Irigaray, Luce (1930–)

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Luce Irigaray is a Belgian-born French feminist philosopher whose work draws on her multiple doctorates in the areas of linguistics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. Her main contributions are her concept of sexual difference and the methodology she developed for a feminist interpretation of the history of philosophy. Like many feminist philosophers, Irigaray argues that women have always been defined in relation to men. She would agree with the mid-twentieth century French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that "the relation between the sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria." Irigaray agrees that the feminine tends to be described "in terms of deficiency or atrophy, as the other side of the sex that alone holds a monopoly on value: the male sex" (1985b, p. 69). Irigaray demonstrates this idea with examples from literature, philosophy, everyday life, and economic and social history.

Irigaray stresses that texts from the history of philosophy have been inconsistent in their discussions of women. They have included conflicting, often overlooked hypotheses about the sexes. These may be explicit contradictions in canonical literature or implicit alternatives. In this sense, the most sex-biased historical text may be a rich resource for a feminist rereading. Rather than dismissing sex-biased caricatures of women as false or irrelevant, Irigaray recommends critiques of their their incoherence as part of a project of imaginative literary elaboration. She therefore argues that feminists should not forgo the close study of historical texts about the sexes, particularly those of the history of philosophy, and her interpretations have focused on such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, and Lacan.

Irigaray's methodology involves extensive citation, parody, and whimsical or ironic diagnoses of what a thinker does not "want" to say about women. Such diagnoses are often accompanied by writing experiments in which Irigaray attempts to describe women or write as a woman in ways that she claims would be deemed undesirable by the authors of the texts she is analyzing.

"Sexual difference," as an Irigarayan concept, does not refer to historical depictions of men and women counterposed in terms of such unsatisfactory hierarchies as reason/sensibility, wisdom/ignorance, culture/nature, and public/private. Instead, Irigarayan "sexual difference" refers to a hypothetical, alternative means of envisaging the sexes, according to which they would be considered neither like men nor their opposites or complements, but genuinely different. The concept is not generated through empirical description nor utopian imagination. Instead, it is primarily grounded in Irigaray's notion that such a prospect seems to have been "excluded" historically.

Irigaray has argued, controversially, that equality often means "equal to " a default individual (for example, male or white or able-bodied). She has proposed the alternative notion of equivalent rights for men and women and has devised a short bill of "sexuate" rights (1993). Such initiatives embody her view that legal reform should include a concern with the quality of representation of sexual identity. She has also directed collective research on empirical differences in the speech habits of contemporary European men and women, and she has formulated linguistic reforms corresponding to a hypothetical culture that would affirm sexual difference.

See also Continental Philosophy; Feminism and Continental Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy.


works by luce irigaray

Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985a.

This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985b.

Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. Translated by Alison Martin. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Penelope Deutscher (2005)