On the Philosophy of Contemporary Feminism

A few remarks regarding the unfortunate coupling of feminism with postmodernism


In light of the not too distant International Women’s Day, even though the idea of such a day seems rather condescending to me (much like Black History Month), I thought I would offer a few unsolicited words on contemporary feminism. I am concerned here neither with the past feminism that sought the vote, nor with the current non-Western feminism that seeks to improve the lot of women in developing countries, in many of which women are traditionally oppressed to varying degrees. Those were and are laudable movements. In my memoir of my time in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia there is the following brief passage, reflective of my thoughts during a conversation with a local philanderer, who was also the superintendent of the school in which I was teaching:

“There is actually a lot to be said about how married men sleeping around with lots of women isn’t just morally wrong but in fact harmful to the country economically, but this is not the time for such a conversation. It is primarily to the younger generation, Namibia’s future, my learners, that I must speak of such things (and I do) and try to explain to them that when it comes to development in poorer countries, the empowering of women is the one key that can ultimately unlock any door, be it in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. When a woman will finally dare to say no to a man, she has set out upon the path along which, with effort and patience, she will tread almost all other problems into the ground.”

Here I wish rather to speak of that recent Western feminism that is known by various names, most commonly third-wave feminism, though one also hears of it as post-structuralist feminism. There are other names for it as well, and they exhibit variations in the details, but most of them boil down to the same thing. It is a feminism that has allied itself unmistakably with post-structuralism. As a type of post-structuralism, and even postmodernism in general, one of the main brands of feminism today emphasizes the constructs of language and the illusory meanings it offers us. As such, it draws a great deal from the work of such men as Foucault and Lacan (in whose wrong hands the quite sensible philosophy of language of Wittgenstein and perhaps even Frege has been distorted). Since, as these Gallic gentlemen would have it, concepts are linguistic constructs often used to establish a particular hierarchy and keep certain groups of people subordinate to that group with which the concept originates, it would follow, in the minds of later feminist thinkers, that gender itself is such a construct, and that the outing of women as a demarcated group leads to their oppression. The “feminine” assumes an inferior position by not being the “masculine”; that is to say, the feminine takes on the role of the Other, a strain of thought that goes back at least to Simone de Beauvoir. Both women’s psyches and bodies become socially constructed by men. That something like “motherhood” would be associated with the female is merely a claim of language; language can therefore be changed so as to remove motherhood from the realm of the female, or so as to dispense with such a realm altogether. This is a juncture at which feminists disagree: some would say that the feminine should be put on equal footing with the masculine, others that there really is no such thing as the feminine as previously structured. Indeed, many feminists today would argue that since the experience of women is so diverse across times and cultures, there is no single type of experience that can be labeled the ultimate female experience. To talk of such an experience would be, in and of itself, to reduce the feminine to a small, manageable and controllable area, which is why the feminine, in this view, must be discussed along with the oppression of other groups, such as blacks, gays, poor people, and victims of colonization. But since these two conclusions – that the feminine should be equal to the masculine, and that the feminine as such does not really exist – stem from the same premises, they can both be tackled by discussing those very premises. (That the feminine should be equal to the masculine is not controversial – at least not to me – but there is a right and a wrong way of reaching that conclusion; as of late, however, it is the notion that the feminine as such is a purely socio-linguistic construct that has gained the most credence. Additionally, “equal” itself is a problematic concept: Does “equal” mean that they are the same, or does it mean merely that they should receive the same respect? – There is more than enough disagreement on that.)

