Robert White
Robert White

The Feminist Interpretations Debate, Concluded

I would like to make clear, for the public record, that I no longer agree with the tone and much of the content of my contributions to the Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand debate. This debate took place in The Free Radical from June/July 1999 to May/June 2000. Six years have now passed. In the intervening time, I have come to rethink many of the issues raised in the debate. I still do not accept the legitimacy of feminist interpretations of Rand (or anyone else). However, I now accept that despite its flaws, the anthology represents a significant recognition of the legitimacy of Rand studies. I also now take the position that the tone of my contributions, including many of my statements and accusations, were inappropriate and unscholarly. I, therefore, repudiate these articles. I appreciate the continued interest in the Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand debate. However, I ask that anyone citing my contributions make it clear that these articles do not represent my current position on, or approach to, philosophical issues.

Robert White

1 May 2006

My original review of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand appeared in the pages of this magazine almost twelve months ago. I described the anthology at the time, to paraphrase John Ridpath, as "preposterous in its theses, destructive in its purpose, and tortuously numbing in its content." I've read nothing since then to change my mind.

I'll comment on some of the minor issues raised by Chris Matthew Sciabarra and Bryan Register in TFR #40. I'll then examine the concept of "feminism," and finally I'll turn, for the last time, to the central issue of this debate: Are feminist interpretations valid?

Issues Raised in TFR #40

1) Dr. Sciabarra writes: "Just because I co-edited a book ... does not mean that I accept the substance, methods, or 'jargon' of every published article." I hope Dr. Sciabarra isn't abdicating all responsibility for the articles that appear in the books and journals he edits. An editor must take final responsibility for the standard of the articles that appear in his work. It is he, after all, who chooses to publish them. My criticism of Dr. Sciabarra is not that he accepts the "substance, methods, or 'jargon'" of such contributors as Valérie Loiret-Prunet and Melissa Jane Hardie, but that he considers their papers worth publishing.

2) Dr. Sciabarra claims that Feminist Interpretations has "challenged the dogmatists within Objectivism." I fear that anyone who opposes Feminist Interpretations is automatically labelled a dogmatist. In TFR #36, Dr. Sciabarra described me as being part of the "narrow-minded orthodoxy," because of my criticisms of his book. And in TFR #39, Dr. Sciabarra said that he hopes I'll approach his new book, Total Freedom, with a "renewed objectivity," as though disliking his work is a sign that one has abandoned objectivity.

This point raises numerous questions, the most important being: Is the Objectivist movement disintegrating into blind subjectivism as a response to blind dogmatism? I fear that this is the case, and that Feminist Interpretations is one symptom of a subjectivist rebellion against "Objectivist" dogmatists.

3) Mr. Register claims that "[t]hose who study the texts of pre-labeled 'enemies' will never come to understand them." I said that one should know thine enemy. I did not say that one should pre-label someone as an enemy. On the contrary, I stated explicitly that one should not judge a book as "evil" before reading or understanding it. I do not see how judging a book after reading it is the same as pre-labelling it.

4) Mr. Register claims that "Objectivism has customers and competitors," rather than "friends" and "enemies." I was tempted to concede this point to Mr. Register. Objectivism, after all, does advocate a free market in the realm of ideas. On reflection, however, I cannot accept Mr. Register's argument. Ayn Rand argued that a person must accept two principles before he is fit to enter the intellectual marketplace: he must accept that emotions are not tools of cognition, and that no one has the right to initiate physical force against others. People who accept these principles, no matter how opposed their views may be to our own, are our competitors and potential customers. The rest, however, are to the intellectual marketplace what the Mafia is to the economic marketplace: its enemy.

5) I asked Mr. Register to give an example of where Rand is less clear than Heidegger or Kant in her writings. He states: "This is a fair demand, so here's an example: 'Existence exists.' These two words contain so much philosophical confusion that it's difficult to know where to begin."

It is difficult to know where to begin. If you approach the average man on the street and tell him that existence exists, he knows what you're talking about. It's only when you approach the average modern philosopher and tell him that existence exists, that you'll be met with a thousand objections.

Mr. Register's error is very simple: he treats an axiom as though it were an informative proposition. An axiom, however, does not state something about something. The axiom that existence exists, for instance, as Dr. Leonard Peikoff explains, "does not tell us anything about the nature of existents; it merely underscores the fact that they exist." An axiom is unusual; it's not like the phrase "The cat is on the mat," where the predicate ("is on the mat") tells us something about the subject ("The cat"). The purpose of an axiom is simply to underscore a primary fact, as a base and a reminder.

I suggest that Mr. Register re-enrol in Objectivism 101.

(Mr. Register, by the way, was once an intern at the Institute for Objectivist Studies (recently renamed The Objectivist Center). So I must conclude that my swipe at the then IOS in my original review was justified.)

The Concept of "Feminism"

Glenn Lamont will address the issues raised by Timothy Virkkala and Thomas Gramstad. I will address the issues raised by Dr. Sciabarra and Mr. Register.

Mr. Register writes: "This concept ['red'] seeks to integrate both cherry red and blood red, just as 'feminism' seeks to integrate both Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon." He later writes: "The concept [of 'feminism'] integrates individuals who share a common concern (sex relations) and who are commonly opposed to a single model (the tradition)."

Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon do share a common concern with sex relations, and I'll accept Mr. Register's claim that they're both opposed to "the tradition" (though I'm unclear what "the tradition" is). This does not mean, however, that you can unite the two under a single concept. Yes, there may be many similarities between Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon, but their views on sex relations are fundamentally opposed to each other. To unite the two under a single concept is like uniting a skyscraper and an oak tree under a single concept, because they are both tall, or uniting men and chickens under a single concept, because they both have legs.

