An Ethics of Sexual Difference

by Luce Irigaray

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

This collection of essays originated as a series of lectures delivered by Luce Irigaray at Erasmus University in Rotterdam during the second semester of 1982, when she was serving as the Jan Tinbergen Chair of Philosophy. By this time, Irigaray’s controversial writing on the subjects of language, psychoanalysis, and gender were already well known, and the lectures contained in this book expand on her previously published ideas regarding the connection between language, culture, and women’s place or lack of place in society. Her style of writing is highly unusual, combining elements of traditional literary theory and analysis with extremely unusual methods of composition. Irigaray uses strange punctuation, a multitude of hyphenated and created words, sentence fragments, and other grammatical techniques in an attempt to use what she regards as a flawed instrument, language, to contain her sometimes radical ideas.

Women and Sexual Differences

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Irigaray begins her first essay, “Sexual Difference,” by describing why the work of understanding sexual difference is so important to the modern world. She describes the role of God in most patriarchal societies as the creator of all space, in which time operates, which means that God is time itself, operating within the space created. Therefore, God is the only creature conceived of as beyond time, and God is always male in patriarchal societies. This is not helpful to the woman who seeks to find her identity, so something new must be found. Irigaray states that the constitution of a sexual ethics would require a return to what French philosopher René Descartes called the first passion, wonder. The rediscovery of wonder between man and woman—being able to look at the other sex as though one does not already know all about them—would be an important first step in the new sexual ethics Irigaray wishes to create.

In the second essay, “Sorcerer Love,” Irigaray provides a reading of Plato’s Symposion (c. 388-368 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701), particularly “Diotoma’s Speech,” to show how women are denied the use of language. Diotoma does not speak but is spoken for, yet she manages to introduce a new ethic that stands in opposition to the traditional dialectical model. Diotoma rejects all certainty, including the certainty of language itself. Diotoma also realizes that love’s real importance lies in its role as a mediator between pairs of opposites.

The third essay, “Place, Interval,” is a reading of book 4 of Aristotle’s Physica (Second Athenian Period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Physics, 1812), in which he wrestles with the concept of place and how place can be required for a thing to exist but is not the thing itself. Irigaray sees this argument as particularly significant because woman in the traditional Western conception has been assigned the role of place for man but not for herself. Woman is something that allows man to exist but cannot exist herself within this scheme.

Essay 4, “Love of Self,” raises the question of self-love with relation to men and women and how this love differs. Irigaray concludes that love of self is more complicated for women than it is for men because the woman must attempt to love herself while serving as the principal mirror through which the man sees and loves himself. Men are also disadvantaged because women cannot truly love anyone else (including men) if they cannot love themselves. The ways in which women and men relate to language mirror the ways in which they relate to each other and to the world. The necessary conditions for women to love themselves include removing the hierarchy of the mother’s and father’s functions in relation to children, reassociating love and eroticism,...

(This entire section contains 479 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

allowing women to form meaningful social groups, and reestablishing the existence of a female divine.

Self-Love and Relationships

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Essay 5, “Wonder,” is Irigaray’s reading of René Descartes’s Les Passions de l’âme (1649; The Passions of the Soul, 1950), in which she returns to the idea of wonder as the essential element lacking in people’s modern understanding of the passions. If man and woman were again able to inspire surprise and wonder so that people felt as if they were seeing something eternally new, sexual ethics would be favorably altered. Wonder provides the appetite to appreciate the other without preconceived knowledge, and wonder inspires a sort of reverence. Wonder could provide the essential third element now lacking between men and women in all their relations with each other.

Essay 6, “The Envelope,” is Irigaray’s reading of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethica (1677; Ethics, 1870) in which she examines the concept of God. In her view (and her choice of pronouns), God exists on its own with no outside agency predicating it. Man also has a creator/created relationship with woman because woman as mother is the container from which man arises and woman as lover is the location of the man’s image of himself. Therefore, woman’s effort is exhausted in providing identity for man, first as his mother and then as his lover. By reconsidering the roles of both, Irigaray suggests that men and women could be given wider scope.

Essay 7, “Love of Same, Love of Other,” states that love of self among women, particularly in the feminine, is nearly impossible, except in the childish relationship of daughter and mother. However, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud states that this early attachment must be destroyed by girls in order for them to become attached to men and become objects to attract male attention. This paralyzes the self-love of women as well as love between women, who compete with each other for men. In order to love each other or love the feminine in themselves, women must begin to love their own bodies and love the bodies of others. Women must become both mothers and daughters to each other; they must love with a maternal and a filial love.

Women need a language of their own, outside the supposedly neutral but actually deeply sexed language currently in use. Women must think about this sexism within language and attempt to circumvent it. Irigaray likens this to thinking about the mucous membranes of the body, which connect the body most immediately to the outside world (as language does), but which most people take entirely for granted unless they become irritated. Language has traditionally served men, and Irigaray urges the reader to think about its activities and especially its limits.

