichotomize personal morality and political ethics, pointing out that while Rothbard often talked as though rights and political ethics depend on nothing more than a notion of “nonaggression,” he could also criticize altruism in terms similar to Rand’s. Sciabarra documents Rothbard’s propensity to dichotomize the state (founded on the principle of hegemony or coercion) away from the market (founded on the opposing principle of contract or voluntary trade). He devotes an entire chapter to Rothbard’s efforts to develop a libertarian class analysis, which would identify those groups in society who have a vested interest in state power, and the cultural dynamics that push toward its expansion. He addresses the Utopian aspects of Rothbard’s vision, including Rothbard’s frequent resort to a finely specified “libertarian law code,” whose exacting provisions (including a flat prohibition on fractional reserve banking) he insisted could somehow gain general acceptance against virtually any cultural background. He sympathetically reviews Rothbard’s eventual transition toward the Hayekian views that he had once resisted (namely, that the emergence of a libertarian social and political order would require a certain kind of cultural and historical context) but criticizes the cultural conservatism that came to the fore in Rothbard’s final, “paleolibertarian” phase.

* * *

Sciabarra’s summary: Rothbard internalized several different methodological orientations. In some aspects of his thought, he was a thoroughgoing dualist, who saw nothing but mutual antagonism between bifurcated spheres of social reality. These dichotomies drove him toward the monistic, utopian resolution of anarcho-capitalism, in which the state’s functions were fully absorbed by the market. But Rothbard also exhibited an intense dialectical awareness of reciprocal relationships among different elements in society. In its most radical implications, this awareness engendered a comprehensive theory of structural crisis and class dynamics in political economy that rivals any theory on the Left.

When Rothbard began to recognize the tensions within his own system, he was driven toward an equally dialectical awareness of the role of culture in sustaining freedom. (p. 360)

Sciabarra doesn’t claim to have resolved questions about anarchy versus limited government, or specified more clearly how one of today’s societies might get to a libertarian future from a state-dominated present in which some of the cultural preconditions for freedom appear less than ripe. I don’t see these as failings. Sciabarra’s analysis and critique will do their job if they help move discussion on these issues away from the same tired exchanges that, for instance, have characterized the limited government vs. anarchy debate for three decades.

I do see limitations of a different kind. Sciabarran dialectics is a methodological orientation, not an ontology. It is supposed to refrain from ontological commitments—except to emphasize process, and to count some but not all relations as internal. Sciabarra sympathizes with Ayn Rand’s dictum that philosophers should avoid cosmology. But Rand didn’t always adhere to her own stricture: she kept off the turf of physics or astronomy, even avoided taking a stand on evolution, but showed little reluctance about injecting herself into psychology.

Dialectical methods can sensitize us to distinctions that have been badly drawn or overdrawn, but sorting out which distinctions are spurious and which are for real calls for an elaborated ontology. Dialectics can encourage us to understand social systems in terms of emergence and multiple interacting levels, but without specifying the ontology of the human actors. Dialectics can lead us to question a metaphysical opposition between mind and body, maybe even point us toward a solution that involves emergence and relationships among multiple levels. But again, dialectics can’t tell us what model to adopt. Ayn Rand and Jean Piaget were both dialectical thinkers, yet on a number of fundamental questions in psychology their ontologies distinctly do not agree. Dialectics leaves such questions of psychological ontology open: how minds work, what knowledge is, what emotions do, how learning and reflection are accomplished. Consequently it can’t tell us just how to explain the emergence of knowledge from systems that weren’t previously able to know anything, or how to explain the emergence of social phenomena out of the interactions of individuals.

Both parts of Total Freedom should be of considerable interest to Randians. I would still recommend that those who know Ayn Rand’s work but are new to Chris Sciabarra’s begin their explorations with The Russian Radical. But such readers will need to turn to Total Freedom for Sciabarra’s most mature thoughts on dialectics, as well as his applications to a wide range of issues that remain of intense interest to most Objectivists as well as live subjects of debate within libertarianism.

[This review was first published in Free Context, Vol. 14, No. 2, May/June 2001 and was posted to OL on Tuesday, December 12, 2006.]

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