Timothy Virkkala
Timothy Virkkala

Timothy Virkkala Responds

Being neither a feminist nor an Objectivist, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Gladstein/Sciabarra anthology Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand an interesting document, and the debate in the pages of The Free Radical more than simply entertaining.

I was most struck by Glenn Lamont's comments. His project seems to be to argue that feminism is nebulous and contradictory, liable to spread more confusion than enlightenment. I agree. Feminism is a movement full of contradictory notions and strange emphases, and many men, women, boys, and girls have been led to believe all sorts of idiocies by becoming enamored of this movement.

But Mr. Lamont's reliance on a characteristic Objectivist argument gets in the way of this laudable critique. "Late 20th century feminism," he writes, is "an invalid concept." By this he indicates a notion that Objectivists use to define "a term that seeks to integrate errors, contradictions or false propositions." Invalid concepts are thus "rationally unusable term[s] which gives the impression of a concept but which stands for a 'package deal.'"

The problem I have here is that I would never describe an "ism" as a concept.

Is utilitarianism, for instance, a "concept," valid or not?

No. It is a philosophy. It could also be described as an ideology, even a political movement. It is not simply one thing. We identify it by a set of characteristic concepts and arguments. But we also recognize that not all utilitarians mean the same thing by the concepts they use, and not all engage in precisely the same kind of argumentation. Some even have radically different reasons to idenify themselves as "utilitarians." (I, for instance, realize that my philosophy might be characterized as utilitarian in some sense, though not in the sense that Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard excoriated... so in libertarian circles I often hesitate to make a big deal of my commonality with the utilitarian tradition.)

Similarly with Objectivism. Though Objectivists seem to be a more tightly knit group than most other intellectuals, I still would not call their philosophy a "concept." It is true that I believe it to contain many contradictions and faulty lines of reasoning, some of which are shared — and some of which are not shared — by the bulk of Objectivists. But is it "invalid"? Well, that isn't a term I'd use to describe the "ism" that is Objectivism. And certainly it isn't "invalid" enough for me to judge a volume entitled, say, "Objectivist Interpretations of Utilitarianism" unworthy of publication. I'd prefer to deal with specific arguments and rethink specific concepts. (I might, after all, learn something.)

But, to wind my way back to Mr. Lamont's critique, there is a sense in which feminism is less coherent than either utilitarianism or Objectivism. It is filled with a greater variety of contradictory beliefs, and with far more perverse notions. And some of these perversities may indeed be related to the basic naming of the movement, if not the "concept."

Consider: Feminism, we are told, began as an argument that individuals of both sexes should be treated in some important sense "equally." But to argue for a limited type of sexual equality is one thing. To name your argument by but one of the sexes is another. It defocuses the effort, and leads the people who buy the one argument into a bevy of other errors. Feminism may not be, in Ayn Rand's terms, a "package deal." But it does lead some people to accept package deals.

Ayn Rand was an individualist. So am I. So, I believe, are all the contributors to this debate in The Free Radical. Because our focus is on individuals, we should be very leery of the feminist label, and not pretend that "feminism" is one thing, or necessarily a "good thing."

This being said, I enjoyed what I've read of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, and the debate surrounding it. I encourage Mr. Lamont and the book's other critics to consider a somewhat more broad-minded approach to this type of tome. Admit that other people's ideologies are, though likely full of errors, still worthy of consideration. At the very least, their critiques of your notions may help you refine your presentation of those notions. At most, you may find yourself agreeing with some of their points.

This is no tragedy. It is always good to rethink our arguments. We learn this way. And we come closer to the truth.

This may not be standard practice for members of an ideological "ism," but it is philosophy. And we are all, I hope, lovers of wisdom first, and members of our particular schools second.

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