Monday, July 8, 2024

Can utopian thinking be dialectical?


This illustration of the fictional island of Utopia was apparently in the first edition of Thomas More’s book, Utopia, published in 1516. The word utopia was coined by More to mean ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’, but More suggested that it could also have the same meaning as eutopia, meaning good place or happy place.

Modern dictionaries, such as Mirium-Webster and Cambridge, hedge their bets.  They define utopia as “a place of ideal perfection” or “a perfect society in which people work well with each other and are happy” and also as “an impractical scheme”, or “an imaginary or infinitely remote place”.

Examples of different usage

Both uses of the word occur in some of the books I have read recently. For example, in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Chris Sciabarra clearly takes utopia to mean “no place”, when he writes: “In this book, I explore the distinction between the possible and the impossible – between the radical and utopian – through a comparative analysis of the works of Karl Marx and F. A. Hayek.” Sciabarra suggests that for both Marx and Hayek, “Utopians internalize an abstract, exaggerated sense of human possibility, aiming to create new social formations based upon a pretense of knowledge”. Sciabarra notes:

“Despite their differences, both Marx and Hayek embrace a profoundly anti-utopian mode of inquiry. Marx identified this method as dialectics.”

Sciabarra views dialectics as “contextual analysis of systems across time”. (I have discussed application of the concept to problem definition in the preceding essay on this blog.)

An example of the use of utopia to denote a good place is in Fred Miller’s book, Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics. Miller writes:

“Aristotelian politics has two poles: one is ‘ideal’ or ‘Utopian’, concerned with identifying the best constitution consistent with human nature and with resources that can be expected to be available under the most favourable circumstances or, failing that, the best constitution attainable by a Greek polis; the other pole is ‘mundane’ or ‘empirical’, concerned with maintaining and preserving actually existing political systems.” (186)

Miller recognizes that in attempting to identify the best constitution, Aristotle is posed with the problem of the disparity between his ideal of a community composed of individuals qualified for and disposed to a life of ethical virtue, and the actual characteristics of community members. Nevertheless, Miller argues that “the study of the best constitution will provide guidance to the practical politician concerned with establishing or reforming a constitution in less fortunate or diverse circumstances”. (190)

Although Miller doesn’t mention dialectics, my impression from reading his subsequent chapter, “The Best Constitution”, is that Aristotle’s discussion of ideal constitutions was dialectical. His discussion of the prerequisites for an ideal constitution is preceded by a study of actual constitutions. He also considers factors such as the minimum and maximum level of population required for the polis to be self-sufficient for the good life of citizens.


 A few years ago, I wrote a post on this blog entitled, ‘What purpose is served by utopian thinking?’. In that post I suggested that anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking.

The post contrasts an anti-utopian view and a utopian view. The anti-utopian view is that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

 I suggested that the best way to challenge the arguments of those anti-utopians was to present some defensible utopian views:

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

I think my argument was defensible in terms of the way I defined utopian thinking, but it would have been preferable to have adopted a more dialectical approach. My main point should have been that it is not necessary to choose between a world of power struggles and an unattainable world in which human nature has been transformed. We are more likely to improve opportunities for human flourishing if we approach public policy issues with a view to both (a) upholding ideals that ought to apply and (b) the real-world constraints that should not be overlooked.

By the way, I still think that much of the thinking that went into “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing” was utopian, in terms of the way I defined that term. I think it is also true that there is a great deal of dialectical thinking in that book.


In considering whether utopian thinking can be dialectical it is important to be clear what we mean by utopian thinking. Under one definition, utopian thinking is out of this world. Under the alternative, anyone who considers what principles would apply in a good society is engaged in utopian thinking.

Chris Sciabarra adopts the first definition, and accordingly views utopian thinking as opposed to context-keeping and hence opposed to dialectical thinking.

Fred Miller adopts the second definition in his description of Aristotle’s somewhat dialectical discussion of an ideal constitution.

 I draw two conclusions:

  1. People who claim to be opposed to utopian thinking don’t necessarily consider ideals and principles to be irrelevant to consideration of public policy issues.
  2. People who defend utopian thinking may nevertheless be mindful of the need to consider real world context in considering public policy issues.


I would like to draw attention to a response entitled 'Hayek, Bates, and Utopia', that Chris Sciabarra has posted on Notablog. In his response Chris mentions his excellent article, co-authored with Ryan Neugebauer, entitled 'Therapy for Radicals'. He also notes that Friedrich Hayek saw an important and honorable role for the notion of “utopia" in providing political inspiration.