Mr. Register's analogy with the concept "red" is flawed. Cherry red and blood red are fundamentally similar, whereas Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon are fundamentally different. Just try writing a paper from the "common" perspective of Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon. The result would be ungraspable. Consider the issue of pornography, as an example. Wendy McElroy supports a woman's right to pornography, whereas Catharine MacKinnon believes that pornography violates a woman's civil rights. A "feminist" perspective on pornography would therefore have to integrate both claims; it would have to argue at the same time and in the same respect that a woman has a right to pornography and that pornography violates a woman's civil rights.

Could one treat Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon as subcategories of feminism? So one would call Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon not feminists, but an individualist-feminist, and a collectivist-feminist. This way one could have an individualist-feminist perspective on pornography, and a collectivist-feminist perspective on pornography. The qualifications "individualist" and "collectivist" acknowledge that the conclusions reached by one are not applicable to the conclusions reached by the other.

David Kelley writes: "You have to keep adding qualifications, like individualist feminism, or pro-reason, or pro-liberty, so it becomes like stone soup. You call it stone soup, but all the flavor comes from the other ingredients you're putting into it, and the stone is doing no work." In other words what you would have is not really an individualist-feminist perspective or a collectivist-feminist perspective on pornography, but an individualist perspective or a collectivist perspective. The concept "feminism" adds nothing.

So much for the concept of "feminism." But what about the concept of "libertarianism"? Both Dr. Sciabarra and Mr. Register suggest that if "feminism" is invalid then "libertarianism" must also be invalid. Dr. Sciabarra writes: "I see no escaping the proposition that libertarianism (or liberalism) must be similarly rejected." He describes libertarianism as a "movement of contradictions, the home of Rothbardians, Christians, and atheists."

Libertarianism, unlike feminism, is a valid concept. One must keep in mind that libertarianism is a political concept; it defines a person's political views. If you know that a person is a libertarian then all you know about him is that he opposes the initiation of physical force. The concept tells you nothing about his other views.

To describe libertarianism as a movement of contradictions is to drop the context of the discussion. If we're talking about epistemology, then there are many contradictory views among libertarians. If we're talking about ethics, then there are also many contradictory views among libertarians. But we're not talking about epistemology or ethics. We're talking about politics, and here you find not a movement of contradictions, but a single, unifying principle: thou shalt not initiate the use of physical force. Neither Dr. Sciabarra nor Mr. Register have provided a similar unifying principle for feminism.

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand

Obviously if "feminism" is an invalid concept then feminist interpretations are also invalid. Dr. Sciabarra, however, raises some interesting points about feminist interpretations that need to be addressed.

I asked Dr. Sciabarra to explain why feminist interpretations of Ayn Rand — or of anyone — are valid. He replied that feminist interpretations are valid because they apply "principles" to women's issues (see TFR #40). He writes: "I do not want to hear from anyone who has any familiarity with objective reality, that there are NO issues specifically of concern to women."

Yes, there are issues of specific concern to women, such as domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. Yes, an anthology that applies Objectivist principles to issues of specific concern to women is valid, and I would welcome such a volume. So has Dr. Sciabarra won? Are feminist interpretations valid after all? No, because such a volume wouldn't constitute feminist interpretations.

I find Dr. Sciabarra's understanding of feminist interpretations fascinating, because he seems to be trying to equate feminist interpretations with Objectivist interpretations. I have never denied that Objectivist interpretations are valid. What I deny is that an Objectivist interpretation is somehow transformed into feminist interpretations when it deals with women's issues, anymore than an Objectivist interpretation becomes a homosexualist interpretation when dealing with homosexual issues, or a Maorist interpretation when dealing with Maori issues, or a New Zealandist interpretation when dealing with New Zealand issues.

Dr. Sciabarra writes: "It is possible (and ultimately, necessary) to view feminism as the specific application of individualist-Objectivist principles to women's issues" (emphasis mine). Observe that Dr. Sciabarra is describing not feminist interpretations, but Objectivist interpretations. The application of Objectivist principles to women's issues is an Objectivist interpretation, not a feminist interpretation. A feminist interpretation would be, to paraphrase Dr. Sciabarra, the specific application of feminist principles to women's issues.

Is the title of Dr. Sciabarra's anthology a misnomer? Is Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand in fact Objectivist Interpretations of Women's Issues? Let's see. Dr. Sciabarra and Mimi Reisel Gladstein write (in the introduction of Feminist Interpretations): "As co-editors of this volume, we hope to have contributed to a critical rereading of Rand's works" (emphasis mine). That's odd. It seems that it's not women's issues that are being analysed in the volume, but Ayn Rand's works. The title of the book is accurate: it is an anthology of feminist interpretations of Ayn Rand.

As Dr. Sciabarra hasn't been able to defend feminist interpretations, and even seems confused as to what feminist interpretations are, I must conclude that my initial assessment was correct, that the volume as such is invalid. Please be careful here. I'm not saying that the volume is invalid because a few articles in it are nonsense (as Dr. Sciabarra suggests in TFR #37). I'm saying that the project, by its very nature, is invalid, and is not Objectivism.


I'd like to thank everyone who has taken part in this debate, especially Dr. Sciabarra for being willing to defend his anthology against my relentless attacks. Let's now get on with the task of promoting Objectivism.

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