There are, in fact, two points I should like to make in this regard, the one concerning language, the other concerning power, although of course these two are very much linked, as feminists rightly if obviously like to point out. Feminist and postmodern notions of language are essentially nominalist in nature, as opposed to realist (a distinction I discuss in my post of January 6, 2015, on Primary and Secondary Qualities). Even though, as I said there, I am a nominalist myself, which goes hand in hand with my philosophical materialism – the belief that only material things exist – it is nonetheless possible to abuse nominalism for very destructive ends, and this is what contemporary feminism, drawing especially from Foucault, does – other culprits are Derrida and, to a lesser extent, Saussure. The underlying assumption of this abuse of nominalism is that if, for example, the word “feminine” is simply the name (nominalism) we give to a particular thing, rather than the thing itself, then surely we do so in order to impose our own control on the feminine. That is to say, all our efforts to describe something are inherently suspicious, because why would we want to describe things but for the purpose of controlling them? This mode of thinking has a certain attractiveness, especially for those who feel victimized – and apparently everyone is a victim of something these days (furthermore, a majority of students in literature departments are women, and most of the rest are men who want to sleep with said women, all of which contributes to contemporary feminism’s appeal) – but its corrosiveness is soon detected the moment one brings this idea to its logical conclusion: all our institutions, all our attempts at establishing order, both in the concrete and the abstract, are assertions of power that should be resisted. What, we might then ask, happens when these institutions are fought? Gentlemen like Robespierre, Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin will be happy to explain. The very foundation of society is the institution, the community, and any claims to power it may have is no reason to destroy it. A functioning nominalism, one that we do not abuse, would claim, rather, that even though words are indeed arbitrary, we must nonetheless assert, even if arbitrarily, that some descriptions and therefore some ideas are less harmful, and therefore better, than others. There is no absolute, divine, universal morality, true, but this should not stop us from arbitrarily establishing one morality as better than another. If we did not, the result would be a total amorality of Foucault’s sort, a development that would ruin society itself, though Foucault could never bring himself to understand this. Contemporary feminists, specifically, would say: What you are saying is irrelevant; the important thing is who you are who is saying this. And that is a fundamentally amoral position. If, however, the expression that actions speak louder than words is true, then there is little disagreement between the postmodernists and their opponents like myself, because the former, in all of their actions, prefer the societies that postmodernism verbally rejects, and so their disagreement is purely that of the pen and the keyboard.

Some of the amazing young women that I had the privilege of teaching and befriending in Namibia, and who deserve so much more than the misogynist squalor of contemporary Western feminism.

And this leads to the second, non-linguistic point, namely that of pure power. In the same post as previously referred to, Primary and Secondary Qualities, I made the point that all activity is interest-based. Therefore, whatever impetus will deliver us from a particular set of shackles will slap other ones onto our wrists and ankles. Contemporary feminism’s obsession with power would make it quite natural for it to develop into a totalitarian mode of thought. Power relationships are everywhere, yes, and that is precisely why it is foolish to believe that we can emancipate ourselves from them. Since contemporary feminism considers its opponents to be not merely of a different ideological bent, but actual oppressors, no better than tyrants or slave-masters, it feels it can dispense with intellectual argument and simply shout its way to what it believes is liberation. That is to say, contemporary feminism is fundamentally anti-intellectual. So at best, one tyranny – if it is a tyranny – will be replaced by another. This latter tyranny is one in which discourse is silenced, in which women who resist some of the more depraved versions of feminism are told they are but men’s puppets and playthings (never mind that contemporary feminists draw most of their own ideas from often quite misogynist Frenchmen), in which these women are told to denigrate that which makes them special as women, in which those women who truly are oppressed, outside of the West, become secondary to the struggle against oppression, real or imagined, here at home. So the linguistic philosophy of a Wittgenstein or Frege becomes, quite perversely, the attempt at denying the beauty of the feminine itself.

Another example of the many ways in which contemporary feminism is anti-intellectual is that I will be told, upon writing this, to simply shut up. One will say that my gender disqualifies me from discourse; that, in fact, I have no right to say what I say. And I need in fact say nothing else, because the totalitarian bedfellows of such supposed liberators require no further comment.


(As an aside, I insert here a few images of some of the women who, through their various gifts, are in my eyes the greatest symbols of female power, and who have certainly had considerable influence on my own work.)


Mary Shelley



Elizabeth Barrett Browning