An Ethics of Sexual Difference Analysis
by Luce Irigaray

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Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

Self-Love and Relationships

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 2,297 words.)