Language and Women

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Essay 8, “An Ethics of Sexual Difference,” examines the myth of Antigone. Like Antigone, woman has traditionally been walled up in a small space and deprived of a voice to speak because she upsets the male balance of the world, represented by Creon. Irigaray is convinced this is the present-day status of woman because the so-called universal is really the male element, and women have been completely removed. There is not even a neuter space, only the male and the not-male that woman represents. This is also true in science, though science purports to be objective and neutral. Science does not speak to women, Irigaray asserts, because the language of scientific discourse does not allow it to; that language is and always has been male. This language is like air, which is the most essential element of all life but which is constantly completely ignored by most living beings. She indicates that people must again begin to think about air—and about all the unquestioned and unnoticed assumptions of language—more directly in order to arrive at a new sexual ethics that is workable.

Essay 9, “Love of the Other,” attempts to pin down even more directly the hidden effects of sexism in language. Irigaray suggests that people think they control language, but in fact, it controls them by limiting how and what they are able to think, to talk, or to write about. Making reference to her own study of the utterances of mentally disturbed men and women and linguistic studies of students, Irigaray points out that men tend to make remarks that are self-referential, whereas women tend to make remarks entirely referential to the outside world. These two examples show the differences in how men and women view themselves in society. Irigaray assumes that women are trying to gain access to discourse—by use of the women’s movement and other methods—but the dichotomy between thought and the feminine remains constant in Western culture. Removing this distinction would benefit both women and men immensely by opening up alternate realities to them, across which real communication would be possible for the first time.

Touching and Looking

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Essay 10, “The Invisible of the Flesh,” is a reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Le Visible et l’invisible (1964; The Visible and the Invisible, 1968). Irigaray states her agreement with Merleau-Ponty that, in order to come to some meaningful understanding of the world, people must return to a moment of experience that predates language. By doing so, people can get a new understanding of all things because language is the primary method by which people think and understand or believe that they understand. However, language is circular in that it always returns to itself as an ultimate reference. Therefore, some other path to knowledge must be found. According to both Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray, this prediscursive moment would be achieved through touch and also the look, which is a variant of touch. She equates this knowledge acquired by touching with Original Sin because Adam and Eve were warned not only not to eat of the forbidden fruit but also not to touch it as well. She suggests that perhaps the male interpretation of God, which has so often equated touch with evil carnality, is at fault in our lack of attention to this knowing that is acquired by touch. Man has traditionally claimed the privilege of the look in Western culture, but Irigaray suggests that this is illusory and that women have special access to the knowledge of touch by virtue of their status as mothers and lovers.

The eleventh and final essay, “The Fecundity of the Caress,” is a reading of Emmanuel Lévinas’s Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’extériorité (1961; Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, 1969) and a final attempt to discuss ways in which the language of touch might give people access to knowledge that is forbidden in the strictures of language. Irigaray suggests that sensual pleasure can give people passage to parts of the world that are closed off by the confines of a sexed language system. Through a series of almost ecstatic short utterances, Irigaray describes a sensual moment in which men and women might bridge the gap that separates them and gain an understanding of each other and the world that has never before been available. Because women have usually been relegated to the status of mother, infant, or animal, their intimate knowledge of the body and of touch—as opposed to the knowledge that is described in sexed male language—has been ignored and ridiculed. If women were allowed to escape their traditional configurations and became once again figures that inspire wonder and astonishment, a new ethic might be achievable. This new ethic would call for a return to the flesh, a way of ordering the world that predates language and exists in the more nebulous world of the touch, the body’s knowing without speech.

Irigaray’s writing is extremely dense and difficult to follow because she assumes the reader has a wealth of prior knowledge to draw on and is well read in the major philosophical texts of the Western world. Additionally, she attempts to use language in unusual ways, to better make her points about the effects of language on our thought and especially the limits of words in truly expressing certain concepts, particularly feminine ones. However, even though her books are not readily accessible to the novice, her examinations of the interactions between language and culture, and particularly language and psychoanalysis, have been very influential. Feminist critics have been especially interested in her insights on traditional philosophical texts and her examinations of how language deals with the differences between men and women.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Additional Reading

Chanter, Tina. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Rewriting of the Philosophers. New York: Routledge, 1995. Chanter provides an informative overview of Irigaray’s use of traditional Western philosophical texts and how these texts serve as a basis for her language analysis while she provides new insight to these well-known works.

Mortley, Raoul. French Philosophers in Conversation: Levinas, Schneider, Serres, Irigaray, LeDoeuff, Derrida. New York: Routledge, 1991. In chapter 4 of this text, Irigaray provides her answer to the author’s two questions about the importance of sexual difference in language. Her answers help illuminate many of the chief ideas found in An Ethics of Sexual Difference and give a brief overview of her ideas on language and sexuality in general.

Nordquist, Joan. French Feminist Theory (III): Luce Irigaray and Helen Cixous. Social Theory: A Bibliographic Series 44. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Reference and Research Services, 1996. This publication provides an exhaustive list of all material relating to Irigaray available in English as of the date of its publication, including books, essays, interviews, dissertations and theses, articles, and keyword-in-title indices.

Ross, Stephen David. Plenishment in the Earth: An Ethic of Inclusion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. This text examines several of Irigaray’s texts in detail and is interesting because it provides a male response to many of her theories, which is relatively unusual because most of the theorists and critics who study her are women. The book also attempts to place her in the context of several other important women philosophers of the twentieth century, as well as more traditional male thinkers.

Whitford, Margaret. Introduction to The Irigaray Reader, by Luce Irigaray. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Whitford’s introduction gives those unfamiliar with Irigaray’s works an excellent starting point for these difficult texts, portions of which are provided in English.